Since 2003, the General Services Administration (GSA) has required basic LEED certification for all federal buildings, and it upped the ante in 2010 by requiring LEED-Gold. But every five years, thanks to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the GSA must review green building certification systems, then report its findings to the Secretary of Energy for a final determination of what system will be adopted across the federal government. Will LEED remain the federal green building system of choice?
Pressure is mounting in some quarters to replace LEED with a different third-party certification system. The most prominent contender is Green Globes, a web-based assessment protocol developed in Canada based on BREEAM (the first widely-used green building rating system, created in the UK in the early 1990s). Licensed in the U.S. since 2004 by the Green Building Initiative (GBI), Green Globes is preferred by the American High-Performance Building Coalition and other groups that consider it more business-friendly than LEED. Green Globes promotes its online questionnaire as easier to use, providing immediate feedback, and allowing client updates in response to alterations in construction or renovation projects or building operations. Such flexibility and responsiveness to user needs are said by the GBI to result in 30% to 50% lower fees for Green Globes certification compared with the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED system.
Popular aspects of Green Globes, which include third-party on-site verification, are retained in the updated program for new construction, available in July. Significant changes were developed for each of seven assessment categories (management, site, energy, water, materials & resources, emissions, and indoor environment). Notably, users can choose four paths toward energy performance assessment: Energy Star, ASHRAE Building Performance Method, ASHRAE Building Energy Quotient, or a new approach that calculates carbon dioxide equivalency (CO2e). Bonus points can be earned by buildings achieving zero net energy or 51%+ reduction in CO2e emissions. “The program uses advanced building science which will result in higher performance buildings,” says Sharene Rekow, the GBI’s vice president of business development.
Critics of Green Globes, however, assert that it is less rigorous than LEED. For example, when seeking credits for avoiding volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, a LEED contractor must document appropriate installation, while a Green Globes user submits a report but does not need to furnish proof. Particularly heated criticism has focused on which wood and paper products should qualify as sustainable in the competing systems. The USGBC recognizes only Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood and fiber, while Green Globes accepts other labels such as Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Launched by the American Forest and Paper Association, SFI certification began with industry self-auditing though later offered a third-party auditing option. Its close industry ties leave SFI vulnerable to charges of corporate greenwashing. But Kathy Abusow, President and CEO of SFI, states that 240 million forest acres are certified to SFI standards “developed through an open and inclusive process” involving industry, academics, conservation groups, public and private landowners, and many others.
A common industry preference for consensus-based standards may also favor Green Globes. The updated 2013 system was built on an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard, through a consensus-building process involving stakeholders from the sustainable building industry. In contrast, the USGBC process of crafting new LEED standards considers input from 13,000 member companies and organizations as well as public comments. The GSA’s use of any rating system not certified by ANSI could be blocked by an amendment to the Energy Saving and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2013 (S. 761) if introduced as expected by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Passage of the amended bill would effectively ban LEED from the government procurement process and open the door for Green Globes.
Yet in May, the GSA’s Green Building Advisory Committee submitted a non-binding recommendation again backing LEED. To date there are over 4,000 LEED-certified government projects, and the GSA credits the program with cutting costs and waste in federal buildings and generating 20% energy savings since 2003. Roger Platt, a senior vice president of the USGBC, applauded the recommendation, saying, “[LEED] remains the best option for the GSA and any governmental agency looking to save taxpayer dollars and increase energy efficiency.” But evaluation of certification systems continues at the GSA. In addition to LEED and Green Globes, the GSA is also reviewing the Living Building Challenge, a certification system with ambitious sustainability goals to be discussed in a subsequent post. The GSA will make its final recommendation to the DOE this summer.