The wait is over. For 17 months, the GSA has been studying third-party green building certification systems, as required every five years by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). In the first such evaluation, back in 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was selected as the federal government’s exclusive standard. But as discussed here last summer, both Green Globes (GG) and the Living Building Challenge were also in the running for this go-round. To the surprise of many, the race ended in a tie on October 25 when the GSA endorsed both LEED 2009 and Green Globes 2010.
In a letter presenting the decision to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the GSA made several important recommendations, including:
- Agencies should use third-party green building certification systems rather than developing their own.
- Agencies should choose between LEED and GG. The minimum standard for new construction and major renovation is Silver for LEED and 2 Green Globes for GG. Higher levels should be pursued if “cost effective or necessary to allow the agency to continue its mission.”
- Agencies should use credits that align with federal requirements. (Neither LEED nor GG align perfectly with federal requirements.)
- Agencies should select only one system on an agency, bureau or portfolio basis.
Notably, the GSA’s Green Building Advisory Committee recommended last May that the agency continue to use LEED in all their buildings, owned or leased, requiring at least LEED-Silver for new construction that GSA leases.
Reactions to the announcement were more predictable than the decision itself. The Green Building Initiative, the non-profit that administers GG, cheered the news in a press release, praising federal recognition of the “practicality of its tools” and “its commitment to open, consensus-based review of its technical criteria.” Lumber and plastics industry groups also celebrated, well aware of GG’s openness to various plastics and forest products not welcome in LEED projects. Unlike LEED, the current version of GG is aligned to an industry-favored ANSI standard (ANSI/GBI 01-2010: Green Building Assessment Protocol for Commercial Buildings). Since 2012, organizations favoring ANSI-based systems have been lobbying against LEED through the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition, which called the co-selection of GG a “step in the right direction.”
LEED’s developer, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), also praised the GSA’s announcement. A USGBC press release highlights the mounting evidence that “LEED works,” such as 25% less energy used and 19% lower costs to operate GSA LEED-certified buildings. Last February, the National Research Council recommended that the U.S. military adopt LEED for its green building standard, and with more than 1.5 million SF of LEED certified around the world each day, USGBC may think it can afford to share the spotlight with GG.
Critics who sometimes call GG “LEED-Lite” are not so sanguine. They fear that less rigorous standards and, even more seductive, significantly lower costs, will lure many to adopt GG. An article for Treehugger accuses GSA of being “greenwashed” into accepting the industry-friendly GG and warns that elevating the system to LEED-equivalence legitimizes lower sustainability standards. But another recommendation in the October GSA letter should prevent a slide and might improve evaluation overall. The GSA now seeks to go beyond the 5-year review requirement in an effort to keep up with rapidly changing systems and green building technologies. A process will be developed by the agency to track LEED and GG revisions and reevaluate updated versions within one year of approval by the system’s owner. With green building standards as well as technology evolving quickly, more frequent review should help improve flexibility, cost and sustainability, regardless of which tool is used to evaluate facilities.