LEED Under Fire

The federal government’s selection of a green building certification system for the next five years has become a controversial issue, with no clear resolution in sight. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) requires GSA to evaluate green building certification systems every five years, in order to identify one that is “deem[ed] to be most likely to encourage a comprehensive and environmentally sound approach to certification of green buildings.” The first evaluation, conducted in 2007, resulted in GSA using the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program as the federal government’s exclusive green building standard. This time around, GSA commissioned Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to conduct the 2012 review; its report, which compared several standards, determined that the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system aligns somewhat better with federal requirements for new construction, while LEED 2009 (the third and most recent version of LEED) is most compatible with existing building rehabs.

The federal government has been one of LEED’s earliest and strongest supporters. It began using LEED in 2006 and, by one estimate, one-quarter of all LEED-certified buildings today were built or renovated for federal use, either by direct federal construction or by private sector construction of properties sold or leased to the federal government. Yet we’ve been seeing significant pushback against the system within the past year. Last December, Congress embedded a provision deep within the 565-page National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2012 that prohibits the spending of any additional federal money to achieve LEED Gold or Platinum certification. This was the result, at least in part, of a longstanding dispute by the timber industry about LEED’s treatment of domestic wood products.

Now, groups representing plastics and chemical manufacturers have taken over the push against the federal government’s use of an updated LEED system. (Originally called LEED 2012, the new, still-under-construction version is now known as LEED v4.)  According to industry representatives, provisions in a draft version of LEED v4, made public during a recent comment period, could discourage the use of myriad materials and products (including insulation and energy-efficient windows) that contain certain chemicals. A group of more than 70 (mostly Republican) members of Congress wrote to Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini on May 18, criticizing the proposed new LEED credits on building materials, while a bipartisan group of senators echoed that point in a June 12 letter. The USGBC has responded to those criticisms by stating that “some industry trade associations have deployed false rhetoric about job losses, chemical bans, and high costs to the taxpayer” and noted that the materials credits contemplated for LEED v4 will be completely voluntary and will not ban any chemicals or products. Earlier this month (on June 4), the USGBC had announced that it will delay balloting on LEED v4 until June 1, 2013, and that it has opened a fifth comment period (now scheduled to run from Oct. 2 through Dec. 10, 2012) for the revised standard.

What will happen next?  Environmental Building News (EBN) reports that , according to Joni Teter, GSA project lead for the rating system review, an interagency discussion group will hold six meetings and GSA will be conducting listening sessions with private sector stakeholders. The first of those took place this past week (on June 25) at GSA headquarters; the second, which will be webcast, will be held on July 10. Teter told EBN that she expects GSA to make a final recommendation in the fall.