Christine Ervin at
What makes the U.S. Green Building Council tick?
by Linda Baker
Christine Ervin, former president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), has chosen Mio Gelato as the site of a 10 am interview—not because she wants to indulge an early morning passion for ice cream, but because the café is located in the Brewery Blocks, a five-block residential and commercial development that Ervin considers “the leading edge” of green building in the country. Over a cappuccino, Ervin took care to highlight the economic significance of the project, which has earned rave reviews for its scale and complexity, and for revitalizing a once-languishing inner city neighbourhood.
“It was an important demonstration in a tough economic real estate market that building green could be advantageous,” said Ervin, noting that condos in The Henry, a residential building in the Brewery Blocks slated for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, sold out 10 months in advance. “It’s not so much that the green features brought a higher profit margin per se,” she said. “But it definitely gave the developers a competitive edge in a tough market.”
Leading a major market transformation has been the USGBC mantra since its inception in 1993. The organization achieved that goal, by all accounts, during Ervin’s five-year tenure. In 1999, the year she came on board as the council’s first president and CEO, USGBC was a start-up, with 180 members, three staff members and a budget of $500,000. Today, USGBC boasts 4500 members, 50 staff members, 70 chapters and a budget of $17 million. Over the next few years, six new LEED products are scheduled for launch, two of which, LEED for Existing Buildings (EB) and LEED for Commercial Interiors (CI) will debut by the end of 2004. As of July 2004, there were 1400 LEED certified and registered projects in 50 states.
USGBC’s explosive growth augurs well for the mainstreaming of green building practices. But as the organization continues its rapid market penetration, there are also signs of cracks and fissures in the USGBC foundation, ranging from concerns about the quality of multiple new services, to larger issues about maintaining environmental and scientific integrity in the face of powerful commercial interests. Suggesting parallels with the organic farming movement, which spun off into a locally oriented, “beyond organic” movement in the face of encroaching corporate interests, green building at the USGBC now faces a critical test of its mission: how to respond to major industries producing products and services that may be at odds with environmental best practices.
“The real story is that LEED’s
effectiveness started to bring out a lot of entrenched interests,” said Jerry Yudelson, associate principal at Interface
Engineering in Portland and a member of the USGBC board from 2001-02. Industry concerns about LEED “have really deep meaning,” agreed Steve Winter, a USGBC board
member and founder of Steven Winter Associates Inc. in
The debate over industry representation at USGBC is often depicted as a divide between the council’s leadership, with a focus on marketing and promotion, and rank and file members—architects, designers and environmental analysts—who are interested in advancing innovative environmental standards. Last spring, the USGBC board voted against extending membership to trade associations such as the Vinyl Institute—but only after grassroots members, through their chapters, expressed overwhelming opposition to the idea. At the same time, the board voted to increase dialog with trade association “to better understand issues of concern to them.”
With millions of dollars at stake for proprietary companies, two contentious credits are also under review by the technical and scientific advisory committee (T-SAC): the possible inclusion of points for not using polyvinyl chloride materials, and a review of a current credit for not using hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) as refrigerant. The latter, which rewards use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a refrigerant with high global warming potential, is widely perceived as a concession to the Carrier Corp. a manufacturer of HFCs and a founding member of the USGBC.
“The defining question for USGBC over the next few years is is it a council with diverse views, or is it a manufacturers’ association?” said Bill Wilkerson, executive director of the Healthy Building Network (HBN). “There are nimble players out there,” said Wilkerson, citing big-name architects such a William McDonough. “The question is to what extent the LEED standard becomes captive to laggards…and if it’s giving away too much oxygen to the status quo.”
Nongovernmental organizations aren’t the only groups raising red flags. As Scott Lewis, principal of Brightworks NW and the LEED consultant on the Brewery Blocks projects observed, the original LEED point system was created by market, not research, interests. Today, he said, one of the top priorities for the USGBC “should be the absolute de-politicization of LEED credits.”
Green building’s salad days
“As soon as a new movement becomes successful and starts mainstreaming, you’re going to start interacting with a diverse array of stakeholder groups,” she said. “That will create successes, opportunities and tensions that will need to be resolved.” Add to that USGBC’s phenomenal rate of growth, “and all the normal evolutionary growth issues are going to be exacerbated,” said Ervin, who continues to serve as an advisor to the council.
It’s difficult to overestimate the imipact
of the USGBC green building standard, first released in 2000 as LEED 2.0, on
the $315 billion US design and construction industry. The
“The whole green building movement is now recognized in conjunction with the LEED standard,” said Winter. “The marketplace has been moved.”
As USGBC implements its three-year strategic plan, management staff and board members said their top priority is to deliver a new slate of LEED products. “We need to very proactively market EB and CI,” said Nigel Howard, vice president for LEED, noting that LEED-EB represents 80 times the number of buildings and CI 16 times the number of buildings as LEED-NC (new construction). Rick Fedrizzi, USGBC’s new CEO and a 25-year employee of the Carrier Corp., will also place an increased emphasis on marketing, board members said.
Ervin, an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy
Incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2003, USGBC was originally founded by a
coalition of building industry professionals as a 501(c)6 trade
association. As Jim Wise, president of
Today, many green building experts said the flood of new LEED services threatens the integrity of a standard already weighted in favour of market interests. “USGBC has all the appearance of a rapid stage company that faced too much success too quickly,” said Lewis. “You want to roll out your products carefully and strategically.”
Eric Baxter, a program manager at Portland Energy Conservation Inc. (PECI), points to pages of comments submitted to the LEED-EB first and second public review drafts available on the USGBC website. Public feedback on the energy and atmosphere credit section, including extensive feedback from PECI, resulted in only two substantive changes to the final ballot version.
“Have all the issues been resolved?” Baxter asked rhetorically. With the EB program in particular, Lewis said, “there’s a general sense that the standard is being rushed out the door.”
Commercial ‘balancing act’
The council also faces criticism regarding behind-the-scenes corporate influence on LEED credits. A case in point is T-SAC’s ongoing review of energy credit 4 in LEED for New Construction (NC), which awards a point for not using ozone-depleting HCFC’s as a refrigerant. The credit is controversial because it rewards use of HFCs, which have high global warming potential.
To date, refrigerants with both zero ozone-depleting and zero global warming potential have yet to become widely available or economically competitive. In a public review draft released in July, T-SAC recommended changing the credit to accommodate both ozone depletion and global warming impacts by awarding a point to refrigerants that score “very well” in one of the categories—global warming potential, for example—and “well” on the other. The change would reinstate the use of HCFCs.
T-SAC’s recommendation was a defining moment for the council, said Howard. “It showed that the USGBC and LEED have a commitment to the highest possible scientific standards,” he said.
But there’s another side to the story. In 1997, Wise, a former staff scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, proposed the exact changes to energy credit 4 now recommended by the T-SAC. He received such a negative response from commercial interests on the council, Wise said, that he decided to resign from USGBC.
“It was a moral choice,” Wise said. “I accede to it, or I leave.” In the 1990s, “refrigerant wars” prompted Trane and Carrier, the two major manufacturers, to implement different market strategies; the former chose HFCs, the latter HCFCs. “One company helped found the Green Building Council, and the other one didn’t,” said Wise, in an obvious reference to Carrier. “So LEED ends up writing a criterion, that if you abide by it, you never use the other company’s machinery. It stayed that way until 2004.”
Echoing statements other USGBC members told Sustainable
Industries Journal, Wise said the council’s proposed change to the energy
credit is less about science than the ongoing trade battle between Carrier and Trane, which is now also a member of the USGBC. The credit has also become a “major embarrassment”
to the council internationally, said Wise, citing a recent National
Refrigerants Forum in
Fedrizzi was unavailable for comment. When asked about Carrier’s influence on the EA credit, Howard responded: “There are very strong commercial interests on either side.”
USGBC needs to continue to ensure transparency at every level of the LEED process, said Yudelson. But he also emphasized that making room for commercial stakeholders is part of the council’s larger project to pull the market, while not moving too far ahead of it.
“If you’re going to affect major industry, you have to have a practicality filer,” said Yudelson, referring in particular to a proposed credit for buildings that don’t use polyvinyl chloride. For the past two years, T-SAC has been reviewing the health and environmental impacts of vinyl chloride; the committee is expected to issue a recommendation on the controversial credit sometime during the next six months. “The credit was a wake-up call for the [USGBC],” Yudelson said. “It was tantamount to telling an entire industry: ‘What you produce is bad.’”
[note: the new T-SAC report was released in Dec. 2004; see Healthy Building Network’s response]
Citing the material’s durability and energy efficiency, the Vinyl Institute has lobbied heavily against the credit and was at the forefront of last year’s USGBC debate over trade association membership. “Can the council still be credible in the commercial marketplace if we’re perceived as taking extreme environmental positions?” asked Yudelson. “It’s a balancing act.”
Not for environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and HBN, which have listed vinyl chloride as one of the most toxic materials on the planet. “I want to assume the council is an ally in pursuit of environmental policy,” said HBN’s Wilkerson, expressing frustration with what he termed the “lack of transparency” associated with the vinyl review process. “But right now we’re forced to re-litigate our case on persistent organic pollutants when we’ve already made our case in international policy.”
The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants targets 12 priority toxic chemicals, including dioxin, a byproduct of vinyl production, for elimination.
Looking to local chapters
Ultimately, the debate over environmental and commercial interests at USGBC is part of a larger cautionary tale about standards in the rapidly expanding environmental business movement.
Last year, a pair of independent reports challenged the environmental integrity of the Marine Stewardship Council, a consortium of public and private interests that issues the world’s only label for sustainably harvested seafood. By the time government standards for organic food were put into place in 2002, a locally grown food movement had already emerged as the new wave in ecological farming circles.
For its part, USGBC has already ceded the title of innovator to local green building assessment programs. As Wise pointed out, LEED-NC has yet to adopt the changes to energy credit 4 that were incorporated by the Minnesota Design Guide two years ago. Within USGBC itself, local chapters have in many ways been the pioneers.
Decentralizing may be the final solution to USGBC’s growing pains. And yet, the council is arguably the most successful nonprofit in the country. Even critics agree: on the subject of environmentally-conscious building, no other system has been better crafted and communicated to appeal to business interests. As LEED prepares for the next phase in the council’s highly-touted market transformation, those private sector interests continue to speak loudly and clearly.
“You want to set a high standard, but if you set the bar a little too high it scares people off,” said Hamilton Hazlehurst, development manager at Seattle’s Vulcan Inc. which is seeking LEED Core and Shell pilot project certification for the company’s 307 Westlake Building. “Just getting people interested in sustainable strategies is a better approach.”
LEED pays heed to LCA
Since the release of LEED 2.0, one of the main criticisms surrounding the green building rating system has been the practice of assigning equal weight to credits despite varying environmental and health impacts.
example, LEED currently awards one point for reducing the “heat island effect”
and one point for reducing water use.
Yet the system fails to distinguish between the relative environmental
value of either credit or the relative importance of
the heat island effect in
According to Nigel Howard, vice president for LEED, the US Green Building Council is responding to these concerns by shifting the LEED system toward a broader lifecycle assessment (LCA) approach—a methodology that measures the environmental impact of materials from manufacture to disposal.
September, the council convened working groups with product suppliers and LCA
database providers to develop a report on incorporating LCA in LEED 3.0. Some of the options include awarding a credit
for the use of LCA tools, incorporating LCA standards already in use in BREEAM