Seeking higher ground for green building

August 11, 2010

This month, as U.S. Green Building Council members head to Atlanta for the fourth annual Greenbuild conference, the green building movement seems to be reaching a new stage of maturation that carries with it both opportunity and concern.

The USGBC has, to an extent that few would have believed even five years ago, begun the "market transformation" that underlies its mission. With more than 5,500 members, the USGBC continues to grow at a rate that most nonprofit membership groups would die for. Many AEC firms have been answering the call to sustainability, as evidenced by the soaring number of LEED Accredited Professionals, now in excess of 21,000. Major development firms and real estate interests (among them Hines and the Durst Organization) are taking up LEED as a way to demonstrate their commitment to environmental sustainability—and gain some free publicity. Hooray for them!

Building product manufacturers, as well, have responded to the call of the green, developing hundreds of new products with low VOC emissions (for carpeting, furniture, paints, finishes, and furnishings), high solar reflectivity (for exterior glass and roofing materials), and water conservation (for plumbing fixtures), among others. If it can be said that any market has been "transformed" by the sustainability movement, it is the building products industry.

In the last year or so, too, the USGBC has made huge strides in resolving two areas of contention that threatened to divert the organization from its prime mission: first, the decision of the board to admit trade associations, a meaningless controversy that was eating up staff time and energy and blocking the route to integrating LEED into ANSI; second, the debate over whether, in effect, to keep PVC-based products out of LEED-certified projects. The special task force studying the vinyl issue ruled, in effect, that PVC-based products should not be singled out for exclusion from LEED. The USGBC should be congratulated for removing these two obstacles from the council's path to progress.

The council is also to be credited for forming the "LCA into LEED" Task Force, to determine how to bring the scientific rigor of life cycle assessment into the choice of sustainable building products, as the LEED program prepares to move into version 3.0 of LEED. The USGBC's CTO, Nigel Howard, has been the dynamo behind this effort. To educate our readers about LCA, we have prepared (with the help of 21 technical experts) the third in our series of White Papers on the Green Building Movement, entitled "Life Cycle Assessment and Sustainability," which is included as a supplement to this issue. (Individual free copies may be downloaded, with our previous White Papers, at

Today, the USGBC faces new challenges. As the organization matures, the rate of growth of new members has started to flatten—from triple-digit annual growth in the early years, to about 10% annual growth in the last year.

And while the council's stated mission is to reach the "top 25%" of projects, just over 2,000 projects have been registered with LEED for New Construction in its first five years, with fewer than 300 achieving certification—in a market that has produced on the order of 100,000 new commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings in that time. In other words, LEED has touched about 2% of the market, with only a fraction of these projects going through to certification—certainly well below the 25% mark.

The USGBC and LEED also face growing competition for the title of champion of sustainability. Last year, when the USGBC started making serious noises about moving LEED into the housing market, the National Association of Home Builders (which, through many of its chapters, had had green building and energy-savings programs dating back to the early 90s) put together its own green homes program, and did so in a remarkable seven months. It's quite clear that the NAHB, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country, will fight like a bulldog to keep the USGBC out of its backyard.

Meanwhile, from the north, Canada's Green Globes program has invaded the U.S., promising a relatively easy-to-use Web-based system that allows Building Teams to self-certify their projects. Detractors of the NAHB and Green Globes programs refer to these programs as "LEED Lite," but LEED itself is hardly the be-all and end-all of sustainable design. (Another rating program, the Green Guide for Health Care, which was developed outside the USGBC system, could easily be called "LEED Heavy" in terms of its standards for hospital design.) Instead of disparaging the competition, LEED proponents should see them as a sign that there's something worth fighting for.

At the same time, some of the bloom has come off the rose of LEED certification. As little as two years ago, having your building certified was newsworthy. Today, it seems routine. There's also evidence of resistance to going through the LEED process.

As our cover story ("To LEED, or Not to LEED") illustrates, even government entities—in this case, the city of San Jose, Calif.—are questioning whether it is worth spending $50,000 to $150,000 in fees and consultant costs to have a building LEED certified. Do you need the USGBC plaque on the wall to prove your building's "greenness"?

This issue was brought home to me during a recent visit to a building product manufacturer's facility. Here was a well-run family business whose owners are extremely dedicated to improving the environment. As you walk into the lobby, you see a model of their building showing its many green features: photovoltaics and wind turbines on the roof, porous pavement in the parking area, bioswales and regionally appropriate vegetation, a highly reflective roof surface, and so on.

Clearly, the owners had enough points to earn LEED certification. But they never applied. The reason: the $50,000 in fees and paperwork. "We felt we could spend that money on additional environmental improvements," one of them told me. Of course, LEED diehards would argue that if you don't go through certification, you're playing tennis without a net; in this case, however, the ball was in the owners' court, and they weren't playing.

In sum, the U.S. Green Building Council is struggling with the kinds of growth pains common to successful start-up businesses: competition from new challengers entering the field, difficulty in being able to deliver on promised targets, and too much success, too fast. Getting over this next hump in the organization's journey to success will require firm leadership, a keen strategy, and even greater dedication from staff and members. Fortunately, in Rick Fedrizzi, the USGBC is blessed with a CEO whose managerial experience in corporate America will serve the organization well.

As a member of the USGBC, we at BD&C look forward to another energizing Greenbuild—and to the White House Summit on Sustainability, to be held January 24–25, 2006. Without the work of the U.S. Green Building Council over the last 10 years, such a high-level event would never have been possible. Perhaps the White House Summit will establish a new plateau from which the sustainability movement will rise to even greater heights.


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