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Government Considers Dropping LEED's Preferred Certification Status

A review of green building certification systems has some commentators worried that the federal government is about to weaken its green requirements for construction and upgrades of federal buildings.

Last week, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) announced it will be seeking public input regarding the federal government's use of third-party green building certification systems. GSA published a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comments on which green building certification schemes, if any, "are most likely to encourage a comprehensive and environmentally-sound approach to the certification of green Federal buildings."

At issue is which of three certification schemes the GSA will recommend: the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED 2009, the Green Building Initiative's Green Globes, or the International Living Future Institute's Living Building Challenge.

Because buildings are responsible for around 40 percent of primary energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the recommendation that GSA makes should prove significant. Currently, GSA uses LEED for new construction and modernization projects, but has indicated that it is open to change.

“GSA would like to hear more from the public, stakeholders, and experts before we develop a formal recommendation on the government’s use of green building certification systems,” said Dan Tangherlini, GSA Acting Administrator.

GSA is required by law to review federal support for green building certification schemes every five years, but this latest review round has environmentalists concerned that the GSA will weaken green building requirements by asserting that Green Globes provides as rigorous a certification process as LEED (Living Building Challenge is not being seriously considered).

A recent article by Lloyd Alter, who edits the Design section of TreeHugger, lays out the concerns about Green Globes succinctly. "Green Globes... serves just one purpose," he writes, "to be a building certification system that is friendlier to big wood and to the plastics industry and to displace LEED."

Alter points out that the Green Globes system was created by Ward Hubbell, former Vice President at Lousiana Pacific Lumber, and the Green Globes certification scheme is inappropriately kind to the lumber industry. According to Alter, a major difference between LEED and Green Globes is that LEED tends to favor lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, whereas Green Globes is more permissive of lumber certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which, like Green Globes, has close ties to the lumber industry.

And big lumber is not the only industry with a stake in which certification scheme GSA recommends. The plastics industry has vigorously opposed LEED for its requirements about the use of potentially poisonous plastics in the building industry, especially as the U.S. Green Building Council prepares to unveil its LEED Version 4, which will give additional credits to building teams "that use materials that do not cause cancer, birth defects, and other health or environmental impairments," as the National Resources Defense Council's Jennifer Sass put it.

In response to criticisms that Green Globes is intentionally friendly to industry groups, Hubbell says, "I reject that characterization out of hand," and that critics of Green Globes "are either unaware or not interested" in what Green Building Initiative has done to make its certification process rigorous and transparent. Hubbell points out that Green Building Initiative has recently consulted with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the design community, as well as all sectors of industry to evaluate and rewrite Green Globes.

While the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program has dominated environmentally-sound construction standards for almost 15 years, having been used by more than 7,000 projects in about 30 countries, some members of the building industry familiar with both systems say they prefer Green Globes to LEED.

"I would say the Green Globes is definitely a more flexible system," Johnnie Lohrum, an architect for SchenkelShultz Architecture, told the Orlando Sentinel. "You work directly with an assessor, so if you have questions, then you can pick up the phone and get answers. You don't have to wait for a month for a response."

Moreover, Green Globes certification, which has been used by Whole Foods for green building certification, costs about half as much as the LEED process, and some have even argued that the higher costs of LEED have been used to line the pockets of executives at the U.S. Green Building Council. Still, the costs of certification generally amount to a drop in the bucket compared with the costs of construction and upgrades, and the U.S. Green Building Council offers discounts for builders certifying a larger volume of buildings, like college campuses.

Hubbell says that the Green Globes system was designed with these sorts of benefits in mind. The major difference between Green Globes and other certification systems, says Hubbell, is that "Green Globes is an interactive, web-enabled online platform that enables building owners or managers or designers to interact with the system" to evaluate their buildings and determine the best approach to construction and management. Hubbell says that the Green Globes online platform makes for a better user experience and cuts down on external costs associated with other certification systems.

And customer service and cost are not the only factors working in Green Globes's favor. A March 2012 review of green building certification systems by the U.S. Department of Energy analyzed the relative efficacy of LEED, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge. The review considered a number of factors including the systems’ technical robustness, maturity, transparency and usability, the independence of auditors or assessors, and national recognition within the building industry.

The report found that the Green Globes certification system was actually better-aligned to meet the federal government's requirements for new green building construction, while LEED aligned best for upgrades of existing buildings. While the report declined to make specific recommendations, Paula Melton of BuildingGreen.com noted that "a similar report from 2006 was used to justify GSA’s continued use of LEED."

The report did not find significant differences between the certification schemes, however, and indicated that each scheme came very close to meeting all of the federal government’s requirements for green buildings.

Lane Burt, the director of technical policy at the U.S. Green Building Council, points out that says he trusts GSA to make the right decision. “GSA’s track record in green building is quite good, and they deserve the support of the green building industry because of what they have done and we think they will continue to do,” he says.

While Burt says he could not comment on Green Globes’s connections with the timber and plastics industries, he attributed LEED’s popularity to the trust with which the certification scheme has been embraced by the green building industry.

Burt laments that some groups have “turned to political pressure to influence the outcome” of the GSA review process. “No one wants to see that happen,” he says. “A green building rating system that's politically determined rather than technically determined is not valid.”

GSA will be receiving feedback until the beginning of April on which certification scheme it should recommend. Those interested in participating in the conversation can do so at www.regulations.gov or by emailing Bryan Steverson at bryan.steverson@gsa.gov.

[Image credit: That Other Paper, Flickr]

Harry Stevens headshotHarry Stevens

Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens

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