Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: We Check the Facts

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Managing Editor BuildingGreen, Inc. Jun 13 2012 LEEDuser Moderator Post a Comment

Chemical and plastics trade groups have attacked LEED and the federal government's use of it. We separate the facts from the fabrications.

This story is cross-posted from our sister site, BuildingGreen.com.

A developing focus on chemicals of concern in the LEED rating systems could make federal buildings less energy-efficient, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

In recent letters to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and to a number of representatives in the U.S. Congress (PDF), ACC and others also claim that LEED v4 (formerly known as LEED 2012) is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development.

LEED: “a tool to punish chemical companies”?

The latter document went to a group of legislators who have echoed ACC’s position in their own letter (PDF) to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) pointing to “arbitrary chemical restrictions” and claiming LEED is “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.” See Lloyd Alter’s incisive coverage at Treehugger for more background on the congressional letter to GSA.

Below, we look at each of AAC’s claims and separate the truth from the lies. But first…

Why this attack matters

The federal government, including the military, is the single largest user of the LEED rating systems. According to data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 7% of LEED-certified projects and 11.5% of those pending certification are federal government buildings. The public sector as a whole (federal, state, and local governments combined) makes up a whopping 27% of LEED-certified projects, and smaller governments could follow the federal lead on LEED. Use of LEED by these entities has, over the last 12 years, helped develop green practices and products across the industry.<--break->

Both GSA and the Department of Defense are currently reviewing a number of green building rating systems and codes, taking a hard look at their alignment with federal government goals, including energy and cost savings as well as toxic chemical avoidance.

As that continues, we can probably expect more intense lobbying by more and more industries along similar lines. How much traction they get remains to be seen, and fact-checking makes a difference.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will eliminate certain materials from LEED buildings

ACC argues that a new focus on chemicals of concern will mean that project teams will not be able to choose certain materials. “Energy-efficient materials such as insulation, reflective roofing, piping, and wiring could be targeted for ‘avoidance’ by LEED [v4],” said Cal Dooley, CEO at ACC.

USGBC response: According to Brendan Owens, vice president for LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), “There is no ‘red list’ of banned chemicals or products” in LEED v4. Rather, the proposed credits “are focused on encouraging the use of materials known to have desirable characteristics from a human health perspective,” and “the responsible use of any particular product will not disqualify project teams from achieving certification.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: LEED does not ban any materials except ozone-depleting refrigerants that are targeted for phase-out by international treaty.

The third Public Comment draft of LEED v4 did include a list of chemicals that could be avoided to earn one or two points; this list was removed from the fourth Public Comment draft in response to public comments and was replaced with a reference to the European Union’s REACH protocol.

LEED project teams who choose to pursue the material avoidance credits only need to address a small percentage of products to earn the one or two points. They may choose alternative materials or design options to meet energy-efficiency needs in insulation, roofing, and other areas—and there are plenty of environmentally preferable options that don’t sacrifice performance. The point structure of LEED heavily emphasizes energy efficiency, and there is no incentive to sacrifice that for chemical avoidance.

When I suggested to Dooley that people could simply choose alternatives, he replied, “It does not appear that USGBC has conducted any analysis of the alternatives to these products or demonstrated that there are equally performing alternatives available to builders.”

Dooley does have a valid point—that the LEED requirements would push some projects into areas where development of market options is needed. But that’s part of the “market transformation” that USGBC is working to do with LEED: to push buildings in a greener, healthier direction and assume that the money spent by those projects will stimulate the market to follow. The analysis that Dooley suggests should have been done would make more sense for a mandatory code requirement than for an optional credit.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will reduce energy efficiency

ACC contends that credits for chemical avoidance detract from LEED’s energy goals. Its recent letter to legislators praised the lawmakers for their claim that “the proposed LEED 2012 criteria will make federal buildings less energy efficient[,] resulting in increased costs to taxpayers.” That group of lawmakers in their own letter to GSA stated that LEED v4 would be “counterproductive in the mission to develop more sustainable and energy efficient building codes.”

USGBC response: This characterization is “a false dichotomy,” said Owens. “Sustainability requires a holistic approach to balance multiple fundamental priorities.” That said, Owens told BuildingGreen, “LEED’s commitment to energy efficiency and climate change1. Climate change refers to any significant change in measures of climate (such as temperature, precipitation, or wind) lasting for an extended period (decades or longer). (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008) 2.The increase in global average temperatures being caused by a buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This temperature change is leading to changes in circulation patterns in the air and in the oceans, which are affecting climates differently in different places. Among the predicted effects are a significant cooling in Western Europe due to changes in the jet stream, and rising sea levels due to the melting of polar ice and glaciers. mitigation and adaptation has never been stronger, and nothing proposed in LEED v4 changes this significant focus.” Owens pointed to the “seven overarching system goals” that drive LEED, which address not only energy and water conservation but also human health, biodiversity, and sustainable material resource cycles.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It is false to suggest that chemical avoidance will come at the expense of energy efficiency.

Proposed chemical credits are a miniscule percentage of the whole of LEED, and there is no requirement to achieve them, while tough energy prerequisites remain.

But it’s not just USGBC that views sustainable building holistically. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) is about more than energy conservation. Green building rating systems are to be evaluated according to a number of criteria:

  • “Efficient and sustainable use” of energy, water, and natural resources
  • Use of renewable energy sources
  • Improved indoor environmental quality
  • Reduced impacts from transportation
  • “Such other criteria as the Federal Director determines to be appropriate”

These other criteria currently include “system maturity” and “usability.” The federal government also compares rating systems against its Guiding Principles, which include the sustainability of materials and resources.

Not only will avoidance of certain chemicals and materials not reduce energy efficiency, but energy efficiency—by a long shot—is not the only criterion the federal government itself uses to evaluate green building rating systems.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will kill jobs

ACC is also claiming that the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern Credit will hurt the economy and cost jobs. As the forestry industry has proven, playing the “jobs card” is a guaranteed way to get attention—but the card is not always backed up by data.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: ACC has no data to back its claim.

Dooley did not have specific numbers on the potential economic impact of the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit, saying only, “Forcing the avoidance of popular and proven building materials would undoubtedly hurt the producers of these products” and citing data about how many jobs the chemical industry supports in Michigan and Ohio. Past evidence, however, suggests that innovation encourages market growth and helps create jobs.

The language of “forcing avoidance” gets to the crux of the issue and reinforces a common misunderstanding about LEED: that credits are the same as requirements. They’re not. Only the prerequisites are required; credits are a menu to choose from. You can completely skip chemical avoidance and still achieve LEED certification.

CLAIM: Chemical credits are not science-based

ACC told BuildingGreen, “A truly science-based approach would consider all facts, not selectively chosen attributes of ingredients in products. The avoidance and listings credits take a hazard-only approach, excluding the questions of exposure or actual risk.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that the chemical credits emphasize a hazard-avoidance approach. It’s false to claim that this approach is not science-based.

Both a hazard-avoidance approach and a risk-assessment approach to toxic chemicals are science-based. The proposed chemical credits in LEED (which are still evolving) currently reference European REACH legislation and the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. Both of these have a precautionary orientation—meaning they favor chemicals scientifically proven to be safer. (Regulations in the U.S. tend to require that chemicals be proven unsafe before their use can be restricted.) Both REACH and Green Screen are backed by rigorous scientific research and review.

The associated lists target major hazards for which an avoidance strategy makes sense—particularly in the absence of sufficiently rigorous studies and data on exposure, since neither the chemical industry nor the government has chosen to invest in the research needed to provide that data. These substances include persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, to which eventual exposure is almost assured.

CLAIM: USGBC does not use a consensus approach

ACC has also accused USGBC of not using a “true” consensus-based approach. “USGBC is an ANSI-accredited organization but has not taken the next steps and completed the requirements of an ANSI standard,” Dooley said. “The internal committees…appear to lack participation of appropriately qualified experts.”

Dooley added that “in a true consensus process, USGBC would have to provide technical support for the material avoidance or material ingredient listing credits.” When I asked Dooley whether ACC had participated in the process, he responded that the group had submitted public comments “that were ignored.”

USGBC response: Owens called this line of attack “a distraction from the substantive issues,” adding, “LEED is developed in accordance with a rigorously inclusive process.  We have received more than 22,000 public comments and have responded to each individually. We work cooperatively with industries, and LEED standards are set in a consensus-driven, transparent manner led by technical experts in their fields.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that LEED is not an ANSI standard. It’s false to say that it is not a consensus-based standard.

The federal government defers to consensus standards but does not require the rating systems it uses to be ANSI standards. ANSI defines specific requirements for stakeholder balance and consensus, but this is not the only structure accepted by ISO or the federal government.

In its recent review of rating systems, GSA noted that LEED was not an ANSI standard but concluded that LEED was developed according to a rigorously transparent consensus process according to on its own definition:

The certification system contains the attributes of a voluntary consensus standards body defined in OMB Circular A-119: openness, balance of interest, due process, an appeal process, and consensus.

ACC may be pushing this message because its own preferred rating system—Green Globes, which has stronger ties to mainstream industries and lobbyists—is an ANSI standard.

Postponing LEED v4

You may be wondering if this attack is related to the postponement of the erstwhile LEED 2012, which is now called LEED v4 because it won’t be available until 2013.

Yes and no. While the chemical industry attacks have no direct relationship to the decision to delay rollout, as Nadav Malin reported in EBN earlier this week, there was a more widespread sense—particularly among “core supporters” of LEED—that “the proposed changes in the rating system were too much, too fast, especially in a weak real estate market.”

Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern was among the credits making these groups worry, and a series of gut renovations with each public comment draft may have made the process more vulnerable to industry attacks as the rating system failed to stabilize around a specific, robust approach.

12 Comments

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Bill Swanson PE, LEED AP Integrated Architecture
Jun 21 2012
LEEDuser Expert
14566 Thumbs Up

Ban the credit

If the politicians actually meant what they said then all they have to do is ban the GSA from letting any of their buildings to earn this Credit. Problem solved.

But no. The Chemical lobby wants the credit gone. So they force an all or nothing approach. Remove the credit or the Feds will stop playing ball. No market transformation allowed.

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James Bogdan Mgr., Sustainable Strategies, PPG Industries Jun 27 2012 Guest 35 Thumbs Up

Re: the chem lobby all or nothing commenbt above. Arguably, LEED buildings are not operationally performing to the transformative nature of the USGBC mission re: energy, water waste, etc. consumption. Yet, to stay relevant i.e., when comparing to the IgCC, LBC, and other fledgling green building codes on their heels, the USGBC is pushing a public health agenda that has no scientific merit, and subsequently, goes after product manufacturers where they are already heavily regulated. For example, Green Screen was developed by the NGO Clean Production Action, which is not a consensus standards-development organization. Green Screen is a private eco-label developed without transparency or input/approval of most affected stakeholders. There is no appeal process for parties that are affected by the program or disagree with its conclusions. Also, it wasn't specifically REACH that drove opposition (although for a NA company to comply with an EU regulation for a NA green building system could be grounds for opposition), it was the inconsistent revisions of the credit(s) language between the 2nd, 3rd & 4th public comment periods, as well as the limited public response time when REACH was introduced, that caused the opposition. The USGBC LEED development process was basically telling the market that the Steering Committee and the TAGs didn't have a real strategy to implement environmental and health product criteria into the rating system, so let's quickly throw a variety of stuff in the criteria to see what we can push through. That is not how to advance, what has been to date, a good program.

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Bill Swanson PE, LEED AP, Integrated Architecture Jun 27 2012 LEEDuser Expert 14566 Thumbs Up

I don't like the LEED development process either. I keep hammering away on my Credit of expertise hoping someone will notice the process is flawed. But is it Congress' place to tell a non-profit how to conduct their business? Just because a system is broken doesn't mean Congress is my choice as fixer given their own track record.

I don't know much of anything about picking and choosing which chemical is safe. But I firmly believe the EU system of safety is much better than the US system. The US system is filled with corporate employees, temporarily working in Federal positions, in charge of regulating their corp bosses. I want to live and work in a building that I'm not worried about it slowly poisoning me.

Would the chemical manufacturers participate in providing a list of chemicals they have health concerns about? I'm sure they do a lot of testing that doesn't enter the public domain. And how do we trust this list isn't just their competitor's ingredients?

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Maciej Zielny Jul 04 2012 Guest 34 Thumbs Up

Totally agree with you. Politicians never really fixed anything.
Sometimes they can hide away symptomps or move them further away in time, but in general they cause far more damage then good.

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Hernando Miranda Owner, Soltierra LLC Jul 24 2012 Guest 6866 Thumbs Up

The certification review processes is more at fault than the flawed LEED development process, at least that is my observation based on working with LEED since 1998.

The USGBC is sending out a form letter for companies to send to GSA to convince them to keep LEED as their green building certification system.

https://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=19258

The problem is, the USGBC and GBCI have failed to see what longtime practitioners see; there are fewer and fewer private owners using LEED. The GSA and the State of California are the two largest LEED market shares. Lose one or both and LEED starts to collapse.

Living and breathing green for more than 30 years, this pains me. So much progress was made when LEED first came out. Now, owners are turning away.

The question now how to repair the self-inflicted damage to LEED done by the USGBC/GBCI? I have my opinions on what needs to happen, but I know it never will. People at the top management positions need to step aside and let someone else fix the process; unlikely to ever happen.

The people who originally developed LEED (not the Founders) have mostly disappeared from the LEED radar screen. Why? How was a very small group of people able to get away with the ever hardening "it isn't LEED until to prove it us" certification process. Proving something is not a problem, proving something when the rules are unknown and ever changing, that is a gigantic problem.

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John Chyz Commissioning Authority The Cross Creek Initiative, Inc.
Jun 13 2012
Guest
293 Thumbs Up

Contaminants of Concern & Green Globes

As a certified Green Globes Assessor, I could not help but take issue with the comment that Green Globes has "stronger ties to mainstream industries and lobbyists". I believe that BuildingGreen owe us a little further elaboration and proof of this assertion. On a different note, while the efforts regarding avoidance of chemicals of concern in the new version of the LEED rating system are laudable, I do believe that there is an irony here which should come to light. The LEED prerequisite for indoor air quality mandates usage of the ASHRAE 62.2010 Ventilation Rate Procedure. Oddly enough as stated in the current draft: "The Indoor Air Quality Procedure as defined in
ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2010 shall not be used to comply with this prerequisite." For those that are unfamiliar with the Indoor Air Quality Procedure, its primary focus is to identify the contaminants of concern and design the mechanical systems accordingly. The Green Globes rating system incidentally allows both ASHRAE 62.1 Procedures. For those that are interested, I believe that it would be worth viewing the Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight Hearing-Green Building Rating Systems: http://science.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-investigations-and-oversig...
Interesting that the USGBC's decision to postpone release of the next rating system follows shortly after this investigations and oversight hearing.
In short, as with all fact checking endeavors for the sake of transparency and accountability.... please take a moment to verify the facts.

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Hernando Miranda Owner, Soltierra LLC Jul 24 2012 Guest 6866 Thumbs Up

I am one of the people who helped decide the "contaminates of concern" option for ASHRAE 62.1 should not be used to document LEED NC projects.

There is no reason an engineer cannot design a new or major renovation project to meet the design requirements for the ventilation rate procedure.

Our group had the smartest IAQIndoor air quality: The quality and attributes of indoor air affecting the health and comfort building occupants. IAQ encompasses available fresh air, contaminant levels, acoustics and noise levels, lighting quality, and other factors. experts in the country, including ASHRAE 62.1 developers. The IAQ procedure was considered a "if you cannot do anything else" alternative. It would only apply to extreme hardship cases: EBOMEBOM is an acronym for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance, one of the LEED 2009 rating sytems. and only after the ventilation and OA rates were maximized to the extent possible. In other words, don't use this for LEED NC, but make a hard case for why you have to for LEED EBOM.

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John Chyz Commissioning Authority, The Cross Creek Initiative, Inc. Jul 26 2012 Guest 293 Thumbs Up

As with most standards, ASHRAE 62.1 has evolved over time in an effort to keep pace with changing design assumptions of the engineering community at large. For those that have actually performed these outdoor air calculations, it becomes evident that the VRP is a brute-force method. In other words, rather than assessing and addressing the contaminants of concern in the air stream, the ventilation rate procedure mandates delivering enough outdoor air to essentially dilute these contaminants. While an effective strategy for many climate zones, the ventilation rate procedure offers a high energy penalty for those in hot, humid climates. In some instances, total cooling capacity can be reduced up to 1/3 using the IAQIndoor air quality: The quality and attributes of indoor air affecting the health and comfort building occupants. IAQ encompasses available fresh air, contaminant levels, acoustics and noise levels, lighting quality, and other factors. procedure. Not only does this make economic sense, there is also the obvious carbon reduction. I believe that it is part of our mission as green building practitioners to continually search for and adapt practical solutions that strive for a more sustainable future.

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Hernando Miranda Owner, Soltierra LLC Jul 26 2012 Guest 6866 Thumbs Up

VRP is not brute force. You could say that but then filtration would be brute force as well.

Even with VRP, if you read ASHRAE 62.1, Section 4, is Outdoor Air Quality. You are requires to asses regional and local air quality and bounce them against EPA's National Primary Ambient Air Quality StandardsThe level of pollutants prescribed by regulations that are not to be exceeded during a given time in a defined area. (EPA). If the standards are not met you should add a treatment to the HVAC.

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Nicole Ferrini Director of Sustainability PSRBB Commercial Group
Jun 13 2012
Guest
183 Thumbs Up

Thank you

Thank you for putting the facts out there! As a practicing sustainability professional its critical for me to keep the facts straight when clients and colleagues have questions about recent news and events.

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Barry Giles Founder & CEO, USGBC LEED Faculty, LEED AP O+M, BuildingWise LLC Jun 13 2012 LEEDuser Expert 3681 Thumbs Up

Excellent short breakdown of the components of the discussion. Look forward to a more in depth analysis at a later date.

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Barry Giles Founder & CEO, USGBC LEED Faculty, LEED AP O+M, BuildingWise LLC Jun 13 2012 LEEDuser Expert 3681 Thumbs Up

My comment above was linked to the great work done by Paula and should not be attributed to the comment, somehow inserted out of order, by Mr. Chyz.
Thank you

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