By Emerson Schwartzkopf
Think the fightin’ words are over with November’s presidential elections? Not at the U.S. Green Building Council, where nerves continue to be sharp after some public questioning of its role in green building practices.
The non-profit USGBC is the touch point of the sustainable building movement with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program and its scoring system for use of efficient and eco-friendly planning and components. While LEED is voluntary, and the USGBC is a non-governmental organization, the program’s guidelines are becoming the de rigueur standard. And, in some cases, the legal code of green construction.
Beginning in late October, however, USA Today cast a harsh light on the USGBC’s good-guy status with “Green Inc.,” a series of articles concerning LEED. The series didn’t attack the program’s intent, but the articles questioned the effect of implementing design components encouraged by LEED. It also detailed the close ties between some LEED policy makers and contracting to implement the program with governments and corporations.
Nothing in the USA Today reporting accused anyone of doing anything illegal or outlandishly unethical. The articles made much, however, of several LEED scores, in particular the LEED Gold rating given to the opulent Palazzo casino/resort in Las Vegas.
The response went beyond the usual rebuttal. At the recent Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, USGBC President/CEO Rick Fedrizzi, didn’t refer directly to USA Today in his plenary address, but offered that, “we expect ... more hatchet jobs by ‘journalists’ desperately seeking circulation instead of truth. And we say ... bring it on. Because we are ready for it. All of it. The critics. The cynics. The doubters. And, yes, the scoundrels.”
I don’t know where I fit in those classifications, but – on behalf of U.S. suppliers, fabricators and users of alternative surfaces – I’ll take up the challenge. It’s time for the USGBC to seriously reconsider its rules and proposed criteria on materials ... and quit the culture of increasing minutia for plain talk.
Any surfacing provider with even a casual acquaintance with the current LEED system knows about NC-2009 MRc5: Regional Materials, otherwise known as the 500-mile rule. The LEED scoring allows a point for sourcing materials from within a 500-mile radius of a project. At face value, the criteria makes sense in attempting to curtail the use of excess energy, such as diesel fuel, in transporting material.
The current rule, though, includes the One Big Exception: bamboo. As a sustainable natural-growth material with fast regeneration, bamboo can be shipped from anywhere and not impact the LEED Regional Materials score.
The problem is with the origin point of most bamboo used in the U.S. That 500-mile rule isn’t being waived to allow shipments from Florida or Puerto Rico, or from Mexico or points south in Latin America. Or for any substantial amount of structural bamboo from the Western Hemisphere. LEED is lowering the 500-mile boundary mainly for the benefit of one country: China.
This isn’t a protectionist rant to cheat the Chinese in the green-building market, or a knock against bamboo as a surface. The argument is in bending the rules for sustainability to the point of absurdity, where LEED favors a new-growth material over other eco-friendly products. Both will cause a similar impact on long-distance transportation (and diesel fuel) by sea, rail and ground, so why should bamboo traveling 7,000 miles get a free ride on LEED regional scoring while a recycled-glass product countertop made in, say, Houston, doesn’t count in St. Louis?
The swoon for bamboo ended with the new LEED v.4 guidelines now being shopped around to members for public comment – the fifth time it’s been done, incidentally. The One Big Exception is gone; the section is completely rewritten with a proposed standard that involves multiple variations of computing fractional costs of materials based on composition (for recycled products) and adherence to policies propagated by other NGOs (for new raw material).
And the regional credit? It’s still in there under local sourcing – with a new radius of 100 miles.
Frankly, the current LEED criteria for surfacing gave too much credit to one material. The proposed standards puts a cost-benefit calculation in the realm of figuring out the derivatives market for Latvian wheat-harvest futures.
This isn’t the way to encourage alternative-surface production or use. You want us to bring it on? Then make the process clearer. Make it simpler. Make it work, instead of giving us makework.