InfoComm: Green Building Under the Microscope

This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system is among the most prominent of its type. In a roundabout way, it contributed to the formation of the Sustainable Technology Environments Program (STEP), a green rating system for AV and other installed systems, developed by InfoComm International.

But LEED has not been without its detractors, and recently, one major LEED adopter (the U.S. government) heard from some of them.

On May 8, I attended (wait for it) the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight’s hearing “The Science Behind Green Building Rating Systems.”  LEED wasn’t the only green rating system on the docket, but it held the spotlight.

You see, under Section 433 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the General Services Administration (GSA) are required to determine every five years which, if any, third-party green building rating system(s) should be adopted for federal buildings, or whether a federally developed system should be used instead.

DOE and GSA are currently working to determine the preferred third-party building rating system to be used by the federal government for the next five years, with a decision expected later in 2012 or early in 2013. A Pacific Northwest National Lab study that compared third-party green building rating systems was released just prior to the hearing. So in light of this research and the ongoing decision-making process, the subcommittee got together on Capitol Hill.

In addition to LEED, three other organizations/rating systems were on the agenda: ASHRAE 189.1, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge, from the International Living Future Institute. The list of witnesses was impressive:

  • Dr. Kathleen Hogan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, DOE
  • Mr. Kevin Kampschroer, Director of the Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, GSA
  • Mr. Ward Hubbell, President, U.S. Green Building Institute
  • Mr. Roger Platt, Senior Vice President, Global Policy and Law, U.S. Green Building Council
  • Dr. John Scofield, Professor of Physics, Oberlin College
  • Mr. Victor Olgyay, Principal Architect, Built Environment Team, Rocky Mountain Institute
  • Mr. Tom Talbot, CEO, Glen Oak Lumber and Milling of Wisconsin

Here are some of my impressions from the hearing:

Ka-ching. The subcommittee talked certification costs for some of the rating systems. Green Globes is capped at $25,000, LEED at $30,000 and Living Building Challenge at $25,000. This is notable in that Congress is seeking the lowest-cost rating system with the biggest measurable benefit. Neither GSA or USGBC representatives could say how much money the federal government has spent on LEED.

Go it alone. Some members of Congress questioned whether the federal government (DOE) could (and should) do a better job developing a national green building rating system. But it was just a question, really. No answer.

Performance vs. building. Along the lines of “go-it-alone,” several witnesses recommended the federal government develop national building performance standards rather than a national green-building rating system.

Blinded by LEED. GSA stated that some federal agencies have a “LEED-only” policy, even though the GSA and DOE recognize other rating systems. In fact, it’s apparently the GSA’s position that Green Globes, with its Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) criteria, more closely aligns with federal sustainability criteria than any other system. LEED does not include an LCA to justify the most cost-effective investment impact of design and operation decisions.

Level playing field. A number of witnesses requested that LEED not only include LCA criteria, but also evaluate building products through the use of Environmental Product Declarations (EPD). This was in response to USGBC’s position that some building materials (like PVC) should not be used, and to its favoring certain product certifications, such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

In fact, the USGBC’s LEED program was the primary focus of the hearing. For example, in questioning fit for Washington, it was asked why the GSA’s Deputy Secretary Don Horn is an USGBC Advisory Board member and why USGBC pays for his travel. Apparently Green Globes requested a similar arrangement with the GSA and was turned down.

And USGBC’s commitment to following ANSI procedures was questioned; despite being an ANSI Standards Development Organization, USGBC has no plans to make all of their guidelines into ANSI standards.

But it was John Scofield, professor of Physics at Oberlin College, who made some of the most pointed comments about USGBC and LEED. In a nutshell, he said, “It is my experience that what LEED designers deliver is what most LEED building owners want — namely, green publicity, not energy savings.”

Dr. Scofield took aim at a 2008 National Building Institute (NBI) study, which has been widely distributed by USGBC and suggests that LEED buildings show an average energy savings that’s 25 percent to 30 percent better than the national average. But based on his analysis of the data (which he said was self-selected and amounted to “a voluntary breathalyzer test”), “LEED-certified commercial buildings use about the same amount of primary energy as their conventional counterparts… There then appears to be no scientific basis for institutions such as colleges, universities or the federal government to require LEED certification as a GHG (greenhouse gas) or energy-reduction strategy for its buildings… Green building certifications are an (energy-savings) herbal remedy, as there is no creditable data to show that certified green buildings save primary energy.”

Ouch. LEED losing its luster? The government considering its own green ratings?

LEED may be more pale green (chartreuse?) than bright green after this experience. But the biggest downside is the potential for the federal government to step in (pardon the expression) and develop its own rating system to replace LEED for government buildings. More likely is development of a federal sustainable building standard, which will not be the traditional prescriptive or performance-based standard, but a more difficult-to-live-with, outcome-based standard.

What is the future for all the voluntary sustainability guidelines, standards and rating systems? It’s not as certain as it used to be. The back story on this hearing is the proposed LEED 2012 ”ban” of PVC and halogenated materials, along with a limited selection (1 of 3) of certified wood suppliers. When a volunteer organization such as USGBC loses sight of its mission and decides to serve as the design communities’ “social conscience” by using their rating system to determine what products can and cannot not be in a building, it quickly gets the free market’s attention.  Life Cycle Analysis and Environmental Product Declarations were suggested a number of times during the hearing as the only “science-based” methods to determine product and building sustainability.  That statement is correct, but both are also complex, time-consuming and costly–for all parties.

The future is still green, we just aren’t sure which shade. Stay tuned.

Allen Weidman is Sustainability Officer for InfoComm International and Executive Director of the STEP Foundation. He has more than 30 years of association experience and has worked with the EPA, U.S. Department of Energy, and federal and state regulatory agencies.