Whatever happened to: LEED green building certification

LEED projects
© LEED projects around the world/ USGBC

TreeHugger is ten years old this August. We're taking a look back at some of the changes that have happened in the green movement over the decade.

LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and was developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). When TreeHugger started, we showed just about every LEED certified building that came across our desks; there weren't that many then. Soon, we couldn't keep up as LEED grew by leaps and bounds. Governments hopping on the green bandwagon started demanding LEED certification of new public buildings, and major corporations vied for the highest ratings. According to the USGBC, there are now over 60,000 LEED projects in the world covering over 10.6 billion square feet of space from China to Chile.

LEED made green building legit.

© USGBC Offices Washington

Before the USGBC came along, green building was really part of the counterculture, thought of as a bit out there, much as green products were sort of hippyish. Hence TreeHugger trying to make sustainable design mainstream, and the USGBC trying, and succeeding, in making green building not only acceptable but in fact imperative for the big corporate and government world. That's why their offices are the ultimate in green design but are described by USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi as "corporate—very corporate." and why USGBC employees have the nicest (and just about the only) suits and ties at Greenbuild. They have made green building mainstream.

“LEED is a global phenomenon,” Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED, said last year. “People spend 90 percent of their lives indoors. A healthy, resource-friendly and environmentally sound indoor environment contributes to the health, happiness and well-being of people and is something people from countries across the globe are finding value in.”

A parking garage is not green.

Can a parking garage be green?/Promo image

I have often been critical of LEED since I started covering it in 2005, particularly for giving certification to laughingly inappropriate uses like multi-story parking garages and spaceports. There were no points for beauty, and in the early days the green buildings, like a lot of green products, were downright ugly. A lot of "design" architects didn't do green. Others like Bill McDonough complained that "LEED is a checklist for people who don't want to think." Kaid Benfield complained about the egregious certification of HSBC's suburban office park. Everyone bashed the bike rack point.

However, LEED evolves. It goes through a cyclical process where it gets tougher all the time, where it fixes its mistakes. For instance, even though everyone still bashes the bike racks, since 2009 you need to put in real bike infrastructure including storage and lockers and showers, and that is very important for getting people out of their cars. LEED is about more than just energy, and bikes matter a lot. Really.

Read More: The Dumbest Green Buildings in TreeHugger
Buildings that Value Gizmos Over Appropriate Design
LEED Green Buildings That Are Laughably Inappropriate
Stop Bashing the Bike Racks!

War in the Woods, and the birth of Green Globes

© Franke James

There was always some pushback against LEED for some of its decisions; the American lumber industry was unhappy with its giving a point for using FSC certified lumber when they preferred SFI, a less restrictive system originally set up by the industry. It tried for years to get recognized by LEED as being equivalent to FSC but didn't because, very simply, it's not. As J. Bishop Grewell wrote in Keeping Forests Green:

The forest industry considers the FSC standard impractical, its social objectives unreasonable, and its environmental agenda unscientific. The industry objects to the FSC's bias against plantation forestry (where trees are grown like a crop).

The industry even funded a former Louisana Pacific PR flack, Ward Hubbell, to set up the Green Building Initiative, which offered an alternative certification, Green Globes, which recognizes other lumber certifications than FSC. He ran them both out of his PR company office but it was more of a nuisance than a real threat to LEED, it was such transparently obvious Astroturfing.

Read more:Understanding Labels Part 2: Separating Green Building from Greenwash
Rumble in the Lumberyard: FSC vs SFI
LEED-Bashing: SFI Couldn't Join LEED, So Now It Is Out To Destroy It.
Rumble in the Lumberyard: FSC vs SFI

Then the USGBC announced LEED 2012 (later rebranded as Version 4), and all hell broke loose.

USGBC/via

LEED V4 looks for transparency, giving a point for disclosing information related to health and environmental benefits. It looks for life cycle analyses and responsible sourcing of raw materials. But it also looks at the stuff that goes into building products, giving a point for declaring all ingredients, and another point for avoiding the most hazardous materials. Suddenly, LEED was a threat to the vast and powerful petrochemical industry.

Where Europe's REACH system uses the precautionary principle where companies have to prove that their products aren't toxic, in America, regulation is much lighter and products are considered safe until proven otherwise. It takes decades for anything to get regulated by government. The chemical industry wasn't going to stand by and let LEED start looking into its products and becoming a de facto regulator.

The lumber industry is big and its battle with LEED was a distraction, but with big chem and big oil, it's World War III. Suddenly states started banning LEED, particularly those with big chemical industries. They say there is no science behind these fears of chemicals like PVC, that it could " could cause unwarranted exclusion of materials made right here". Big wood producing states like Maine and Georgia dumped LEED or pushed alternatives.

Read more: Why they hate LEED in Georgia
Ohio Senate passes bill banning LEED certification
North Carolina law would ban LEED green building certification
State of Maine Bans Use Of LEED In State Construction

Big Chem gathers its forces

AHPBC/Screen capture

Powerful new forces much bigger than the lumber lumber industry started gathering for this fight. The American High Performance Building Coalition was created to lobby governments about the dangers of LEED. (Here are their charming members)

The General Services Administration, looking at certification systems, came under significant pressure from senators and congress from lumbering and chemical producing states, who were writing things like:

We are deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers and spread misinformation about materials that have been at the forefront of improving environmental performance—and even occupant safety—and in buildings.

© Rich Williams/ Plastics News

Finally, the GSA folded and accepted Green Globes as an equivalent certification system.

Read more:
LEED Bashing: Government Study Finds "Equivalence" Between LEED and Green Globes
GSA gets greenwashed as Green Globes gets approved as building certification system equivalent to LEED
Plastic People are at it again, sneaking LEED-bashing clause into appropriations bill
LEED Bashing: Plastic People trying to slip "Trojan Horse" amendments to gut LEED certification
What Are The Plastic People So Afraid Of That They Want To Kill LEED?

Green Globes moves out of the flack shop

© Jerry Yudelson

Big Chem then moved in and shook up the Green Building Initiative to make it more respectable. Ward Hubbell was dumped, they moved out of his offices, and Jerry Yudelson, the so-called "Godfather of Green Building" and a LEED Fellow was brought in as President. He says "It's a new beginning, We pushed the reset button." So what if their board of directors and supporters and advisors still look like a who's who of plastic and big lumber industries; who reads that stuff anyway.

They are not equivalent. LEED is better.

BuildingGreen.com/Screen capture

The GSA now calls the two systems "equivalent" but there is a lot of evidence that it isn't really.

Tristan Roberts and Paula Melton of BuildingGreen.com did a major study comparing the two systems and found that there were significant differences.

What professionals like best about Green Globes is how user-friendly the certification process is. In nearly all other respects, LEED is more up-to-date technically, more rigorous, and more relevant in the market, and LEED is based on a broader consensus of professionals who make sustainability of buildings a focus of their work.

LEED supporters push back

Greenwash Action/Screen capture

The pressure on the LEED certification system will continue to grow, as the petrochemical industry keeps pushing the politicians to support GBI, ban LEED and keep those petrochemical factories pumping out vinyl and foam. But LEED supporters are pushing back; Greenwash Action was just formed to promote it and to fight back against Green Globes. Executive Director Jason Grant says:

True environmental leadership programs have transformed markets... but these leadership programs are now under serious threat from greenwash standards and the special interests behind them. These groups are smearing the leadership standards through media attacks and seeking to get them banned for use by state and federal governments.

The fact is, LEED has transformed green building.

There are alternatives to LEED that are pretty wonderful. The Living Building Challenge is one that every green designer should aspire to; notwithstanding their criticism of LEED, Andres Duany's Lean Green part of Lean Urbansim shows real promise. But the fact remains, LEED has transformed green building. Sustainable design is accepted practice now by some of the biggest and best firms in the world. Green buildings are now often beautiful buildings. It's the USGBC and LEED that got us to where we are today. It's not perfect, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is "the worst system except for all those others that have been tried."

A few weeks back I was at a conference where there was a concerted attack on LEED by a speaker who used a lot of examples, from bike racks to parking garages to HSBC in Chicago, that sounded familiar. I asked him about his sources and he told me "TreeHugger." I stand by those criticisms, but they are old, LEED has changed, and so have I.

LEED is under attack by seriously powerful people and corporations (see the two links below, the plastic people are benign in comparison) They are the same ones funding climate change skeptics or anything that might threaten the giant petrochemical industrial complex. The USGBC has had the courage to stand up to them and for that, I support them wholeheartedly.

Tags: greenbuild | Green Building | Happy Birthday TreeHugger | LEED

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