In the 1970s, sick buildings became a mounting concern as people realized that many materials — need we mention asbestos? — made us, well, sick. Thankfully, we’ve now been hearing more and more about green buildings that are constructed to use energy as efficiently as possible and are made from locally sourced materials rather than from a tree half way around the world grown on land that was once the habitat of an endangered species.
Wary of how calls for green buildings could diminish their profits, multinational companies in the timber, plastics and chemical industries are trying to set their own standards for green buildings under official-sounding entities such as the American National Standards Institute, the Green Globes and the Sustainable Forestry Industry program.
These organizations and protocols have been created to counter the current green building certification, LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standard. 34 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — and the federal government — all have policies that call for LEED construction or incentives to follow LEED standards in public buildings.
The non-profit U.S. Green Building Council created the LEED standard, under which public buildings, commercial offices and private homes are rated on a 100-point scale based on whether they use locally sourced materials and energy-efficient design. A million and a half square feet of real estate are now certified a day using LEED standards.
As you might have guessed, the green building certification proposed by the industrial sector has laxer standards.
Not only are companies promoting their own standards in the interest of protecting what Sierra Club activist Jason Grant calls “their core business model, which largely relies on large-scale clear cutting and replanting.” They are also trying to petition state governments to remove LEED certification, according to Mother Jones:
Mississippi was the most recent state to do this, with an amendment tacked on to a transportation and housing appropriations bill. Alabama and Georgia have done the same through executive order. An industry coalition is also trying to push similar language through Congress that would cover new construction from the largest property manager in the country, the federal government.
The timber industry is especially up in arms about one LEED standard for lumber. If a building uses wood grown and acquired under LEED specifications, it gets one point on the 100-point scale. The building could still get LEED certification but just not at that point– and the timber industry is not happy about this.
Another industry-based “better buildings” entity, the American High-Performance Buildings Coalition (with the curious URL of http://www.betterbuildingstandards.com/) argues that LEED is not transparent and does not represent all “stakeholders.”
LEED’s defenders acknowledge that it is a work in progress, with environmentalists in disagreement about what should be included to make a building green. With deforestation threatening ecosystems that are home to endangered species and that local residents rely on for their livelihood, green construction is clearly here to stay.
The green building industry now accounts for 45 percent of the marketplace for new construction, according to Lane Burt, policy director of the U.S. Green Building Council. The timber, plastics and chemical industries devoting so many efforts to counter LEED shows that the green building industry has arrived.
That’s certainly a positive development, though as Burt points out, “there’s no nonprofit that’s going to match the lobbying clout of the timber industry.” The green building industry has to start being “more politically savvy.”
Matthew Yeomans has written that the word “sustainability” has been co-opted by commerce and industry to the extent that it has become as devoid of meaning as “natural.” It’s no surprise that industry giants are trying to get a foothold in the business of building sustainably. It’s all the more reason not to let them co-opt green construction and make sure that green buildings live up to their name and to solid standards, rather than less stringent ones crafted by the very industries whose products created the reason for LEED standards in the first place.
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