Category Archives: Ratings

Transparency: the new mantra

The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:

Ten years ago when Alistair Jackson (now principal of O’Brien & Company) and Michelle Long (now Executive Director of BALLE) created the Transparency Institute, they just couldn’t gain traction they wanted and needed to make a go of it. “We were ten years ahead of our time,” Jackson sighs.  Now, transparency is all the rage. In fact, at GreenBuild recently, I couldn’t walk five feet without some reference to the concept.  Most references were focused on product transparency, but not all.  At the International Living Future Institute’s GreenBuild Booth, the nonprofit was touting its new “JUST” Label, which applies to organizations transparency.  Organizations of all types and sizes can earn the JUST label when they are willing to report on 22 social and equity indicators related to six categories: diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit and stewardship. The JUST Label joins the organization’s DECLARE, a “nutrition” label of sorts for building products.

JUST is a voluntary disclosure program where organizations can report on their workplace equity policies and practices.

DECLARE is one of the latest efforts over the past decade to make it easier for building project teams to “do the right thing” when selecting products and technologies. Product certifications, such as those offered by the Carpet & Rug Industry Institute (focused on VOC emissions) and Forest Stewardship Council SC (focused on sustainably harvested wood products) have been one way to achieve this goal; but even there, industry members have been demanding more transparency, wanting to know what’s behind the “green” label.  DECLARE requires that manufacturers complete a Health Product Declaration (HPD) that is then publicly available.  The hope is that this label will make it easier for project teams to use the Living Building Challenge, which “red lists” materials and chemicals the ILFI deems hazardous.

Eden Brukman, Technical Director for the non-profit HPD Collaborative was staffing its booth at GreenBuild, where business was non-stop.  Brukman noted a “remarkable uptick in interest in (HPD’s) work.”  The Transparency Movement (as some like to call it) is definitely experiencing an upswing, and HPD is clearly a key player in this progression.  In addition to offering manufacturers an open standard format for reporting product content and associated health information for building products and materials,  the service is free for all to use, which is certainly one factor in its gaining popularity.

The HPD Collaborative partners with several product databases.  Green Spec was one of the first independent efforts to vet and list products meeting specific requirements.  The Pharos Building Library provides access to HPDs (as do most of the other collaborative members)  as well as a full assessment of health hazards associated with the product and its manufacture, VOC certifications, renewable material content, and renewable energy usage. SpecSimple is more recent, and unlike Green Spec or Pharos, includes advertising.  Another commercial database partnering with HPD includes Green Wizard, which integrates its product library with a proprietary software aligned with LEED credits (WORKflow Pro). I understand from one user that the software program is “pricey” but a good value. GPD’s THESource (which also offers advertising) aligns product transparency efforts with BIM and Revit; I attended a GreenBuild presentation introducing  GPDTools (Alpha), a free downloadable add-in specifically designed for the Autodesk Revit users to search, select and annotate building product data (including HPDs) directly.

Transparency has become a byword in the green building industry, where members are demanding to know more about the contents of the building products they use.

Nearly 30 manufacturers at GreenBuild were exhibiting products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified.  Up to recently a proprietary system closely held by its founders William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Certification has gone public with the founding of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.  Lots of other product certifications were on display as well — sometimes several for the same product. One GreenBuild attendee complained that the multiple certifications on many product booths were confusing, but my guess is that as the drive for transparency takes hold, two things will  happen, the value of a given certification will be understood more clearly, resulting in a more nuanced weighting of that certification in the prospective purchaser’s mind.  Another consideration is the audience for the certification(s): a skilled professional whose license depends on being informed, and the less informed consumer of the skilled professional’s services.  My observation, at least at events like GreenBuild, is that professionals are seeking more information, not less. But they want to know the information they are getting is good quality — and transparency can help them know that.

Transparency is not intended, however, to sort out the certification puzzle. The commonly held view is that manufacturers won’t want to reveal damaging information, such as the fact that a given product includes harmful ingredients or was created using harmful processes.  Forward-thinking companies with solid product portfolios (or willing to create them) have done the calculus. This is good for business. Laggards will innovate or lose in the race for transparency.

Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development and most well known for founding O’Brien & Company, the oldest green building consultancy in the Seattle area.  She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. After 30 years of working in the field, she is now focused on providing leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project, a 501c3 non-profit with a mission to “accelerate life-sustaining solutions in the built environment through emergent leadership principles.”


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When it comes to certified wood, GSA is right to question LEED

The following post is by William Street:

Contrary to what Meghan Douris wrote in these pages in your Building Green issue (“Is LEED’s Future with Federal Projects Under Threat?” 2/28), the Government Services Administration is correct to seek opinion regarding LEED’s acceptability for public procurement projects, given the cost involved with LEED certification and LEED’s unfortunate discrimination against two respected and widely used certification standards, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS).

Photo by Luciano Burtini/

There's more than one forest certification system.

The fact that GSA is seeking input on their use of green building rating systems is a positive development. This will hopefully shed light on the problem with GSA’s use of the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. USGBC, unlike Green Building Councils in Italy, Germany or Australia — all of which recognize the importance of all forest certification systems — has been victimized by narrow interest groups seeking to push their own political agenda at the expense of actual science-based energy efficiency, local jobs, competitiveness and inclusivity. USGBC has never publicly explained why they only reward wood certified to the Forest Stewardship Council standard.

PEFC, the world’s largest and only purely non-profit forest certification system — which includes SFI and ATFS,  both of which are independent, non-profit, charitable organizations — has proven on every continent and in all governmental procurement and independent and neutral evaluations that it is a superior system to FSC. PEFC affiliates are recognized by Green Building Councils in many other countries, but not by the USGBC. Thus, wood products from SFI and ATFS are placed at a market disadvantage while forest products from FSC (many of which are sourced outside of the U.S.) are accepted, even though FSC‘s for-profit structure is not recognized by, and fails to comply with, the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and ISO guidelines.

In the U.S., SFI and ATFS are the only forest certification systems to require and enforce compliance with the International Labor Organization’s core labor standards for forest workers.  Strong labor standards mean safer work, better wages, sustainable jobs and viable rural communities that depend on them.

Rather than attempt to create a monopoly for FSC, USGBC should do what practically every other national and third-party system has done: recognize and reward wood from all sustainably managed forests. To do otherwise is to promote deforestation in the tropics and the conversion of sustainably managed forests here into resorts, golf courses and second homes.

It’s well past time to stop fighting over the well-managed forests of North America and start speaking with a single voice to send a unified message to the rest of the world: that green buildings benefit from using wood from all sustainably managed forests. By speaking with a single voice, Americans can truly be a force against deforestation and the conversion of forests to other land uses.

William Street is director of the Woodworkers Department of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

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What can we learn from D.C.’s green building law?

The following post is by Danielle Rodabaugh:

It’s no secret that decisions made in Washington, D.C., frequently lead the way for progressive industry regulation overhaul. This time, however, the overhaul only affects the district’s construction market rather than the national industry — at least for now.

Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

D.C.'s green building law may have ripple effects elsewhere in the U.S.

The district’s Green Building Act of 2006 was a revolutionary piece of legislation that changed the expectations construction professionals in the district must meet. Since its enactment, construction professionals working in Washington, D.C., have been adjusting to more stringent green building regulations that apply to a wider range of projects than ever before.

The GBA didn’t fully go into effect until Jan. 1, 2012, however, and industry stakeholders continued to scrutinize it through December 2011. Before we delve into how the GBA could affect the future of green building across the country, let’s review the history of this controversial law and take a look at its current state.

The GBA requires that all non-residential buildings within the district larger than 50,000 square feet be built to meet LEED certification standards. Before the GBA, various state and local government agencies across the nation had required that certain publicly funded projects be LEED certified. For example, Colorado has required LEED certification on all state buildings since 2005.  However, the GBA extended to include privately funded projects as well.

The U.S. Green Building Council developed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines as a way to identify practical and measurable green building strategies. LEED guidelines focus on design, construction, operations and maintenance. Developers, owners and construction professionals can submit their projects for LEED certification, which verifies that a building, home or community was designed and built using techniques aimed at achieving high performance in certain areas of human and environmental health.

The most controversial aspect of the GBA was that it originally included a stipulation requiring contractors to purchase a performance bond guaranteeing their intention to comply with LEED. To put it simply, the bond would hold the contractor financially liable for building a structure that met the minimum LEED standards.

Although performance bonds are commonly required for construction projects, both public and private, the “green performance bond” type required by the GBA simply was not feasible.

Based on the GBA’s initial wording, if a structure failed to meet LEED certification standards, the government could make a claim on the bond to collect money that would be put in a district fund. Construction professionals, surety providers and contract lawyers began discussing how to best handle the new, strange bond requirement. Ultimately, surety providers argued against it.

Because so many parties are involved with any one construction project, surety professionals asserted that the blame could not solely be placed on the lead contractor. As such, they made it clear that the risk associated with such a bond would be far too great for them to back. The state of the GBA remained in limbo for years as rumors and speculation ensued. Finally, less than a month before the GBA was scheduled to go into full effect, the council passed the Green Building Compliance, Technical Corrections, and Clarifications Act of 2012 as an amendment to the GBA.

With the amendment in place, contractors can now choose one of four ways to guarantee that structures will meet LEED certification standards:

• deposit cash in an escrow account (in a financial institution within the district) and name the district on the account

• provide an irrevocable letter of credit from a financial institution authorized to do business in the district

• provide a surety bond secured by the applicant to ensure compliance

• submit a binding pledge that the applicant will fulfill the current LEED standards for commercial and institutional buildings at the certified level within 2 years of receipt of the certificate of occupancy

No matter which option contractors choose, they guarantee that their structures will meet LEED standards. If they fail to do so, they’ll be held accountable for the consequences, financial and otherwise.

When sweeping changes are made to construction standards, a ripple effect frequently follows. Contractors across the country should keep their ears open for discussions about new LEED certification requirements in other areas. As a construction professional, the best way to plan for the future is by learning from the past. Such is the case with the GBA.

Whether you agree or disagree with the GBA, I encourage you to make sure you’re informed of similar changes that could affect your local construction industry. Then, make sure your voice is heard. Those who spoke out against the initial wording of the GBA were successful in arguing their cases.

Knowledge is power; the more informed you are about green building expectations, the better prepared you’ll be to deal with the inevitable changes.

Danielle Rodabaugh is the director of educational outreach at


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Seattle moving towards LEED gold city buildings. Is that a high enough standard?

The city of Seattle is planning to increase its requirement that city owned, financed or operated buildings larger than 5,000 square feet be LEED gold, up from LEED silver. Here’s my question: is it enough?

In 2000, Seattle broke some major ground when it required city buildings be LEED silver. If you go back to 2000, LEED was still really, really new. That’s reflected this  DPD data slide supporting policy changes here. Check it out, in 2003 and 2004 there were more city LEED buildings than those in the private sector. That switches in 2005 and after 2006, LEED in the private sector continues to grow by leaps and bounds each year.

I started this job at the DJC at the start of 2007 and in the time I’ve been here,

West Entry of the LEED gold Woodland Park Zoo, image courtesy Ryan Hawk, Woodland Park Zoo
I’ve certainly seen the switch. In early 2007, a story was news if a building met LEED silver or had targeted LEED gold. Then LEED platinum became the hot topic. Now, it’s net-zero energy and Living Buildings. That’s not to say that LEED is a dinosaur and that LEED platinum isn’t a big deal. It’s just that the really cutting edge projects seem to have moved beyond LEED. Silver just isn’t big news anymore.

Now, the city is looking to create a more robust policy, the outlines of which can be seen in that slide linked to above. There will also be a DJC story early next week explaining the likely changes. Generally, the city is going to require LEED gold for buildings where it previously would have required LEED silver. It also expands the program to consider major renovations and tenant improvements, sites and small projects. Sandra Mallory, DPD’s Green Building Team program manager, also said the city wants to pilot a living building and six Sustainable Sites Initiative projects, three of which are already in development. It’s some big changes. But are they big enough?

The question seems simple but also touches on the changing role of city government, especially because green building is so much larger today than it was back in 2000. Back in 2000, Seattle took a strong leadership role in its silver requirement. Making a similar, envelope-pushing switch today would likely require city buildings be net-zero energy or living buildings. Given today’s market, I’m not sure the city could make that change, even if it wanted to. Financially, I don’t know that it would make sense, or that it could even be feasible for all projects. Also, the private sector has already taken the lead in both these areas.

Then again, if Seattle wants to keep saying it is the “greenest city in the country,” something that seems to be getting a bit outdated as green and sustainable elements become mainstream, wouldn’t it have to make a ground-altering change like that? Additionally, most of its buildings in recent years have met LEED gold, though they weren’t required to. According to that slide, it still doesn’t have a LEED platinum project.

What do you think? Should the city have made a stronger stand or is LEED gold fair for now? Also, how do you think the city’s role in supporting green building should change in the future? Eventually, will the city require all its buildings be net-zero or meet living status? It’s a curious question and I’d love to hear your responses.

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Which Living Building are you most excited for?

In the Pacific  Northwest, there are a number of living buildings in different stages of development. But in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., there are three projects that stand out and will be fascinating to compare.

The projects are Seattle’s  Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, Portland’s Oregon Sustainability Center and Vancouver’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. Though each is very different, they are large and significant enough to be comparable.  Unlike most living buildings, which have to date been smaller structures in isolated landscapes, each of these is in the center of a city. Each are being built by nonprofit or educational organizations. Each will act as a nexus of sustainability for their respective communities.

Of the three, CIRS in Vancouver is furthest ahead, and should be ready for occupancy this summer. The 60,000-square-foot, four-story structure is a dry-lab research facility for the University of British Columbia. It’s budget is $37 million Canadian. It was designed by Busby, Perkins + Will. I wrote a previous post about the project here.

Courtesy Perkins+Will Canada Architects Co.

Next, comes the Bullitt Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle. The Bullitt project, on Capitol Hill, will be six stories and a basement over 52,000 square feet. It is designed by The Miller Hull Partnership and Schuchart is the general contractor. Point32 is the development partner. Completion is planned for next summer. Bullitt is not releasing its budget but plans to release other detailed information on performance and development. At the design presentation for the project earlier this month, Jason McLennan of the Cascadia Green Building Council said “I think this is the most important building being built in the country today,” he said. “It’s going to open up a whole new set of eyes.”

Image courtesy The Miller Hull Partnership

Third, is the Portland project. It recently completed final design and should begin construction in early 2012, with an opening in late 2013. The team includes Gerding Edlen, SERA Architects, GBD Architects and Skanska Construction. The Portland Daily Journal of Commerce reported that the project’s budget is $59.3 million, not including $4 million needed to align streetcar tracks beneath it. The seven-story building will be 130,000-square-feet. It’s funded by the City of Portland, the Portland Development Commission and the Oregon University System.

Image courtesy Oregon Sustainability Center.

Though each is similar, a “green competition” has sprouted from the beginning between the Seattle and Portland projects. Time recently published a post on the “green war” here.

Though each building must accomplish the broad goals of the living building challenge (provide all energy, treat and provide all water) they are meeting the goals in different ways. In large part, jurisdictional codes and requirements have influenced design. The Vancouver building, for example, is essentially becoming its own waste treatment plant and will provide all its own water. The Bullitt project will use composting toilets, and is struggling with the ability to treat rainwater. I’m excited to see how each performs.

Which building are you most excited for? Which one do you think is the prettiest, or the one that you respond to best aesthetically? Answer our poll at right or comment below with your reasons!

P.S. For more on Seattle’s first building designed to living building standards that is complete, the Science Wing at the Bertschi School, click the living building tab or go here. It hasn’t received certification yet but is on track to do so!

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