DJC Green Building Blog

Chemical trade group lobbies to block LEED

Posted on February 19, 2013

The following post is by Robin Guenther:

The war over toxic chemicals and human health is spilling over into places we live and work: our buildings. The American Chemical Council (ACC) has launched an expensive and focused attack on the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to protect the status quo of a small set of bad-actor manufacturers of toxic and obsolete chemicals. But innovative companies across the building industries and human health advocates are fighting back.

Guenther

The American Chemical Council is lobbying to end the federal government’s use of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification system unless USGBC removes all references to human health. If successful, they will keep taxpayers from receiving the cost savings and productivity benefits that LEED certification has generated. Why does a chemical industry trade association think better buildings are such a threat, you ask?

The USGBC has transformed the global building industry with its emphasis on high performance, low energy and healthier building practices through its LEED certification program. In only a decade, LEED plaques have become synonymous with the best buildings in the world.

SXC.hu file photo

A high-performance building?

USGBC’s mission is to make buildings not only more energy-efficient, but healthier spaces for those who inhabit them. The new draft version of LEED seeks to assuage human health concerns of buildings by offering voluntary credits for buildings using healthy materials. Many in the health community see this as a long overdue step for the rating system.

The ACC, however, sees this as a dangerous threat to their member companies because a few of them make a pretty penny producing controversial chemicals.

So if you can’t beat ‘em, lobby against ‘em, right? ACC is doing what it does best -- spreading misinformation and shoving truckloads of cash into lobbying efforts to keep the market from abandoning toxic materials and embracing green chemistry.

They’ve even gone so far as to form the laughable “American High-Performance Buildings Coalition,” a group whose membership reads like a who’s who of industries that make unhealthy products, all uniting to lobby against LEED. From big chemicals to vinyl to adhesives to petrochemicals -- they’re all here.

These toxic trade associations are trying to convince us that they are the ones who truly support “green” building. Perhaps next they’ll suggest that their products only increase your odds of developing “green” cancer.

While they claim LEED is not consensus-based, this is demonstrably false. Any revision to the LEED standard must be approved through a democratic balloting process open to all 14,000 members of USGBC. These members are architects, engineers, builders, contractors and product manufacturers.

In fact, the ACC and many of its member companies are participating in the LEED development process. But when the professionals who purchase building materials began to suggest that a LEED credit be available for purchasing healthier building materials, suddenly the process is flawed, and not consensus-based.

In the real world, when your customers ask for something, you don’t lobby against their right to buy what they want, do you? Let’s hope these companies wake up and start to reign in their out-of-control trade association before people really start to notice who’s behind the curtain.

Green buildings are about more than energy and water conservation; they must also include consideration of human health. Hospitals have started to lead the way. The Health Product Declaration, an independent, open-source methodology for declaring content of building products, is ushering in a new age of transparency in corporate reporting. The Healthier Hospitals Initiative recently released targets for safer products that include credit for avoiding chemicals of concern in interior furniture. Major manufacturers of health-care building products have begun substituting PVC and phthalate plasticizers with safer alternatives. These firms are innovating and capturing market share.

While the ACC protests these LEED credits, we would venture to say their innovative members are investing in R&D to move to safer alternatives precisely because of these initiatives. The construction industry needs the USGBC and LEED; citizens do, too. Someone has to make the push to get these chemicals out of our faces.

Robin Guenther, FAIA, is a principal focused on health care architecture at Perkins+Will, a global design firm. This piece was distributed by American Forum.

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  1. The problem with the adoption of a restricted list of chemicals (“red list” ) is that the the LEED credit makes no distinction regarding the location of the chemicals and their usefulness in the building process. I can probably specify an interior environment that avoids all “chemicals of concern”. And by “interior environment”, I mean only those items that you walk on, see and touch.. I cannot build a building exterior that complies — and the trend to high performing envelopes means that this will be even harder to accomplish. I don’t know of a roofing system (except thatch) that complies. All the high performance coatings on glass — the ones that help with energy savings — don’t comply. PVC is used most commonly in electrical wiring and even the Federal Government has an exception for it in that location. The below grade waterproofing products that work: typically chemicals that don’t meet the list. Those solar panels? also restricted materials both for the panels and the connectors.
    I’m afraid that USGBC and LEED have bitten off more than they can comfortably digest with this idea. For builidng exteriors, this simply is not the direction that material science is moving — its moving towards more nano-materials (nano materials are on the restricted list) and more complicated compounds. LEED would be better off piloting this program for Interiors only for a revision or so. Its the “all or nothing” attitude that is causing the problems.
    Oh, and that HPD form? it currently allows for 5% of the constituent products to be held back as “proprietary”, which essentially means that its contents are irrelevant. The asbestos issues that the construction industry had 20 years ago concerned naturally occuring asbestos that appeared in concentrations of approximately 1/2 of 1% of the total volume of the material. Any Health declaration form that allows for 5% hold back, is essentially telling us nothing.

  2. As a licensed architect, I assume that the substance of this column by Ms. Guenther is not the kind of advice she gives her clients. Licensed architects are not allowed to act as advocates for their own views except in highly constrained and defined circumstances. Maybe she is confusing her desire to proselytize with practicing architecture. Certainly the risk manager at Perkins and Will must be tearing his hair out and Ms. Withacre’s comments are especially apt in this context. The religious tone of much of the activism in the green building area is disturbing for its naivete and aggressive self-righteousness. Those who are aware of the history and reality of the USGBC take little comfort in the alleged value of the organization or its marketing of the LEED product line. Most of the readers will already suspect this but it bears repeating that real research regarding health impacts done by architectural firms (or the USGBC for that matter) is non-existent or painfully sloppy at best (certainly not capable of passing first or second tier journal pier review in serious journals of health or epidemiology). The adoption of cherry-picked red-lists is embarrassing in its lack of scientific and risk management rigor. It is odd that a great profession such as architecture now revels in a rejection of objectivity and basic science knowledge, especially chemistry; but maybe I have too high an opinion of architecture. Ms. Guenther is an object lesson in what can happen when a profession confuses itself with a religion though she is by no means alone. She is not wrong to adopt a tone that is often used to good purpose in selling vitamins and protein powders and prohibitions on vaccines “causing” autism. It is always possible to make money on patent medicine preying on the ignorant while couching the activity in a gauzy air of good intentions and righteous indignation. Those of us who have to live in a world where trade-offs and a balancing of competing values is the norm often dream of having the kind of painfully overweening certitude characteristic of religious zealots and the cronies who make money from such rhetoric. In such a world, all those that oppose or question must be infidels and liars. It may be true that the ACC are infidels and liars but somehow I think Ms. Guenther “doth protest too much”.


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