Last month, in part two, we saw one of the ways the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) plans to exponentially increase the number of LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)- certified buildings by 2010 through its “Portfolio Program.” We also updated the progress of the LEED for Homes (LEED-H) program. In part one we began this “LEED Update” series with a discussion of climate change and how out of Greenbuild ’06, the USGBC and the green building movement were determined to change things in a big way by significantly reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption by the years 2010, 2020 and 2030. This time, we’ll continue with a look at the controversy between USGBC/LEED and the timber industry.

The Heart of the Matter

Under the flagship LEED-NC (New Construction & Major Renovation), one point is allowed under Materials & Resources Credit 7 (MRc7) for the use of FSC- (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood. Likewise, one point is allowed under MRc6 (Material & Resources Credit 6) for the use of “rapidly renewable materials” such as wheat-straw: an Agricultural (Ag) waste product. Though other LEED programs have similar requirements to earn these points, like LEED-NC, non-FSC certified wood is allowed but without point-gain under MRc6.

Traditional forestry practices are not recognized under LEED MRc6 as a rapidly renewable material, much to the consternation of the timber industry. Organizations such as the American Forest & Paper Association (AFPA) want the USGBC to include greater recognition of wood as a renewable resource in the various LEED programs, especially LEED-NC. To achieve this goal, the timber industry has spared no expense in their lobbying efforts at both the state and federal government levels to hamstring LEED and even sponsor a competing program to LEED: Green Globes. So successful has this lobbying effort been, that many state and/or federal buildings that would have otherwise achieved LEED certification have not. So too, the private sector is feeling the effects of the timber industry’s lobbying against LEED in blocking incentives for private developers to use LEED.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

If the timber industry has its way, traditional forestry programs they endorse such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) would be recognized under MRc6 as point-worthy. To try and resolve this conflict to the satisfaction of all, in mid-2006 the USGBC formed a task-force and asked Alex Wilson (USGBC board member at that time and publisher of the GreenSpec Directory and well-respected green building newsletter Environmental Building News) to lead the effort to address and resolve the problem once and for all.

LEED-NC version 2.2’s public comment draft (v2.2 was officially released in November 2005) included an initial resolution proposal but, perhaps more significant, a meeting of all “stakeholders” took place in September 2005. Out of this meeting Wilson issued a “white paper” with recommendations for resolving the problem. Essentially, the changes Wilson recommended would affect both the MRc6 and MRc7 as follows:

• MRc6: expand this single credit/point for rapidly renewable materials to include all “bio-based” materials–inclusive of wood, from legitimate sources.

• MRc7: expand the single credit/point for “certified wood” to include all non-wood bio-based materials such as Ag-fiber.

Wilson argued that such changes would qualify agricultural waste materials such as wheat-straw (a preferred bio-based material) as a rapidly renewable material. Also, FSC-certified wood would now count as both a “certified wood material” (MRc7) as well as a “rapidly renewable material” (MRc6), thus earning it two points rather than just the one point it currently can earn under MRc7 only. Wilson also recommended that there be an ongoing development of criteria for certification programs (like SFI) and that they be evaluated and applied to each credit accordingly.

Dissenting Voice

Although the USGBC unanimously adopted Wilson’s white paper recommendations, not all concerned stakeholders were happy campers. One of those unhappy campers was no less than American Institute of Architects (AIA) President Bill Edgerton. In an open letter, Edgerton expressed his opinion that Wilson’s recommendations would not be in the long-term interests of the USGBC itself and/or the LEED program it sponsors–nor would they be in the best interests of Wilson’s own publication EBN, long considered by many to be the Consumer Reports of the green building movement.

One of Edgerton’s greatest fears in adopting the changes is about LEED’s credibility; so difficult to earn yet so easily lost. Edgerton compares allowing traditional forestry practices–as represented by SFI, to be accepted under MRc6 as “rapidly renewable” akin to rewarding PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) siding because it is more durable than other siding materials while completely ignoring its toxicity (i.e. dioxins). By not staying true to the original intent of the LEED initiative as a cause and effect result of economic and political pressure from the timber industry, Edgerton fears a return to the pre-USGBC/LEED days of “Greenwashing” whereby exorbitant, undocumented claims of sustainability were widespread and went unquestioned. He suggests that the integrity of the MRc6 credit be improved by eliminating products termed “rapidly renewable materials” found to be unsustainable rather than rewarding the unsustainable, self-certified traditional forestry practiced by the timber industry.

Subsequent to the USGBC endorsement of his white paper at their May 2006 board meeting, Wilson laid out his arguments for adaptation of his recommendations. Aside from providing SFI certified wood with one point and FSC certified wood two points under a revised MRc6, Wilson contended that the change would recognize the inherent environmental advantages of wood as opposed to non-renewable building materials: bio-degradable, produced by photosynthesis (free solar energy), reusable, carbon sequestration, non-toxic, and low ee (embodied energy).

Another point Wilson was keen to make is the fact that LEED MRc6 favors agricultural (Ag) building materials over conventionally managed forestry. In fact, Wilson pointed to the fact that agriculture; with its use of: pesticides, fertilizer, erosion of topsoil, water and energy use and chemical runoff poses a greater burden to the environment than traditional forestry practices. Thus, allowing waste Ag materials such as wheat-straw to earn dual points (MRc6 & MRc7) will further the effort to mitigate the problem of waste Ag representing 56 percent of the solid waste-stream. Likewise, use of this waste Ag-fiber (which takes only three months to mature versus the 60 years for a tree to reach maturity) will significantly reduce the pressure on our precious timber resources. Annually, one mature tree is cut-down for every man, woman and child in the United States. We need to change this imbalance and Wilson believes use of Ag waste is the best, most efficient, cost-effective and environmentally responsible way to do it.

Success Story

With the help of LEED, the FSC has transformed the timber industry for the better. Other rapidly renewable, bio-based materials such as Bamboo (see Green Thumb article: Bamboo U; June ~ August 2007) presently lacking an established certification system similar to the FSC for wood (Bamboo is a primitive grass species, not a wood species) would no doubt provide an incentive for growers if they could achieve LEED recognition under a recognized certification system.

Lastly, Wilson highlights the fact that the phenomenon of global warming is so dire and dangerous that compromise with adversaries is necessary in order to achieve the higher goal of saving Mother Earth and all its inhabitants from potential disaster. With this in mind, the USGBC referred the issue to committees whereby USGBC members and stakeholders will be given the opportunity to air grievances, points-of-view etc. Whether the changes will be accepted in part or whole will be subject to a USGBC member ballot.

In December 2006, the USGBC hired a team to provide research and outreach support to the LEED Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Group. Chaired by EBN’s Nadav Malin, the advisory group was charged with: “Consideration of revisions to the bio-based materials and forest certification credits in LEED and to improve and align those credits.” The support team consists of the Yale University Program on Forestry and Environmental Studies in collaboration with Greg Norris of Sylvetica, Inc. No doubt, the outcome of all this will be included in a future “LEED Update.”

Next month, we’ll conclude this series with a look at how the USGBC is allowing credit-by-credit upgrading, a joint development effort to provide a new minimum standard for green buildings and the progress of the LEED-CS (Core & Shell) program and its derivative: pre-certification.