Until recently, the Forest Stewardship Council has had a lock on what has been generally recognized, in the United States at least, as the only legitimate sustainably harvested wood products label organization. All that is coming to a rather abrupt end with the United States Green Building Council’s proposed changes to its Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design green building rating system and the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes rating system just now entering the fray.

The LEED rating system has a single point available for using FSC certified wood products for a minimum of 50 percent, by cost, of all wood used in a building. The 50 percent requirement pertains to all wood-based materials in the building such as framing, engineered lumber, blocking, wood casework, and architectural flush wood doors. Wood formwork used for cast-in-place concrete may be included at the option of the design team. The difficulty in getting this point in LEED increases as the amount of wood used in the design increases. I have specified FSC certified wood and wood products for wood framed buildings with glued-laminated timbers, structural wood framing, and wood sheathing products, and for steel and concrete buildings that had a few architectural flush wood doors and some wood paneling. The effort required in sourcing FSC wood for a wood-framed building and the additional cost in doing so far exceeds that for a building with only a few wood-based products.

I have never understood the logic behind the 50 percent minimum requirement in LEED for the certified wood credit. Not only is 50 percent a completely arbitrary threshold, establishing such a high percentage creates a huge disincentive for many project teams to even consider pursuing the credit. The more wood a building has, the bigger the impediment to achieving the required percentage. For a rating system that advertises itself as something designed to change the marketplace, the credit for certified wood has actually resulted in the opposite.


The first LEED project I worked on was an environmental learning center tucked away in the woods that was designed as a tightly formed campus of one and two-story wood framed offices, classrooms, dormitories, and staff housing pursuing a Gold rating. The buildings are chock full of wood framing, glued laminated timbers, and structural wood panels. Sourcing the materials needed to hit 50 percent was a real challenge. The additional cost for FSC certified wood products ranged from 10 to 50 percent depending on the type of product; framing being the least expensive, glued-laminated timbers the most. When all tallied at the end of the project, we made the threshold requirement by a scant 1 percent; 51 percent of all the wood used on the project was FSC certified.

A few years later, I worked on a five-story wood-framed apartment building in which the LEED certified wood credit was attempted. The contractor was able to source FSC certified framing lumber that got us to four-fifths of the way to the 50 percent minimum but no money was available to get that final 10 percent, and the point was lost. This was incredibly frustrating for the project team, having made our best effort, and falling just short. Because of this experience, the client elected not to pursue any certified wood on the next project.

I am working on a large steel and concrete framed speculative office building now that is also pursuing the LEED Core and Shell Certified Wood credit. The wood products on the project include a handful of architectural flush wood doors, some wood paneling, and some miscellaneous blocking, cants and nailers. This project will earn the LEED certified wood credit with the doors alone. It will get the same point as the wood framed environmental learning center, with far less effort. The wood-framed apartment building used many times more certified wood than the speculative office building, and got nothing.

The high threshold requirement for the LEED certified wood credit is only part of the problem. The other problem is the sole source FSC certification requirement. There are currently 21 million acres of FSC-certified forestland in North America. A competing forest certification system, Sustainable Forestry Initiative has more than 144 million acres of certified forest, but to date none of the wood from SFI certified forests can count toward the LEED certified wood credit. That is about to change with the recently proposed LEED certified wood credit change. For the past two years, the USGBC Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group has been working on benchmark criteria that, if passed by the membership, will allow any certifying body that meets the criteria to be accepted as an equivalent to FSC certification. This will greatly increase the available amount of certified wood products that can be used in achievement of the credit.


The Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes green building rating system also has points available for certified wood. Unlike LEED, Green Globes does not have a minimum threshold, and does not have only a single available point. There are 12 points available in proposed ANSI certified Green Globes rating system for using certified wood products, on a sliding scale beginning at 1 percent, based on cost or weight. Acceptable certification bodies include FSC, SFI, Canadian Standards Association Sustainable Forest Management Standard, the American Tree Farm System, and other programs recognized by Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes. The certified wood credit under Green Globes gives project teams maximum incentive to go for as many available points possible, using multiple certification systems.

Having more points to pursue at a lower beginning threshold is a move in the right direction, but still does not solve the inequality raised in the wood-framed/steel-concrete building examples cited above. A potential solution to that problem has been kicked around both at the USGBC and the GBI, to separate the credit into two tracks; one for structural wood products like framing, glue-lams, sheathing, etc., and one for non-structural elements like flooring, cabinets, doors, and standing and running trim. Rewarding teams with more points for using certified structural wood is more representative of the effort required in doing so. This solution is unfortunately not within the realm of possibility with LEED since there is only a single point available for this credit. Green Globes, on the other hand, could easily adopt such a two-track credit and make a good thing even better. Green Globes will soon be released for a second final public comment period, so there is still opportunity to persuade the rating system developers to adopt such a credit format.


Instead of recognizing the value of and supporting this incredible incentive, there are groups that strenuously object to any certification body other than the FSC. Organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Wildlife Federation have gone on record in strong opposition to the USGBC recognizing anything other than the FSC as a certifying body for certified wood products in LEED. In an open letter sent to the USGBC and several others involved in the process of revising the LEED certified wood credit, the signatories state that forest certification benchmarks “must be sufficient to weed out inadequate and misleading certification systems that have been certifying some of the worst logging and forest management practices in the United States and Canada, and that certainly do not comprise ‘leadership’ standards.”

While it is true that the FSC has done an excellent job of setting a high standard for what constitutes good certified forestry practices, it is untrue to say that there are no equivalents. SFI, CSA, and PEFC have made substantial improvements to their certification standards, the way the programs are managed, and how they are governed. As far back as 2002, the non-profit Pinchot Institute for Conservation undertook an on-the-ground dual assessment study involving almost 700,000 acres managed by four public forest agencies in the states of Maine, Tennessee, North Carolina and Vermont comparing FSC and SFI certification. The assessment report concludes that overall, the FSC system was considered more relevant to the agencies’ forest management objectives than was the SFI program, but that the SFI program is more rigorous in requiring continuous improvement over time, and in focusing on the research and staff training aspects of forest management. The report identified strengths and weaknesses of both certification systems, and noted that each continues to evolve and improve. One of the most significant conclusions made in the report was that, “Both the FSC and SFI programs consistently rated high in the fundamental measures of relevance to agency mission and goals, and facilitating improvements in existing forest management practices.”


Debate about forestry certification will certainly continue, as will improvements to certification systems and processes. While it is important to safeguard the legitimacy and rigor of these systems, it is also important that green building rating system requirements for the use of certified wood products are not a disincentive to pursue the available points. Both the USGBC and the GBI are addressing the issue head-on and making speedy progress. W&C