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Chemical Industry, USGBC Announce Ceasefire

After years of anti-LEED lobbying, the American Chemistry Council says it wants to work to make LEED better.

By Paula Melton
This story originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com.
August 28, 2014

It looked more like a headline from BuildingGreen’s April Fool’s issue than one from an official press release: “USGBC and ACC to Work Together to Advance LEED.” Nonetheless, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have confirmed the news is real—so what’s going on behind the scenes?

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Combining expertise

“Obviously, we had some concerns with LEED v4 and the building materials credits,” Anne Kolton, ACC’s vice president of communications, told Environmental Building News (EBN). (For background, see Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: BuildingGreen Checks the Facts.) While trying to work with USGBC on these concerns, she relates, “we started to discover over time that they have certain areas of expertise—sustainability and green building—and we have certain areas of expertise—life-cycle analysis, risk-based analysis, and the efficacy and durability of building materials. We wanted to work together to bring those two different sets of expertise to the table.”

Citing the mutual goal of maximizing energy efficiency, Kolton says ACC would like to see risk assessment—the method used by policymakers and others to determine how dangerous a hazard is when assuming a certain level of exposure—receive “greater consideration throughout USBGBC’s process” (see Building Products and Health: A Look at Risk vs. Hazard). The LEED v4 credit dealing with material ingredients (MRc4) originally only took the presence of the hazards themselves into account, the main point of contention with the industry.

Supply optimization working group

At the heart of the new peace is a “supply-chain optimization working group” that will include representatives from ACC and USGBC. Although details have yet to be ironed out, one major short-term goal will likely be further development of MRc4, according to Taryn Holowka, vice president of marketing and communications at USGBC. The vaguely defined “Option 3” of that credit deals with supply-chain optimization, but market infrastructure is not currently in place to meet the requirements listed in the LEED Reference Guide.

Kolton says the work won’t stop there. “Credits in LEED v4 are remaining in LEED v4. We’re looking at a future version of LEED but also just helping to inform our mutual thinking about these issues even beyond a specific version." USGBC currently has two active working groups—one that handles pilot credits and another charged with developing performance-based indoor air quality metrics—but Holowka says the new group is different. “This is a pretty groundbreaking agreement for us,” she told EBN. “ACC did have concerns about v4 in the past. Coming together with them and being able to work out this initiative” marks a major milestone for USGBC, she added.

Will the attacks stop?

Just one day before USGBC and ACC announced their truce, EBN had reported on pending federal legislation recommending restrictions on agencies’ use of LEED (see Attacks on LEED Continue in House Spending Bill). Asked by EBN whether ACC would cease its anti-LEED lobbying in federal and state governments, Kolton replied, “Competition in the marketplace is a good thing for everyone” and said ACC would continue to support performance-driven, consensus-based rating systems, but she added, “This new initiative allows ACC and our members to turn our attention and resources to constructively working with USGBC.”

“I see this as moving forward and away from that activity,” Holowka said.

“Anxious for results”

"This agreement represents a major step forward in responsible assessment of the health risks (if any) to occupants of various chemicals that make up building materials,” wrote Jerry Yudelson, P.E., president of the Green Building Initiative (GBI), in an email to EBN. He added that the move “validates the science-based position” on material health taken by GBI and its Green Globes rating system.

Sustainable design leaders EBN contacted were more reserved in their comments. “I am cautiously optimistic,” said Robert Phinney, AIA, director of sustainable design and energy services at HDR Architecture. “It is hard to see how this all might end up, considering the enormity of their differences, but this must be a positive step forward. We are all anxious for any results.”

“As a daughter of a scientist, I’m optimistic about the stated goals of using a collaborative science-based approach to addressing these issues to help transform the marketplace,” noted Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, a co-founder of the sustainable design initiative at HOK and a resident fellow for the American Institute of Architects on sustainability and design for health. “But time will certainly tell, and I’m sure that many in the sustainable design world will be watching closely to see how this impacts the results.”

Russell Perry, FAIA, co-director of sustainable design and office director at SmithGroup JJR added, “The ACC has been such a dark force in our world for so long that this does require some suspension of disbelief, but the upside may make it worth the risk.” He also expressed optimism that anti-LEED advocacy would cease: “Politicizing sustainable design with cynical attacks on LEED is something I know we all find repulsive and will be happy to see end.”

But, Perry, notes, “I hope the leadership and members of USGBC will not let this activity result in a weak option within MRc4, where the supply-chain optimization idea has been parked. We have made huge progress on material ingredient disclosure, and the currently defined options for Health Product Declarations and Cradle to Cradle certification have gotten real traction. If that progress were to slack off because of this initiative, our hopes for the future would be diminished.”

“Have we already forgotten?”

Not everyone was optimistic, even cautiously so. “It’s Groundhog Day,” declared Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network, an advocacy group that works to increase transparency and reduce hazards in building materials. “Once again, the ACC is ushered into the tent as if we are unaware of their strategy once inside. Have we already forgotten that they and their member companies launched a vicious attack on the USGBC when they didn’t get their way? What’s different today?” Walsh said he is concerned that the new agreement will ultimately “put chemical-industry interests ahead of sound, health-based policies.”

Next steps for the working group will include a few weeks of forging the new working group’s charter and identifying potential members, Holowka said, emphasizing that they will be looking for technical expertise.

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