Don’t let green standards wither

June 30, 2013

Construction firms have a responsibility to customers and shareholders, but long-term success requires a longer view. At Skanska, the intersection of that responsibility and profitability is in green buildings, and that’s why we are members of the U.S. Green Building Council and proponents of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the most recognized and widely used green building system in the world. To me, it is inconceivable that a few single-minded businesses are creating a false debate in Washington about LEED and attempting to slow down the green building boom.

A limited number of chemical companies — principally in the booming plastics business — have been hiding behind the American High Performance Buildings Coalition and trying, unsuccessfully, to gut progressive green chemistry provisions of a proposed update to the green standards called LEED v4. The latest version is currently being considered by the building council’s nearly 13,000 members through its transparent public comment and balloting process.

Opponents are now trying to hold a popular energy bill hostage by proposing language that would effectively ban the use of LEED by the federal government unless the update is changed to remove the offending chemistry provisions. Let’s be clear: What the chemical industry and its cronies want is not a new standard that will improve energy efficiency and green building programs. What they want is a standard they can manipulate and weaken. They are putting their bottom lines first and social responsibility second.

The growth in the green sector of the building industry is undeniable, from 2 percent of the market in 2005 to 44 percent today. The green building industry supports or creates 7.9 million jobs across all 50 states and contributes $554 billion to the U.S. economy annually. LEED has also been proven to save the federal government money, something both sides should be able to rally behind. Why muddy this success with additional government bureaucracy simply because some would rather protect their profitable status quo?

The building industry’s years of success are a testament to the value of voluntary, market-based programs like LEED. Everyone benefits when an entire industry improves, from the healthier paints and adhesives on the shelf at Home Depot today that didn’t exist before LEED, to the continuously improving energy efficiency rating on air conditioners in our homes.

The truth is that as long as there are companies unwilling to adapt, there will never be a true consensus standard. Some materials will always be more environmentally responsible than others, and that will affect some companies’ profits. But another separate standard for government work would put a severe halt on the progress of green building in this country, and add cost in the process.

Skanska builds green buildings because it makes good business sense. We recently completed the fourth certified “Living Building” in the world, Seattle’s Bertschi School Science Classroom, which uses zero net energy, zero net water and is created entirely of healthy building materials. LEED has set the groundwork to make such projects possible.

We cannot afford to have environmentally responsible innovation and LEED compromised by politics. Our clients will not accept unknown and untested chemicals in their buildings or their potential health impact. They demand better, and, together as an industry, we can deliver.

Mike McNally is the president and chief executive of the construction and development firm Skanska USA.

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