Potential changes to green building standards rile chemical, vinyl trade groups


Lafayette Tower at 801 17th St. NW, was the first commercial office building in Washington to be certified as LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. (Courtesy Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates)
June 24, 2012

Twenty trade groups representing the plastics, vinyl and chemical industries are lobbying to stop the General Services Administration from adopting proposed new standards for green building construction, saying the changes could eliminate the use of hundreds of their products in construction projects.

The new standards — proposed by the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets the rating system for green construction known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) — include a “chemical avoidance” provision that industry groups said will discourage builders from using materials that contain certain chemicals.

Those products could include heat-reflecting roofing membranes, PVC piping and foam insulation — all of which promote energy efficiency, said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets at the American Chemistry Council, one of the trade groups opposing the proposed standards.

LEED is based on a 100-point formula, and the more credits a project earns in several categories including sustainability and water efficiency, the higher a rating it earns on the LEED scale — platinum (80 points), followed by gold (60-79 points), silver (50-59 points), and certified (40-49 points). LEED is voluntary, but it has been adopted by the GSA and other government agencies as the required building standard for new construction, and about a third of LEED projects are government-owned.

The Green Building Council, which updates LEED standards periodically, last revised them in 2009. The council was slated to vote on an update June 1, but pushed the vote back a year after 22,000 responses poured in from architects, engineers and other council members during public comment periods, said council Policy Director Lane Burt.

“We extended the development timeline because we’ve been getting lots of feedback,” Burt said. “[Our members] need more time to absorb the changes being proposed.”

The council will open up an unprecedented fifth round of public comment in October.

Christman, of the chemistry council, said the coalition of trade groups — which includes the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The Vinyl Siding Institute — is particularly concerned about one proposed change outlined in a pilot credit program. Pilot credits are temporary and only apply to some projects. They’re in a pilot testing stage, and can either become part of LEED and get voted on, or removed if the council finds them ineffective.

School, retail construction draw attention

Pilot Credit 54 applies to the construction of schools, retail, data centers and other projects. It is meant to increase the use of materials that disclose chemical ingredients and reduce the concentration of chemical contaminants by encouraging builders to use products that contain below a certain level of lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, carcinogens, polyvinyl chloride and other substances.

But it puts arbitrary restrictions on the use of common building materials such as crystal silica, which is used in concrete, and wood dust and titanium dioxide, which are used in white paints and roofing membranes, Christman said.

Since January, the American Chemistry Council and The Vinyl Institute have spent $80,000 and $40,000, respectively, to have outside firms lobby on green building issues and GSA guidelines for building materials, according to Senate records. The Resilient Floor Covering Institute retained Venable to lobby on green building standards, reportng fees of less than $5,000.

The council emphasized that LEED is voluntary, and does not ban any chemicals or products. The system rewards companies that produce more transparent, well-documented building materials, council senior vice president Roger Platt wrote in a June 19 letter to lawmakers in response to their criticism of the proposed changes.

In May, 55 members of Congress — 47 Republicans and eight Democrats from 25 states — signed a letter to GSA acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini, calling the proposed chemical restrictions arbitrary. Eighteen senators signed a similar letter in June.

“We are deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers and spread misinformation about materials that have been at the forefront of improving environmental performance,” the letter said.

The GSA is currently using the 2009 LEED standards and has yet to assess the potential changes being considered for the latest version of LEED because the council has not yet approved them. The GSA will take the new standards under consideration if and when the council adopts them, a GSA spokesman said. The GSA is slated to hold a regularly scheduled public hearing today on green building certification.

The council has always worked with, and will continue to work with the chemical and building material industries to help prepare the market for LEED, Burt said. The council’s 16,000 members — which include companies and organizations representing architects, designers, engineers, nonprofits and governments — help set LEED standards through a transparent process, he said.

“Members from all over the building industry play an active role in what goes into the rating system,” Burt said. “At the end of the day, it’s a voluntary rating system. To the extent people want to do it, that’s why we continue to stay in business. We encourage them to do more and better.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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