Op-Ed

Why the USGBC Should Change LEED's Position on Wood

At its May 2006 board meeting in New Orleans, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) board of directors endorsed a series of recommendations for modifying the two credits in the LEED® Rating System that relate to biobased materials. (Full disclosure: I was asked by USGBC to lead this effort, and I wrote the recommendations.) As described elsewhere in this issue (see USGBC Seeks to Make LEED More Wood Friendly), the proposal calls for a) changing Materials and Resources Credit 6 (MRc6) from a rapidly renewable credit into a broader, biobased credit; and b) broadening MRc7, which currently rewards the use of wood certified under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards, to establish criteria for accepting other biobased-material certification systems as well as waste agricultural materials. Whether and how LEED implements these changes will be determined through the Council’s consensus processes, involving member committees and public comment.

Here’s why these changes make sense from an environmental standpoint:

At its May 2006 board meeting in New Orleans, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) board of directors endorsed a series of recommendations for modifying the two credits in the LEED® Rating System that relate to biobased materials. (Full disclosure: I was asked by USGBC to lead this effort, and I wrote the recommendations.) As described elsewhere in this issue (see USGBC Seeks to Make LEED More Wood Friendly), the proposal calls for a) changing Materials and Resources Credit 6 (MRc6) from a rapidly renewable credit into a broader, biobased credit; and b) broadening MRc7, which currently rewards the use of wood certified under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards, to establish criteria for accepting other biobased-material certification systems as well as waste agricultural materials. Whether and how LEED implements these changes will be determined through the Council’s consensus processes, involving member committees and public comment.

Here’s why these changes make sense from an environmental standpoint:

1. The changes would double the number of LEED points that could be earned for wood use from one to two. Wood certified according to FSC standards would be able to earn two points, and wood with less-robust certification, such as that of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), would be able to earn one point. This approach recognizes the inherent environmental advantages of wood compared with nonrenewable building materials—wood is produced largely from the input of sunlight (through photosynthesis), sequesters carbon in its production, carries low embodied energy, and is nontoxic, reusable, and biodegradable.

2. The changes would correct the problem that LEED, in MRc6, currently rewards agriculturally derived building materials over conventionally managed timber. Most agriculture involves considerable fertilizer and pesticide use, topsoil erosion, chemical runoff, significant water use, and high energy inputs. From a life-cycle standpoint, even good agricultural practices carry greater environmental burdens than standard forestry.

3. The changes would expand the recognition for use of waste agricultural materials, such as straw, by allowing building products made from such materials to earn a point under MRc7 in addition to MRc6. This would increase the incentive to specify building materials made from waste agricultural material, thus reducing pressure on timber resources and helping address the problem of disposing of these waste materials (plowing all of this organic matter back into the soil does not make sense because the decomposition robs nitrogen from the soil).

4. The changes would encourage producers of bamboo flooring, and potentially other rapidly renewable materials, to develop robust certification systems so that these materials could earn a point under MRc7 as well as MRc6. Just as LEED has helped to further FSC’s role in transforming the timber industry (and would continue to do so under the proposal), so too LEED can spur the development of other transformative standards for biobased materials. A certification system for bamboo, for example, is needed to provide third-party verification that such products are derived from responsibly managed forests or plantations and manufactured in environmentally and socially responsible factories (see

EBN

Vol. 15, No. 3 for more on bamboo).

5. The changes should diffuse much of the timber industry’s active opposition to LEED. Through lobbying, the timber industry has succeeded in blocking state legislatures and federal agencies from requiring the greening of their building stock through LEED certification. It has also blocked efforts in various jurisdictions to create incentives for private-sector projects to pursue LEED.

Yes, there are some risks to the proposed changes. Most significantly, the change to MRc6 would give recognition to less robust certification systems, including SFI—perhaps diluting the attention given to FSC in LEED. Some might also suggest that this change would make LEED less of a leadership standard, because it would recognize an industry-standard product. In responding to such concerns, I try to take the 30,000-foot view. From that vantage point, I have concluded that green building will be able to advance much further and much more rapidly if the Council implements these proposed changes.

When I consider all that we have to accomplish in greening our building stock and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to avert the worst-case scenarios of global warming over the coming century, it is clear to me that we simply can’t afford to wait. We need to build bridges—including bridges to the timber industry—so that, together, we can overcome the many challenges that lie ahead.

 

Published June 7, 2006 Permalink

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