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Federal agency OKs choice for green building certification

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The Joseph Arnold Lofts in Seattle earned three Green Globes for its features, including a vegetated green roof to reduce water runoff, recycled building materials and efficient utilities. The federal nod to Green Globes is expected to lead to similar non-government-projects.

WASHINGTON—The General Service Administration, aka the nation's landlord, is recommending for the first time that federal agencies be given a choice of green building certification systems for new construction and major renovation projects.

In a decision drawing cheers and jeers, GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini endorsed the Green Building Initiatives' Green Globes 2010 system, in addition to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design 2009.

The federal backing of a new system to verify building performance is seen as a huge victory for Portland, Ore.-based GBI. The non-profit group offers the Web-based Green Globes certification program that proponents say is a faster, cheaper and more industry-friendly alternative to LEED.

"It's certainly good news," GBI General Manager Bruce Carocci said of the GSA sanction. "It has the potential for significant impact. Business opportunities within the federal government can be opened up by this."

The GSA said it owns or leases 9,600 buildings across the country and plays a major role in the effort to reduce their energy and water use and operational costs. To this end, LEED has been used in about 1,035 federal projects totaling more than 109 million gross square feet in the last seven years.

The LEED program dates to 2000 in the U.S. Across the country there are more than 16,060 certified commercial LEED projects and 40,430 certified LEED housing units. A LEED report shows 88 of the top 100 companies on the Fortune 500 list are using LEED for a total of 6.4 billion square feet.

Green Globes has been used in 850 projects since roughly 2006 but it finally has a real foot in the federal door. GBI officials said they expect a ripple effect, too, into the private sector of a market projected conservatively to hit $204 billion by 2016.

"A big step has been taken in what has been the equivalent of a virtual monopoly," Carocci said.

Critics contend the big step came on the heels of a big political push funded by the plastics, chemicals and timber industries, particularly through the 18-month-old American High-Performance Building Coalition, which lobbied against LEED.

"Green Globes certainly goes easy on those industries," said Jason Grant, who sits on the Sierra Club's Forest Certification and Green Building Team. "I'd argue that its basic purpose is to create a foil."

Green Globes is creating competition, countered Carocci, and that, he said, tends to produce better programs and give taxpayers the best bang for their buck.

"The debate should be about which program has the most integrity to help produce sustainable buildings," he said.

Time for options

The winner of the debate appears to be both systems, according to the GSA, which touts its commitment to the design, construction and operation of well-performing sustainable buildings.

The agency has found its LEED-certified gold buildings reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 34 percent, consume 25 percent less energy, cost 19 percent less to operate, use 11 percent less water and experience 27 percent higher occupant satisfaction.

However, in a March 2012 study, GSA reported that Green Globes aligns at some level with slightly more of the federal requirements for new construction, while LEED was aligned more with requirements for existing buildings.

GSA is required to evaluate green building programs every five years. A robust review of dozens of systems and more than a year of public comments and written feedback went into its recommendation Oct. 25.

Until then, GSA formally had encouraged the use of only LEED to design or retrofit buildings, in part because there were few choices, according to GSA spokesman Dan Cruz.

"The market has changed since then and there are additional tools for green building certification systems," Cruz said in an email.

Becoming more of an option

Green Globes has been used by the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Department of State, Cruz added. Now more departments will see it as an option.

"Federal agencies have very diverse building portfolios, which range from office buildings to laboratories to hospitals to airplane hangars," Cruz said. "Agencies can choose one of the two certification systems that will best fit their portfolios."

GSA is telling agencies pursuing a green stamp to achieve at least two out of the four Green Globes, which calls for achieving 55 percent of the 1,000 points possible. Or, they should aim for LEED silver, 50-59 points of a 100-point scale. LEED ratings start with basic (40-49 points) and increase to gold (60-79 points) and platinum (80 points and above).

The plastics industry is giving the dual option a double thumbs-up, not only because it will put Green Globes on the map of more builders but because the GSA endorsed LEED 2009 and not the latest version, LEED v4, which some consider biased against vinyl and thousands of chemicals.

LEED v4 was not even part of the GSA's review, but its rollout at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, held Nov. 20-22 in Philadelphia, caused the industry some angst.

The updates include points for using building products that have environmental product declarations and for disclosing ingredients and the sources of raw materials in a product.

To Terry Peters, director of technical and industry affairs for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in Washington, LEED v4 encourages applicants not to use certain materials, such as fluoropolymers and PVC that go into wiring and cable.

"We're happy with the two (GSA) choices because neither of them—in their approved forms—recommend nor suggest the selection of any materials," Peters said "Some of our materials are really the best around, and we didn't want to see them disadvantaged when selections are made."

SPI is a member of the American High-Performance Building Coalition, which fought LEED and said it is pushing for sustainable building standards based on consensus and scientific data. SPI also belongs to the coalition's target and LEED's parent organization, the USGBC.

"SPI supports the aspirations of LEED. We're behind 99 percent of it. Seriously," Peters said. "But what we're hoping to do is show them that the use of our materials appropriately have no greater impact on building construction than other materials."

Happy to compete

USGBC Policy Director Lane Burt said LEED does not discourage any products or list of banned materials.

"We encourage the use of the best stuff on the market on a variety of metrics, not only the environmental impact but efficiency, production, extraction" and the health of a building's occupants, Burt said.

"We don't have language in LEED 2009 or v4 that says, "Don't use this stuff.' "That's a significant misunderstanding. There was a draft in public comment way over a year ago that gave a point if you avoided things on a list. We got a lot of feedback and shifted from a red-list approach to a green-list approach, which is back to where LEED has always been."

LEED is certifying 1.5 million square feet a day with teams of trained specialists and a network of 77 chapters and 185,000 accredited professionals and green associates. The system is considered more of a hands-on process, while Green Globes is viewed as more do-it-yourself.

Burt is ready to go to head-to-head.

"We're happy to compete," he said. "No other rating system has the infrastructure we've got and folks want to get the certification as a badge of achievement and for a competitive advantage. It produces better buildings. Owners want them. Tenants want to be in them. It has a real impact in the market. I think that makes the choice very clear."

The Sierra Club's Grant agreed. Burt said he thinks LEED v4 will be popular, too, despite the controversy around credits for life-cycle analysis of materials, product transparency and picking products that haven't been extracted in a way that's environmentally destructive.

"In general, what it rewards is higher levels of transparency than existed in the past about what chemicals are found in significant quantities in building products," he said.

"Apparently the chemical and plastics industry is willing to invest a lot to prevent the truth from coming out," according to Grant.

"The concerns around proprietary technology are understandable, but so too are concerns about chemicals that may be carcinogenic or mutagenic or endocrine disruptors."

Looking ahead

Kevin Stover, a commercial programs consultant with GBI, said Green Globes offers a practical, objective assessment of materials.

Applicants can use a life-cycle assessment that considers embodied energy, global-warming potential and effects on land, air and water. Or, there's a multiple-attribute approach that evaluates either EPDs or life-cycle assessments based on the International Organization for Standardization.

"We've taken all the bias out," Stover said. "It's all based on standard testing and evaluation procedures."

Green Globes is carving out a niche with "very flexible" protocols, he added. Applicants get online guidance in the beginning, an on-site assessment at the end, a lot of support and interaction in between.

"It's not a black box," Stover said. "You don't send your stuff in and wait or have to go through a rigid communication process. Our clients pick up the phone or shoot an email to the assessor and vice-versa. It's common-sense communication."

Professional judgment is applied to new projects and existing buildings with the idea that performance reigns, Stover said.

He also boasts that Green Globes is the first commercial building rating system based on guidelines of the American National Standards Institute.

"Our criteria are weighted according to their environmental impact or environmental benefit," Stover said.

"A lot of that was drawn up by our ANSI technical committee. They reviewed the weightings and adjusted them accordingly. Then we brought them over to the new tool to make sure things balance out. That makes for a more accurate assessment."

Coupled with the GSA endorsement, Carocci anticipates Green Globes will do better with private-sector builders, even the ones who say they don't follow what the U.S. government does.

"I've talked to a number of people who have said, "Yes it does make a difference. We appreciate the fact this (review) happens once every five years, and the government goes through quite a process,' " Carocci said. "So they do respect the results of that."

A lot is at stake. The green building market is estimated at $96 billion to $140 billion this year and projected to grow to $204 billion to $248 billion by 2016, according to the Dodge 2013 Green Outlook by McGraw Hill Construction, cited a June LEED report.