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Sunday, 26 May 2013 22:00

GREEN HEADACHE: Industry pushes back on process to revise LEED program

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Steelcase’s Dave Rinard sits on the board of the West Michigan chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which he says is working hard to survive, a process not made any easier by a lack of communication from the national organization – or by the constant state of change of the LEED rating system. Steelcase’s Dave Rinard sits on the board of the West Michigan chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, which he says is working hard to survive, a process not made any easier by a lack of communication from the national organization – or by the constant state of change of the LEED rating system. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: JOE BOOMGAARD

As the U.S. Green Building Council prepares to vote on version four of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program this summer, many professionals are crying foul.

The reason: Many say the revisions fail to address key issues with LEED’s credit-based ratings system, and at a rate of four revisions in as many years, the organization risks creating industry-wide confusion and diminished relevance.  

The program’s earlier versions helped drive the framework for green building design, construction and building operations, but it is facing tough criticism from architects, engineers and facilities managers for its latest vision for the program.

“The realization that some credits don’t work well is hitting people, and (the USGBC) is trying to address that,” said David Rinard, director of global environmental performance at Steelcase Inc. “The scary part … (is that) version four is such a radical departure from what (practitioners) are used to that I fear mass confusion is going to result.”

Considering the number of professionals still having trouble working through version three LEED projects, Rinard is concerned the program could collapse under its own weight. Many professionals he deals with can’t keep up with all the changes, he said.

For example, one of largest interior design firms in the country that markets its “greenness” still regularly cites LEED indoor air quality standards that changed in 2006, Rinard said.

The frustration with the LEED revision process has been exacerbated by the lack of open communication between the national USGBC organization and its local chapters, said Rinard, who serves on the board of the West Michigan chapter.

In several instances, the chapter has found the national office to be unresponsive, he said.

“They have in many ways sacrificed the chapters,” he said. “Getting a person to talk to there is really difficult.”

The West Michigan chapter is working hard to maintain its financial viability, Rinard said. MiBiz previously reported that the chapter has about 200 members, down from a high of 300 members. The local chapters are funded by membership fees and revenue from educational programming. With the national organization cutting financial support for education programming, Rinard said the local chapters aren’t being treated fairly.

“All chapters were asked to create membership strategic plans, but the message was, ‘We’re aren’t interested in chapter members,’” Rinard said. “They only wanted to see ideas to increase national membership. You would think when you try to grow something grassroots that it translates up, but they weren’t interested in that.”

The USGBC could not make available any sources for this report as of press time.

In the current LEED revision process, the national organization seemed open during the first rounds of public comment during the drafting process, but it became increasingly standoffish as the discussion shifted to particular credits, Rinard said. When the USGBC was done discussing a credit, that was that, he said.

“We hear lots of promises, but it’s being crammed through,” Rinard said. “Based on my working with people every day who are working on these certifications, I see the confusion. I don’t think they are ready for it yet.”

In the early years of the USGBC, the organization’s goal was for LEED to become standard practice and code, and that eventually there wouldn’t be a need for a LEED standard, Rinard said.

“If that was truly the case, then there wouldn’t be a need for the USGBC,” he said. “It’s a very good characterization to say that (LEED) is becoming mainstream, and I understand their struggle to maintain relevance, but my concern is they are moving too fast.”

Rinard suggested the USGBC slow down, address those who are struggling to deal with version three and come up with a better transition plan. Doing so could help manage some credits that aren’t particularly useful or practical or that fail to provide payback in a reasonable amount of time.

One credit that’s been a struggle for some projects to achieve is related to daylighting, or providing natural light in a building.

“We tell our firms don’t do it,” said James Moyer, vice president of facilities at Grand Valley State University, an institution that committed to a LEED silver standard for all future building projects. “Get as much natural lighting as we can afford, but don’t even go down that path to pursue the credits. It’s just a waste of energy during the design process. That’s been our monster. We had one designer who attempted it and we spent the money, but didn’t get the points.”

Other credits that focus on recycling construction materials and materials sourcing can also have unsustainable drawbacks that make them less pragmatic, Steelcase’s Rinard said.

In some cases, recycling packaging materials from construction supplies is a relatively easy credit to obtain, Rinard said. But the program doesn’t acknowledge the efforts of suppliers to reduce packaging. In one instance, a client actually asked for more packaging so he could have more to recycle and be able to meet the credit, he said.

Building owners that want to avoid the uncertainty of dealing with future versions of LEED might consider registering future projects under the existing LEED ratings system, Moyer said.

“We have projects for years out registered under version two,” Moyer said. “There is this reaction that takes place, and we will rush to register a project under a previous version. That doesn’t bode well because that’s saying, ‘I am willing to stay in the past rather than face the future.’”

The LEED system’s current structure focusing on the outcome of a LEED-certified building almost encourages this practice, he said.

Construction managers and architects also refuse to wait for the USGBC to act. While LEED got the ball rolling, the industry continues to do its homework on the latest sustainable building trends, sources told MiBiz. In many cases, current building codes are keeping pace with the advancements in materials and building practices, they said.

The program is trying hard to remain relevant as firms try to justify the cost to recertify their employees and as building owners look beyond plaques on a wall for better triple bottom line practices.

For example, it wasn’t until the third version of LEED that building owners were required to track and report a building’s energy use to gauge how well it performed.

Other industry insiders contend the value of LEED is in its brand recognition, rather than in the performance of a certified building.

Organizations such as the Living Building Challenge and the Society for Environmentally Responsible Facilities (SERF) are stepping up to offer alternatives to LEED.

“The education aspect (of LEED) is still leaving a lot to be desired,” Rinard said. “I see LEED accredited professionals who frankly still don’t have a clue.”

Many facilities managers also think the LEED levels – platinum, gold, silver and “certified” – fail to provide meaningful comparisons, said Ed Nagelkirk, facility manager for Herman Miller Inc.

“To chase after a platinum award just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I think you need to look at the potential of the project and assess the potential against your projects.”

The scope of work between projects that received minimum certification and platinum certification may be comparing apples to oranges, he said. When Herman Miller received the highest environmental award available in Europe for one of its buildings in England, the project only received LEED gold.

“I’ve had arguments with the USGBC national about when we’re going to get an award for not doing something,” Nagelkirk said. “This whole thing about justifying the levels of awards is … this thing I just can’t get my head around. You just have to do the right thing for the right reasons.”

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