Source: Steve Law, Pamplin Media Group

A political slugfest is clouding the future of the $50 billion green building industry, and Portland is in the thick of the fight.

Few cities have embraced green buildings more — so much so that Portland developers, architects and other green building specialists are touted as an export industry because they provide so many overseas services.

But timber giants and manufacturers of chemical-filled building products have fueled a growing backlash against the U.S. Green Building Council, whose popular Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, or LEED, has revolutionized commercial building construction around the world. Four states have banned the use of LEED in new government projects, and the anti-LEED campaign is making headway in Congress and the federal agency that procures office buildings.

The biggest beneficiary could be a low-profile Portland nonprofit, the Green Building Initiative, which bills itself as the industry-friendly alternative to LEED.

“LEED was a monopoly,” says Sharene Rekow, the Green Building Initiative’s vice president for business development. “We felt like the marketplace needed a choice.”

Only a handful of local buildings have used Green Building Initiative’s rival Green Globes rating system, Rekow concedes, because “this has been a very LEED-centric city.” But the number of Green Globes-certified building projects around the country doubled in the past two years, she says, and now totals 850.

LEED, by contrast, has been used in more than 55,000 projects around the world.

But Green Globes could take a leap forward after a recent review by the U.S. General Services Administration elevated it to near-equal status with LEED, which had been the exclusive green-rating system used for federal building projects.

“That’s going to give Green Globes what they want: market traction,” says Jason Grant, a Bay Area environmental consultant who monitors green building for the Sierra Club.

Grant and others fear Green Globes will blunt the green building movement’s environmental achievements. That’s because the Green Building Initiative was initially created with timber industry money, and its key backers include many timber and building supply manufacturers that often fight tenaciously against environmental initiatives.

While Green Globes can result in a net gain for the environment, Grant says, “At the core of the standard, it doesn’t challenge these industries to improve.”

In the past couple years, the chemical, vinyl and related industries have joined the timber industry’s long fight against LEED. That coincided with the latest update of LEED standards, to be rolled out next month, which encourage the use of nontoxic building materials and disclosure of ingredients in those materials.

The Vinyl Institute warns on the trade group’s website that the new LEED v.4 will discriminate against the use of vinyl, and “stigmatize and strongly discourage use of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 chemicals that have a history of safe, proven use.”

The American Chemistry Council declined an interview, but issued a statement saying that LEED v.4 “strayed from its original mission of promoting energy efficiency and environmental performance” by adding new provisions to discourage the use of some products “without input from experts in toxicology or chemical safety, and without regard to the availability, safety or effectiveness of alternatives.”

In the past, Green Globes hasn’t been a “real competitor” to LEED, says Scot Horst, a senior vice president for the U.S. Green Building Council, who oversees the LEED program.

“The reason we’re talking about them now,” Horst says, “is their connection to the wood and chemical industries.”

Going for points

On the surface, Green Globes sounds like LEED. Projects get points for environmentally friendly features like energy- and water-conservation measures. The more features, the more points. Projects are certified with one, two, three or four Green Globes, mirroring LEED’s basic, silver, gold and platinum designations.

Green Globes is more of a do-it-yourself process — Rekow likens it to doing your own taxes with TurboTax software. It can be done by one building expert filling in a detailed questionnaire online, followed up with an on-site inspection.

LEED typically involves a team of trained specialists, with designers and others working hand in hand throughout the construction process.

Green Globes is simpler, faster and cheaper, Rekow says. “You don’t have to have a lot of outside consultants. We do all of this easily with one-third of the cost of doing a LEED project.”

Green Globes isn’t trying to replace LEED, she says, but it fills a niche for building owners who might otherwise not add green features to their buildings because of the cost and hassle.

Greenwashing charged

Grant accuses the Green Building Initiative of “greenwashing,” or helping companies get a green credential without having to do as much.

“It really is a consortium of the chemical, plastics and big timber industries,” Grant says.

Grant and other environmentalists say the Portland nonprofit seems to be following the playbook used by industry to blunt the Forest Stewardship Council green label, which was set up with the blessing of environmental groups to certify when timber is cut in an eco-friendly manner. The leading U.S. timber trade group launched the rival Sustainable Forestry Initiative as a more lenient industry-friendly certification for wood and paper products.

SFI is the dominant system used in private Oregon forests, but environmentalists contend timber companies don’t have to do much to earn the green label beyond following Oregon forestry laws.

Weyerhaeuser and other big timber companies say they’re shut out of government building projects using LEED, because the rating system favors lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Timber companies helped convince political leaders in Maine, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to stop using LEED unless it gives equal status to SFI lumber. That’s effectively a ban on using LEED.

Grant sees a similar industry game plan with Green Globes.

“You create a front organization which creates a knockoff, and in your communications you make it seem like a Coke-vs.-Pepsi choice,” Grant says. “And in government, you deploy all the money and all the nasty tactics you can to knock out the competition and to try to get pole position.”

Weyerhaeuser position

Weyerhaeuser has actively lobbied against state and federal agency use of LEED because it amounts to a discriminatory government procurement policy, says Cassie Phillips, vice president of sustainable forestry for the Federal Way, Wash., company. It’s no longer a voluntary system if government requires the use of LEED at taxpayers’ expense, Phillips says.

She called the Forest Stewardship Council label sanctioned by LEED “kind of an eco-forestry standard.” But it’s not commercially viable for harvesting timber in western Oregon and Washington, she says.

The SFI certification used by Weyerhaeuser is “absolutely good, but conventional commercial forestry,” Phillips says.

People in Oregon may not see as much difference in forests cut using SFI standards, she says, because this state has a relatively robust forest practices act. “It’s not going to be as big in Oregon as say, in Mississippi.”

LEED v.4 will make it even harder for Weyerhaeuser to compete for green buildings, Phillips says, by adding a new standard for using sustainably produced paper products in buildings.

Melvin Mark’s experience

Byron Courts doesn’t care much about green labels. He’s more focused on building improvements that achieve results and win support from owners.

As director of engineering services for Portland’s Melvin Mark Companies, Courts earned Green Globes certification by retrofitting two of the company’s older downtown office buildings, Columbia Square and Crowne Plaza.

Getting LEED certification for 2008 improvements at Columbia Square would have cost nearly $100,000, Courts says. “Doing the Green Globes project was about $25,000.”

He collected data, answered about 1,000 questions online, then met with a Green Globes assessor who came out to inspect the work. With LEED, he says, “you can’t really do this stuff yourself.”

But Courts stacks up his improvements at Columbia Square with any LEED-certified project. The biggest difference, he says, is “social acceptance.”

Columbia Square was fitted with energy- and water-saving devices, such as LED lights, and faucets and lighting that detect when people are present and turn off when people leave. Melvin Mark installed a $500,000 chiller that slashed energy use for air conditioning, and a bank of extra air filters so tenants can’t smell odors wafting up from the downtown streets below. The building has a robust recycling program, collecting food scraps, electronic waste and batteries. Construction waste, including all the Sheetrock, is recycled.

There’s indoor bike parking on four floors, and electric vehicle chargers in the garage.

For new construction, Melvin Mark installed green-certified carpeting and avoided use of vinyl because of concerns about it emitting volatile organic compounds. “They’re carcinogens, and they should not be used inside a closed environment,” Courts says. He’ll only use paint without volatile organic compounds as well.

Existing tenant spaces still have vinyl, he says, but it’s removed when tenants vacate and their spaces are spruced up.

Green Globes is more flexible than LEED on things like vinyl, use of lumber, and green roofs, Courts says.

Columbia Square’s outdoor patio on the seventh floor includes a large swath of grass that counts as a green roof under Green Globes. LEED probably would require him to put in different plants that don’t require watering and absorb more rainfall, Courts says. “They would have a real issue with this grass,” he says. But he calculates shifting to a contemporary green roof would only get about 20 percent more water absorption.

“You have to have a system that moves things toward more environmental actions and not insist that you do everything at once,” Courts says.

But Melvin Mark still uses LEED for new construction, he says, such as the new Blanchet House in Portland and a planned mid-rise atop the James Beard Public Market at the western foot of the Morrison Bridge.

Pushing the envelope

Green Building Services, with 20 employees, is a prime example of Portland parlaying its local talent to net outside work. Elaine Dye, company president, says it’s helped certify more than 450 LEED projects and ranks among the top five in the world in this field. Dye agrees Green Globes is cheaper to do, but says there’s less rigor and accountability for the resulting environmental attributes.

LEED standards are set by practitioners in the field, she says, “and it’s not tied to a big business.” The LEED system is more of a holistic collaboration with a team, she says.

Being immersed in that system “stays with a person forever. It helps move the industry forward in a way that’s better for everyone.”

The Cascadia Green Building Council, the U.S. Green Building Council chapter in Portland with branches in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, is taking the movement in a bold new direction with its Living Building Challenge. That’s an effort to produce the world’s greenest buildings, which result in no net carbon emissions, reuse gray water and process sewage on site. The challenge developed a Red List of building products to avoid because they contain toxic materials that may harm human health or the ecosystem.

The Living Building Challenge is separate from LEED, but its work on toxic building materials appears to have influenced LEED v.4.

Makers of vinyl and other home products subject to the new standard say disclosing the ingredients of their products amounts to giving away trade secrets, and will limit their use in new buildings. Several trade groups in those industries formed the American High-Performance Building Coalition to join the fight against LEED. The group’s members include four of the key backers of Portland’s Green Building Initiative: the American Chemistry Council, the Chemical Fabrics and Film Association, the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, and the Vinyl Institute.

“There’s been chagrin from the chemical industry because of the Red List,” Rekow says, and there’s not the same amount of “angst” about Green Globes.

Despite the growing political heat on LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council submitted the new standards to a vote in July among its nearly 13,000 members. After four years of discussions and some 20,000 public comments, LEED v.4 won the support of 86 percent of the members, and will get formally introduced to the public at the Greenbuild Conference & Expo in Philadelphia from Nov. 20 to Nov. 22.

Corporate interests opposing the new version are “really just certain groups wanting more points for their stuff because they see dollar signs,” says Lane Burd, policy director for the U.S. Green Building Council.

But with so many dollars at stake in the booming green building industry, the new version of LEED could well add fuel to the corporate backlash against it.

LEED rating fight boils down to a single point in scoring

The most strident critics of the current LEED rating system say it imperils Northwest jobs in the woods, because it shuts out the conventional timber industry from supplying green building projects.

Yet most of the brouhaha is over one point in the scoring system, out of 110 potential points.

Projects that use lumber certified under the Forest Stewardship Council, a green label created with the blessing of environmental groups, earns one point. Critics are miffed that lumber certified by the industry-supported alternative, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, doesn’t qualify.

“Choosing wood from a sustainable forest rather than a conventional forest seems like a good alignment,” says Ralph DiNola, executive director of the New Buildings Institute in Vancouver, Wash. “To have such a massive attack on LEED” over that one point seems out of proportion, he says.

But that one point costs the timber industry “millions and millions of dollars,” contends Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.

The industry wouldn’t be fighting the system so hard if that provision wasn’t having a major impact, says Cassie Phillips, Weyerhaeuser’s vice president of sustainable forestry.

But some green-building experts are puzzled by the industry outcry.

To gain the coveted platinum LEED status, a project must earn 80 or more points. LEED gold projects must have 60 points, 50 points for LEED silver, and 40 points for the base-level certification.

Not every project can get a point for using FSC-certified wood, because many commercial projects are made out of steel instead.

And projects that use wood of any kind that’s harvested within a 500-mile radius are eligible for two points, says DiNola, the former president of Green Building Services in Portland. That local preference means timber harvested here by Weyerhaeuser could garner those points.

A project developer could try to please both sides of the forestry debate and get half their wood certified under FSC and half under SFI. They’d still get the point for having at least half their wood supplied by FSC, says Lane Burd, policy director for the U.S. Green Building Council, which operates the LEED system.

Environmentalists have long argued that using timber, which can be replenished in forests, is a more sustainable building material than steel or concrete, and has a lower impact on carbon emissions.

So in the new LEED v.4 coming out next month, there’s a greater chance to earn more credits for using wood — under any forest certification — than under the current system.

“We’re encouraging the use of wood more than ever,” says Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED for the U.S. Green Building Council. “All wood gets better treatment under LEED v.4.”

Green Building Initiative’s roots

The Green Building Initiative, based in Portland, originally was funded by timber interests as an industry-friendly alternative to the LEED rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Green Building Initiative doesn’t have chapters or individual members, but a roster of 42 corporate member/supporters, including several not ordinarily associated with environmentally friendly practices and green products, such as:

• American Chemistry Council

• American Gas Association

• Jeld-Wen

• Louisiana-Pacific Corp.

• Plum Creek Timber

• Stimson Lumber

• The Vinyl Institute

• Weyerhaeuser Co.