How politics are re-shaping sustainable design

Home News How politics are re-shaping sustainable design

by KJ Quinn

Companies of all sizes are striving to reduce any negative impact their businesses may have on the environment through improved sustainable practices and more efficient source reduction initiatives. But certain groups are questioning whether politics is throwing a monkey wrench into energy-saving architecture and poking holes in green building design ratings.

Programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program — which awards points for energy-saving features — and increased awareness of environmental issues (such as greenhouse gas emissions) have had a major impact on commercial building design. Meanwhile, industry has factored in sustainability programs into their corporate strategic plans to demonstrate to employees, customers and the communities within which they operate that they are exemplary environmental stewards. “There are many companies, both in the U.S. and globally, that have embraced and adopted LEED standards,” said John Wells, president and CEO, Interface Americas. “In fact, in some circles, the adherence and popularity of LEED has been overwhelming and is engaging people at higher levels, including outside experts, as contributors.”

There are a myriad of laws and regulatory acts at the local, state and federal levels that require sustainable design in commercial applications. Governments have a more than passing interest in these projects as an estimated 25% of all construction projects are funded by government. “Since lots of projects are publicly funded, and many are renovations and involve finishes, both these projects and new construction will be affected by political factors,” Wells said.

Elected officials are reportedly finding common ground around green buildings because of the many downstream benefits that healthier, more efficient, and lower impact facilities provide. The USGBC reports working with a bipartisan coalition led by Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to reform the energy efficient commercial buildings tax deduction.

“With this proposed fix, the tax deduction would better apply to the retrofit of existing buildings,” Sigmon said. “Our study showed this policy could create more than 70,000 jobs in the near term.”

USGBC is at the forefront of a movement demonstrating improved building methods and rates of return every day. “Our primary instrument is the LEED green building certification program that has demonstrated remarkable market uptake,” said Jeremy Sigmon, director of technical policy. “More than 1.5 million square feet of real estate is certified to LEED every day, and more than half of all LEED projects are now existing commercial buildings with an acute focus on efficiencies in operations and performance.”


Green rating systems under fire

LEED is also at the center of a firestorm that is not necessarily partisan, industry watchers say, but should concern Republicans and Democrats. Earlier this month, the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to examine the scientific record green building rating systems are based upon. According to a release from the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA) suggested such rating systems be guided by metrics that identify where federal investments will have the most cost-effective impact. Witnesses who testified before the subcommittee raised other concerns about LEED.

The vinyl industry opposes inclusion of the “Materials and Resources (MR) Credit: Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern” in the proposed LEED 2012. If approved, industry members contend it would encourage the construction industry to de-select the use of high performance PVC and certain phthalate plasticizers, plastic materials commonly used in flooring, roofing, wall covering, wire and cable. “The PVC/phthalate material avoidance credit is based on single attribute concerns about dioxin releases from accidental landfill fires and reproductive hazard concerns in animal tests of questionable relevance to humans based on different body mechanisms and exposure,” said Bill Hall, legal counsel to the Resilient Floor Covering Institute. “It is not based on life cycle assessment (LCA) or showing alternative products are demonstrably better, or evaluating their health and safety.”

Further fanning the flames is if the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) adopts LEED exclusively as its preferred rating system. GSA, which oversees the leasing and construction of more than 9,600 buildings in the federal government portfolio, is teaming up with the Department of Energy to develop formal recommendations on how green building certification systems are used to facilitate high performance in the federal sector. A final recommendation to the Secretary of Energy is expected by this fall.

“The nation’s ‘biggest landlord’ would be excluding many manufacturers – such as those that make vinyl floors — from having full and fair access to the government procurement market due to LEED’s arbitrary ‘green materials’ standards as proposed,” contends Kevin Ott, coordinator of the Flexible Vinyl Alliance.


Political influences

Politicians have stepped to the forefront to help stimulate the development of more energy- and resource-efficient commercial buildings. In early 2011, President Obama unveiled the Better Buildings Initiative, aimed at catalyzing private-sector investment through a series of incentives to upgrade offices, stores, schools and universities, hospitals and other commercial and municipal buildings. The federal government reports there are more than 5 million commercial buildings and 120 million homes in the U.S., which, by and large, are squandering away precious energy and resources.

“I would say the government market was and still is in the lead when it comes to green building design and sustainable product specifications,” said Kim Matsoukas, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, sustainability manager at Vans and former sustainability manager of Bentley Prince Street.  “Recently though, there has been some backlash.”

A major topic of discussion among corporate clients of A&D firms is costs associated with LEED certification. Energy and transportation mandates impact design and construction strategies and costs, while clean air and water are also important components impacted by legislative decisions. “One of the primary aspects of green building design that is impacted by federal legislation concerns the adoption of on-site facility renewable energy,” said Kirk Johnson, AIA, LEED AP, of Corgan Associates, an architectural firm in Dallas. “Presently, federal level incentives are required for a reasonable return on the investment with implementing renewable energy in green building design.”

In recent developments, Congress and President Obama ratified legislation that limited pursuing LEED certification at the Gold or Platinum level for new building construction by the Department of Defense unless it could prove certification could save money in the long term. The governor of Maine made it illegal for state buildings to pursue LEED certification at any level, namely because of issues raised over LEED-certified wood credits, according to a published report. LEED only recognizes Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC)-certified wood products, which are supported by many environmental organizations.

The domestic hardwood industry, working through the Hardwood Federation, is attempting to influence green building standards and government procurement policies that exclude domestic hardwood products. Congress has passed resolutions stating U.S. hardwoods are a good environmental choice for green building projects. However, the General Services Administration still recognizes only USGBC’s LEED government building projects, which excludes more than 95% of American wood products from federal buildings, said Don Finkell, CEO, Shaw Hardwood.

The Scientific Forest Initiative and Tree Farm are two other standards developed from the forest products industry but not recognized by USGBC for LEED certification. “Hopefully, the 2012 revision of LEED will open up more opportunities for U.S. manufacturers,” Finkell said. “Long term, I think we will see a coming together on these issues, and American hardwoods will be recognized as good environmental choices for green building projects.”

In a related development, there are reportedly certain special interest groups seeking to overturn the Lacey Act, known as the Combat Illegal Logging Act of 2008, who find the legislation restrictive to the importing process. The legislation has had a profound impact as there is roughly 25% less illegal logging activity now compared to when the act was adopted in May 2008, according to industry estimates. Through the Hardwood Federation, the National Wood Flooring Association has lobbied Congress to keep the Lacey Act intact and support its enforcement.

There are broader debates regarding the validity of third-party certification, industry watchers say. To what extent federal and local mandates should dictate sustainable design and construction benchmarks, and how the results are measured or quantified, remains an ongoing political issue. “Green has become somewhat of a political hot potato,” said Kent Clauson, vice president of brand management for Mohawk. “Unfortunately, a lot of what we see driving sustainability today are ‘feel-good’ initiatives, or programs that lack substance and impact in the long term.”


Impact on product specification

There are signs that federal, state and local governments are backing away from their commitments to green building design, observers say. This could dampen the demand for green products and the sustainable products movement in general. Governments seem to be starting to either incorporate certain aspects of LEED into their own requirements – as is the case with CALGreen in California — or allowing for competing green building standards as an alternative to LEED.

“CALGreen is helping all aspects of green building design as it has mandated measures,” said Amber Keenoy, LEED AP BD+C, senior consultant, U.S. Antea Group, a St. Paul, Minn.-based engineering and environmental consulting firm. “Each time the codes are updated, the mandated measures will become more stringent, thus the code is helping to raise the bar for green design.” CALGreen, introduced last year and considered the nation’s first state-wide green building and water saving building code, addresses products, building techniques and consumer behavior.

The inclusion of competing green building systems in government purchasing requirements could make the market more complex for product manufacturers. “Firstly, it increases the knowledge that our sales force must have. It also makes our product strategy even more complicated,” Matsoukas said. “However, on the positive side, it has taken away what was essentially a monopoly for the LEED rating system.”

The increased adoption of third-party rating systems and implementation of a green construction code are expected to make sustainable qualities of commercial interior products an important consideration when selecting a building material, experts say. One of the biggest specification issues is performance of new, innovative and sometimes untested materials that claim greater sustainable characteristics. “The flooring industry will increasingly be impacted by political issues affecting sustainable building design,” Corgan’s Johnson said, “as products are consistently expected to be green rather than possibly expected to be environmentally friendly.”

The staggering influx of new materials created by sustainable design and construction guidelines not only warrants questions about chemical composition of new materials, but also can create uncertainty/risk in specifying products that are extremely new and do not have a long track record. “It may increase competition among vendors to provide products with greater sustainability aspects,” said Jeffrey Del Sordo, registered architect, LEED AP, sustainability leader, and senior associate at LS3P Associates, an architectural firm in Charlotte, N.C.

Many flooring producers are following through on long-term sustainability initiatives introduced some time ago. Interface reports it continues its commitment via work with the CRI, CARE, USGBC, UL Environment and others – all committed to sustainability and setting standards for the building and products industries. Mohawk has adopted aggressive intensity reductions in its water use, energy and emissions, and landfill waste by 2020.

“We’re seeing more and more manufacturers beginning to report on the contents of their products, much like they are reporting on VOC levels and recycled content for LEED,” said Paula Vaughan, AIA, LEED Faculty, and associate principal at Perkins+Will in Chicago. “In 2010, Perkins+Will, together with Construction Specialties, created the Building Product Transparency Label, the industry’s first on-product ingredient label designed to make environmental and health disclosure easy.” In addition to ingredients and recycling information on the product, the full label identifies general product information, product content, ecological benchmarks, packaging information, the design process and recyclability.

Looking ahead, some industry members do not necessarily think political issues will have anything to do with commercial interior design and product selection beyond creating a framework from which design is structured. “If anything, the politicizing of green issues has probably hurt the overall adoption due to some blowback,” Mohawk’s Clauson said. “But I also think that the economic downturn has caused people to really focus on and discern what elements of sustainability really matter.”

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