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Chemical Manufacturer Resistance

Posted by Mike Collignon

Dec 6, 2012 2:55:00 PM

We frequently write about the barriers to the energy code and green code adoption. Resistance can be attributed to “push back” from the homebuilders and/or state legislatures, or, in this case, manufacturers.

In LEED Version 4, USGBC has taken more aggressive steps to move the market away from harmful chemicals. Pilot Credit 2, the first iteration of this type, appeared back in July 2010--but that credit was limited to a few chemicals. In March 2012, Pilot Credit 54, “Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern,” expanded the list (available at buildinggreen.com) to many more chemicals. What this translated to, in the LEED point lexicon, was that if a project elected not to use a chemical of avoidance, they would earn 1 or 2 points. This credit still appears in (what is now) the 4th draft, though the list now references the EU’s REACH Protocol.

According to a manufacturing industry rep we spoke with, 100 ppm was the level chosen for a litany of chemicals. Depending on the chemical, the consequence of exposure could result in anything from a sneeze to hospitalization. The rep felt there wasn’t a solid rationale for the blanket application of the 100 ppm level, and would have preferred more research into specific levels for specific chemicals.

Dozens of manufacturers, many of whom are also members of USGBC, are so worried about the proposed restrictions that they have banded together to help form the American High Performance Buildings Coalition (AHPBC). Their mission reads: “Support and promote green building codes, standards, rating systems and credits that are developed in conformance with full ANSI or ISO-type consensus processes, are data-driven, supported by science, and performance-based.” This advocacy group consists of 32 members, all industry groups who could be financially harmed by LEED’s potential incentives to avoid certain chemicals.

USGBC contends that having people seek out alternatives to these chemicals will help spur the market for more environmentally friendly materials. The AHPBC counters that the alternative options either do not exist or are not feasible. There are many other points of contention, regarding chemical avoidance, between USGBC and the AHPBC. They range from allegations of decreased energy efficiency, to the politically popular phrase, “job killing.” It appears most of the concerns by the manufacturing industry are not supported by facts.

That has not stopped either side from taking calculated steps to further their perspective. The AHPBC’s first action was to help persuade 73 Congressional members to send a letter to the GSA, demanding they drop the green building program if the newest version passes. USGBC responded by sending their own letter, containing over 1,200 signatures, to the GSA. Predictably, this was a letter of support for the LEED program and its continued use by the federal government.

It should be pointed out that the issue of “Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern” pertains to an elective, not a requirement. LEED certification can still be achieved without earning the contested credit(s). It is also prudent to remind everyone that LEED is a voluntary program, not a building code.

There are many facets to this controversy, but this chemical dispute has enormous financial repercussions. On the one hand, government projects represent the largest percentage of LEED projects. If LEED is removed from their protocol, that could mean a substantial loss of revenue for USGBC, an organization that experienced a $25 million decline in revenue from 2009 to 2010.  Conversely, if the building industry starts to support alternative markets in order to earn more LEED credits, those alternatives will enjoy increased market share revenues and legitimacy. Meanwhile, many manufacturing giants might experience less revenue in the short term, or be forced to adapt to a changing marketplace by changing their own processes. Either of those scenarios represents a significant cost they'd rather avoid.

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