Jerry Yudelson

10 April 2014 — There’s a fierce battle raging in the US to bring down LEED, the rating equivalent of Australia’s Green Star.

It’s driven by the commercial interests of those who stand to lose most from the gradual elimination of harmful chemicals and destructive environmental practices, as highly rated green buildings become the norm with sophisticated corporates and government agencies.

The battle, which could have implications for Australia if local interest groups follow the US, as often occurs, is led by the Green Building Initiative, which early this year snared green building author and advocate Jerry Yudelson as its president.

This week, Mr Yudelson was happy to report that the GBI was making serious inroads into the ratings tools war, and the US Government had now agreed to add the GBI’s Green Globes as a viable option to replace LEED as the rating tool that would be a prerequisite for government buildings.

“The US General Services Administration and the Department of Defense, among other agencies, in 2013 officially certified Green Globes as equivalent to LEED in meeting federal sustainability standards,” Mr Yudelson told The Fifth Estate this week.

But what’s been going on behind the scenes to make that happen will alarm green building supporters.

Following revelations in Environmental Building News that include forensically detailed accounts obtained by Freedom of Information laws, it’s clear that there has been intense lobbying, or “marketing” as Mr Yudelson put it, to achieve these results.

In the case of timber, one of the GBI’s tactics is to prevent a ban on certain certification standards by LEED that LEED does not see as being sufficiently stringent in terms of environmental outcomes.

For example, LEED v4 awards a point – a single point – for use of Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber, but not timber certified by other rating tools.

The GBI has been busy turning back the tide through the federal government and states. A total of five states have now banned the issuing of contracts for state projects where the rating system only allows credit for FSC-certified timber. Green Globes has also achieved equal footing at the federal level with the General Services Administration and agencies including the Department of Defense.

One of the alternative timber rating tools allowed by Green Globes is the Sustainable Forest Initiative, which was created by the timber industry and allows for “larger areas of clear-felling, greater use of herbicides and a plantation (monoculture) approach to growing and harvesting trees”.

Timber is seen as the weak link in the chain but the big money is in chemicals.

In the case of chemicals LEED v4 awards a point for disclosure of chemicals of concern – disclosure, not absence of.

As an indication of the kind of battle being waged, it’s interesting to note that the American Chemistry Council, which is the main fighting front for the manufacturers of the chemicals of concern that appear on the so called “red list”, and include PVC, call their website

The board of the Green Building Initiative makes for interesting reading, with members from the timber industry, chemical companies and the vinyl lobby.

The board comprises:

  • Ray Tonjes, Ray Tonjes Builder Inc
  • Shervin Ansari, Kiewit Corporation
  • Tim Atkinson, Stimson Lumber
  • Matt Belcher, Belcher Homes
  • Allen Blakey, The Vinyl Institute
  • Stephen Del Percio, URS Corporation
  • Joan Fitzmaurice, Plum Creek
  • Bill Freeman, Resilient Floor Covering Institute
  • Gordon Gill, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
  • Michelle Halle, JELD-WEN, Inc
  • Jeff Hrivnak, Solvay Specialty Polymers
  • Shannon Hughes, Weyerhaeuser
  • Dr Charles Kibert, Cross Creek Initiative
  • Mark Kuntz, Mitsubishi Cooling and Heating
  • Kathy Loftus, Whole Foods Market
  • Dan Murphy, Power Engineers Collaborative, LLC
  • Jay Thomas, Sika Sarnafil

What Jerry Yudelson says

According to Mr Yudelson, on the issue of timber it was true that Green Globes accepted alternative certifications to FSC-certified timber.

“Green Globes does allow wood certified by all four major North American forest certification standards to qualify for sustainably harvested wood credits in its system,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“LEED only allows FSC wood. Some people think that’s the only pure standard. However, the fact is that only five per cent of the forest land in the US and Canada is certified to FSC standards, whereas 25 per cent is certified to other standards.

“Most certified North American forests are in fact sustainably harvested; in fact, some forests have been logged for 150 years in the Pacific Northwest without losing their ecosystem values.

“What you see in this article [by Environmental Building News] is a forest activist looking to make a living by suddenly ‘discovering’ that Green Globes is greenwash and launching a ‘campaign’ of sorts.”

The article says:

Greenwash Action, a joint initiative of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, is gearing up to defend LEED and campaign for changes to Green Globes—the green building rating system that the organization claims has been complicit in a greenwashing scheme.

On its crowdfunding page, Greenwash Action, whose executive director, Jason Grant, has been a prominent advocate for the Forest Stewardship Council, describes its mission as “calling on the chemical, plastics, and timber industry to cease their attacks on LEED and to tell the truth about Green Globes,” referring to recent political attempts to ban LEED in government construction and to the alternate rating system that was developed by those industries to rival LEED.

On the issue of “chemicals of concern”, Mr Yudelson said Green Globes did not currently require disclosure of these chemicals, and there was no “red list” of materials [which lists specific chemicals of concern].

Neither did he anticipate the next version of GBI’s National Green Building Standard would carry a red list.

“Such decisions are up to the technical committee of stakeholders now being formed, per the ISO/ANSI [American National Standards Institute] procedures followed by GBI.”

He said LEED v4’s decision to award a point for disclosure of “chemicals of concern” was based on science that was “inconclusive and not risk-based, as required in the US for government action against specific chemicals”.

“My answer is I haven’t seen persuasive data on the health outcomes of common building materials beyond those that relate to mould and mildew and things like off-gassing of volatile organic compounds.”

The Fifth Estate mentioned that science was never “conclusive” and health impacts of certain chemicals can take decades to manifest.

“Manufacturers disclose what they see fit to disclose. If they disclose more, they’ll get more points in Green Globes, as it evolves.

“We promote environmental product declarations, but we’re not going to have a red list.

“Opinion or concern is not scientific fact. These are issues that have a lot of implications and I don’t think it’s bad to take your time to work it out.”

On climate issues the benefit of long and widespread discussion was now starting to show through in the increased focus on reducing carbon emissions from building operations, he said.

Over time the market would deal with issues of concern as it did with carpets and the phasing out of off-gassing from carpets and adhesives, he said.

“That will happen over time. We saw manufacturers say, ‘I’m going to disclose the VOC emissions from carpet and I’m going to eliminate them.’”

Mr Yudelson said a good example was the phasing out of ozone depleting substances in only 13 years under the Montreal Protocol.

But wasn’t this a standout and unusual case of success in the history of the environmental movement?

“One chemical at a time… where the evidence is incontrovertible,” Mr Yudelson said.

On the issue of PVC, which had caused a great deal of controversy in the green building industry, Mr Yudelson said PVC was “durable; it’s been around for a long time, it’s benign in use and it’s cost effective; that’s what designers generally want to evaluate”.

Often there were not many alternatives, he said.

However, this was changing, The Fifth Estate suggested.

In his 2013 megatrends list published in January and covered in The Fifth Estate on 8 January 2013, Mr Yudelson nominated concern about chemicals as a key consideration.

He said: “Transparency and ‘red list’ chemicals will become increasingly a subject of contention, as manifested through such tools as the new Health Product Declaration and the inclusion of points for avoiding certain chemicals contained in LEED v4, currently scheduled for release in June 2013. Environmental and Health Product Declarations will begin to appear in large numbers in the next two to three years, as building product manufacturers increasingly try to gain or maintain market share based on open disclosure of chemical ingredients.

The ABC in Australia recently aired a program that showed flame retardants used in consumer goods from TVs to fridges, which could pose a risk to health and the environment, are being found in breast milk, house dust and fish in Australia. An article on the program said:

The findings by analytical chemist Dr Robert Symons of the National Measurement Institute will report findings on the chemicals, known as halogenated or brominated flame retardants, at the Connect 2005 conference of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, to be held in Sydney next month.

Flame retardants are used to reduce the flammability of everything from computers to foam mattresses but some of these chemicals have been under scrutiny because of their ability to spread in the environment, and potential health and environmental effects.

“They’re not only in the food we eat, they are also in the air we breathe,” says Symons. “We’re getting a daily dose.”

One flame retardant, pentabromodiphenyl ether (known as ‘penta’), has recently been nominated for restriction under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (previously known as the Dirty Dozen list).

It was nominated because of its ability to persist, disperse and accumulate in the environment, and for its dioxin-like activity and potential negative impacts on the liver, endocrine and nervous systems.

A study by Dr Symons funded by the Department of the Environment and Heritage found the top six environmentally persistent flame retardants in Australian breast milk.

“In Sweden where they’ve banned the penta and the octa, they’ve actually found a decrease in these [chemicals] in human breast milk,” says Symons.

Alternative brominated flame retardants such as deca, hexabromocyclododecane and tetrabromobisphenol A were “just moving the deck chairs”, according to Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith of the National Toxics Network.

She said one Norwegian study found the level of the chemicals was much higher in children under four years old than in the rest of the population.

Confusing the market

According to some observers the emergence of new rating tools does more to harm the overall take up of green buildings than help it.

Nigel Howard, who was a key designer of LEED and BREEAM on which LEED was based, believes that the biggest need is to establish an unambiguous definition of green buildings.

In an article in The Fifth Estate announcing the appointment of Mr Yudelson to the GBI, Mr Howard commented that he had long-standing concerns on the development of rating tools.

“I have a fundamental concern – from the earliest days of BREEAM (1990) through LEED and Green Star it was recognised that perhaps the most important role of a green building rating system was to establish an unambiguous definition of a green building – established by consensus of the nations’ practitioners.

“In my opinion, one of the best ways of stalling progress in the green building movement is to do anything to make the definition of a green building ambiguous and alternative rating tools do exactly that.

“The opponents of green building seem to share this view since these are the most common sponsors of alternative rating systems. I would prefer to see GBI’s activities devoted to improving LEED, or regionally adapting it rather than competing with it.”

On the issue of market penetration for existing buildings, Mr Howard said this was always going to take longer to achieve.

“The market is 100 times as big by number of buildings and perhaps 1000 times as big by numbers of clients and tenants – this will be just as hard for any alternative rating system.”

  • UPDATE: Mr Howard was also vice president of the USGBC responsible for LEED and international programs; former director of the CentrE for Sustainable Construction in UK responsible for BREEAM. He has also been chief operating officer for the Green Building Council of Australia and is a founding member of the World Green Building Council and  International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment and a former president of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society.

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  1. Dear Fifth Estate,

    I have been a significant influence in the Green Building Movement internationally for over 30 years. Other folk mentioned in your articles get their pictures and very generous acknowledgements of what seem to me quite trivial roles and achievements compared to my own.

    If you are going to use what I send you as GREAT copy, then please could you acknowledge me more appropriately – I was not just “a key designer of LEED and BREEAM”, I was THE Vice President of the USGBC responsible for LEED and International Programs and former Director of the Center for Sustainable Construction in UK responsible for BREEAM. I was also briefly COO for GBCA. I am also a founder member of the World Green Building Council (both times) and a founder member of iiSBE which runs the SB0 Conferences and International Green Building Challenge. I am also former President of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society.

    The reason LEED is under sustained and ever more successful attack is because USGBC have broken one of the golden rules of Environmental Rating – for a few of the most contentious credits, they have allowed stakeholder opinion to override objective science in the development of LEED, giving the opponents of Green Building potent grounds for opposition. In my opinion they should have held firm to the findings of their Technical, Scientific Advisory Group of eminent US scientists investigating these contentious issues. They wavered though for understandable reasons – to try to keep all of the stakeholders from across the US (especially the State-based Chapters) engaged and aligned to LEED. In building rating I have learnt that every aspect can be a double-edged sword.

    Now, though, regrettably USGBC seem to be losing ground on both fronts – technical robustness and stakeholder alignment.

    If the Green Building movement is to continue to succeed in its phenomenally successful transformative work in the US, then:

    • Folk that care about Green Building NEED to realign in their support for USGBC and reaffirm LEED as the single articulation of Green Building
    • USGBC need to fix the scientifically dubious aspects of LEED to regain the unique support of GSA and State administrations
    • USGBC need to hard-prune LEED to focus attention on the 10% of credits that cause 95% of impact (and ideally transition to a life cycle assessment basis) – there are far too many credits of relatively trivial benefit diluting the potency of LEED on key issues. All of these credits need documentation and assessment making LEED cumbersome and expensive.

    GreenStar is vulnerable to most of the same threats, but to-date have refused my repeated offers to assist.

  2. This is the start of a healthy discussion. Smart buildings should be guided by real performance metrics and outcomes not chasing arbitrary credits which may or may not deliver improved operational performance and decreased environmental impact. The LEED process is expensive and at best cumbersome however well intended. It is also built on American standards and operational experience. I think we can look at the elephant in the room and ask some questions about what actual operational performance is delivered .