Recognition and incentives for green buildings—structures and processes that are considered more socially responsible, environmentally sensitive, and resource-efficient—often seem uncontroversial. Proponents of these “sustainable practices” measure criteria that purport to reflect a building’s life-cycle impacts, including siting, design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and even demolition. Building in this way is expected to require continuing cooperation and collaboration from a design team to architects, engineers, and the owner from the very beginning and at every project stage. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts it, “This practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. Green building is also known as a sustainable or high performance building.”
But it now turns out that there are some serious shortcomings with green construction. Recently, an Associated Press article has garnered nationwide attention over an emerging fight between state governments and green building standards (“States Fight Green-Building Over Local Wood,” Russ Bynum, Associated Press, June 10, 2013). More on this below, after a quick review of the proponents’ positions.
Green Building Goals
According to green building advocates, the practices they advocate can reduce overall impacts of a building and its environment on human health and the natural environment by increasing the efficient use of energy, water, and other resources; creating safer occupant health conditions and improving employee productivity and limiting waste, pollution, and adverse environmental effects. A 2009 report by the Office of Applied Science of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) found that 12 “sustainably designed public buildings” cost less to operate and saved energy. Moreover, the people who worked in those structures reportedly were happier and more satisfied than their counterparts in more conventional designed and developed commercial structures. (GSA, Assessing Greenbuilding Performance, http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/GSA_AssessGreen_white_paper.pdf.)
Private groups such as the National Institute of Building Sciences point out that … “[t]he Federal Government is the nation’s single largest landlord and energy consumer, operating more than 500,000 facilities comprising more than 3 billion square feet … [it has] … an enormous opportunity to transfer sustainable technologies and practices on a large scale, thereby helping to transform the marketplace and create a more healthy work environment” (http://wbdg.org/references/fhpsb.php). The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its supporters claim that “[g]reen building is a win-win, offering both environmental and economic opportunity. Greater building efficiency can meet 85% of future demand for energy in the United States and a commitment to green building has the potential to generate 2.5 million jobs.” In fact, USGBC and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system have singled out commercial, institutional and residential projects noteworthy for “environmental and health performance” in both the United States and abroad. (Id, USG History.) Today, USGBC includes 77 chapters, 13,000 member organizations, and 196,000 LEED professionals “sharing” a vision of sustainability.
Why the Doubters?
Sounds good, doesn’t it? What could possibly go wrong?
One critic is Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. He last year used an executive order to prevent state projects from even seeking LEED certification. In mid-June, Gov. Deal again explained his rationale. He told the Southern Group of State Foresters in Savannah to urge other states in the timber-rich Southeast to join forces to oppose what he sees as a threat to use of their harvests because growers will not play along with sustainability advocates and certifiers, even though their practices are sustainable.
So far, in the Southeast, Alabama and Mississippi have joined Georgia, while Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina are weighing their own bans or limits on officially sanctioned green building practices. In the Northeast, the Pine Tree State of Maine has banned state government construction projects from seeking LEED certification. And on the plains of Kansas, the state’s House of Representatives was asked to limit sustainable development by Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita (R-99th District). His measure would have assured that “no public funds may be used … to promote … sustainable development.” The bill failed to meet the “turn around” deadline of the House or pass the chamber of origin by the end of February. As a result, that bill will not carry over into the 2014 session of the legislature, but it can be introduced again in response to the momentum in other states.
But timber-rich Georgia has been ground zero for some time. Last year, when LEED proposed a 2012 rating system, members of the Georgia congressional delegation weighed in asking for GSA to abandon green building program standards that were at risk of “driving up building costs to the taxpayers and threatening employment” in the State. (“A reach for LEED? USGBC Hits Turbulence with Controversial Import” (June 1, 2012)).
The battle lines thus that have been drawn between local wood suppliers and traditional timber industry groups; contractors with incentives to build with LEED certified products; LEED and other rating Green Building services that advocate and brand “sustainability”; and, the national movement to promote green building practices. We do not know whether Gov. Deal will succeed in establishing a Southeast front against sustainability, but it is clear that green building practice advocates are concerned. One way or another, the near term promises a “big step.” The question remains whether that step will be backward or forward.