Lack of Meaningful Criteria Diminishes the
Value of Many Green Building Programs
by Jim Bowyer
Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from an article that first appeared in the September 2007 issue of the Forest Products Journal and is reprinted here with the permission of the Forest Products Society and the author.
Green building programs have grown out of a general concern for the impact of building construction and operation on the local, regional, and global environment. Thus, such programs address a broad array of topic areas including energy efficiency; water management; building materials production, transport, use, and maintenance; indoor environmental quality; and recycling, reuse, and waste minimization. While the impacts of green building programs are currently modest, the rate of growth in program participation and development is large, suggesting substantial impact on the construction sector in the relatively near future.
In general, the influence of green building programs is positive, as the programs are causing builders, architects, home buyers, and others to think systematically about how to improve the environmental performance of buildings. A negative aspect is that directors of the best known programs have fallen victim to adoption of prescriptive standards for environmentally preferable materials that are based on intuitive judgment and/or single attributes. There is also a focus in all current programs on a single material—wood—that requires that wood, and wood alone, demonstrate responsible practice in product manufacture. The result is that a number of materials currently listed as environmentally preferable by green building organizations have demonstrably greater environmental impacts than non-favored alternatives.
For instance, judging whether products are environmentally good or bad based on a single product attribute simply isn’t supported by science. The focus on a single product characteristic keeps things simple and easy to comprehend—simple for the consumer and simple for organizations making judgments about various products: a product contains recycled content (good) or it doesn’t (bad); it is “natural” (good) or it isn’t (bad); it was produced from rapidly renewable resources (good) or it wasn’t (bad).
Unfortunately, focusing narrowly on product attributes is often useful in identifying environmentally preferable products only in the most straightforward of situations. For example, if faced with purchasing one of two brands of aluminum garage doors, one of which is made of 100 percent recycled aluminum and the other of 100 percent virgin aluminum, the consumer is presented a clear choice. While a recycled label wouldn’t say so, the product made entirely of virgin content requires 20 times more energy to produce than the recycled alternative. Also, production of the recycled aluminum results in far less in the way of impacts to air, water, and land, and is clearly environmentally superior.
Suppose, however, that a consumer is faced with the choice of selecting steel framing that has 35 percent recycled content or wood framing members that contain no recycled content. In this case, a choice to use steel framing based on recycled content would result in more than twice the energy consumption and more than four times the fossil fuel consumption to produce the framing members, and increased emissions to air and water in roughly the same magnitude as the differences in fuel consumption. Insulating the framed-in wall to a given R-value would result in even greater differences in energy consumption. Is a product containing recycled content always an environmentally better choice? Clearly not!
With regard to certification, required for wood to receive credit as an environmentally preferable material in most green building programs, it is important to recognize that there is no requirement that any material other than wood be certified.
This singular focus on wood is worth consideration. FSC certification, as specified in a number of green building programs, requires assessment of a number of factors in the certification process within the following categories:
- Compliance with laws
- Tenure and use rights and responsibilities
- Indigenous peoples’ rights
- Community relations & workers’ rights
- Benefits from the forest
- Environmental impact
- Management plan
- Monitoring and assessment
- Maintenance of high conservation value forests
Attention to land tenure issues, observance of indigenous peoples’ and workers’ rights, and focusing on community relations in addition to a wide range of environmental impacts linked to raw materials extraction and processing is certainly an enlightened approach to materials selection. But if these factors constitute essential elements in selection of an environmentally preferable building material, it is reasonable to ask why green building programs do not require compliance with similar standards for any material other than wood. As an example, growing and harvesting of bamboo is known to have all of the problems often attributed to wood and also often bears the environmental burdens associated with monoculture plantations and intensive agriculture. It is curious, then, that bamboo is accepted without question by the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED and other green building programs as an “environmentally preferable” material. There appears to be no logical or scientific reason for this.
As things now stand, non-wood materials are in effect being given a free pass, the implication being that typical practices employed in their production are inherently environmentally better than those associated with production of wood products. However, most of the same concerns that led to development of certification programs for forests and forest management also apply to extraction and processing of other basic raw materials.
With respect to non-biobased materials and products such as metals, there is extensive evidence pointing to mining development as a major disruptive force to communities, indigenous peoples’ rights, workers’ rights, and long-held land tenure. It is also often highly disruptive of forested and non-forested ecosystems alike. In view of these realities, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in January 2003 took the first steps to create a Mining Stewardship Council, noting pervasive environmental, social, and economic problems linked to mining activity worldwide.
Given these problems, it would appear that development of a certification program for metals and minerals should be a high priority. In any event, there is no apparent justification for singling out only one construction material for a host of special requirements.
Perhaps the worst characteristic of most green building programs today is defined by what is not considered in identification of environmentally preferable materials. At the moment, only one program requires consideration of embodied energy of products and product assemblies, even though embodied energy is often equivalent to many years of energy consumption associated with a structure, and even though high embodied energy products result in far higher emissions to air and water. Only one program systematically and comprehensively considers environmental impacts linked to all inputs and outputs associated with building materials production and use. This one program is Green Globes—in many ways a prototype for what green building programs of the future need to become. This program requires that selection of building assemblies be based on life cycle assessment considering embodied energy and green house gas emissions.
Designation of environmentally preferable materials in a 21st century green building program should never be based on unsubstantiated prescriptive standards, especially in view of the fact that tools are now available that allow comprehensive assessment using standard methodologies. In addition, criteria used in assessing landscape impacts of raw materials production in such a program should not focus on only one material to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately, these characteristics describe the vast majority of leading green building programs in the United States and Canada.
What must be done in order to correct deficiencies in the way that environmental preferability of construction products is determined today within leading green building programs? There is no one answer, no miracle solution, but three things are obvious:
- A “green” building program that cannot accurately distinguish low environmental impact products from high impact products, but that nonetheless encourages the use of some products over others, is green in name only.
- Environmental labeling programs, if they are to facilitate meaningful comparisons, must quickly evolve to include all products used for similar applications.
- All assessments of environmental performance of products must include evaluation based on examination of a broad range of environmental indicators representing the full life cycle of products using internationally accepted protocols for evaluation. Another way of saying this is that environmental life-cycle assessment must play a major role in product evaluation and labeling.
Fundamental change in the way that green building programs assess environmental attributes of construction materials is needed. Ironically, current practices are encouraging unsound environmental decisions at a time when precisely the opposite is needed.
Jim Bowyer is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and director of the Sustainable Material Program at Dovetail Partners, Inc. (http://dovetailinc.org), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that fosters sustainable forestry.
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