USGBC Hints At Surprises Ahead During Greenbuild Remarks

By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting

Like every Greenbuild conference and expo ever held, this year’s event in New Orleans was filled with new and surprising information. One can get a sense of the hot topics just by looking at the titles of the more than 200 education sessions, and the speeches given at the opening and closing plenary. This year’s event was focused on the slow acceptance of LEEDv4 since its launch at Greenbuild 2013 300 registered projects but only 9 certified to-date). Transparency was again a popular subject, especially when it comes to the disclosure and optimization of ingredients in building materials. Closely related to the transparency is the growing interest in creating a healthy or well environment in green or LEED-certified buildings. And at the larger scale, the concept of resilient building design and community strategies was easy to embrace with the lessons learned from hurricane Katrina as the backdrop for the this year’s conference.

LEEDv4 is a transformational change over the previous version of LEED. The complexity of LEEDv4 compared to other versions may be behind the sluggish acceptance. As the Greenbuild show ended, it was still accurate to say that a project could be registered under LEED 2009 through June 15, 2015. LEEDv4 was also in place through June 2015 and beyond. But just one week after Greenbuild the USGBC announced that a survey had shown that most people felt that they needed more time to prepare and fully understand the workings of LEED v4. As a result, USGBC extended the deadline for registering projects under LEED 2009 until October 31, 2016. This means that both LEED 2009 and LEED v4 will co-exist at least two more years before LEEDv4 becomes the only version to use for registering projects. The most questions about LEEDv4 showing up in the LEED User forum are on low emitting materials, building material disclosure, minimum energy performance, and supply chain optimization.

Under the category of transparency, the importance of the new Materials and Resources category rose to new heights with the offering of a Materials and Health Summit on the day before the start of Greenbuild. Presentations focused on the development and use of Health Product Declarations (HPDs) to assess the hazardous chemicals in building materials. An emphasis was placed on the fact that an assessment of hazards does not tell the whole story of whether the chemical poses a serious risk to humans or the environment.. Yet, over 30 large architectural firms have developed red lists and are requiring suppliers to avoid chemicals on their lists, based purely on a hazard assessment. A beta version 2.0 of the current HPD system is expected by end of this year. A presentation by two toxicologists stressed the importance of analyzing the exposure and risk, along with hazard assessment, to paint the whole picture for chemicals of concern. The scope of this analysis starts with the risk to workers in the manufacturing of a chemical, the installers of the product on a building and the occupants of that building. A tool kit for manufacturers may be ready for release in early 2015 to guide manufacturers in the creation of an HPD. A building products disclosure and optimization tool can now be found on the USGBC website ( as the BPDO Calculator to help project teams and manufacturers wade through the complexity of the Materials and Resources credits.

Added to the list of organizations that have already endorsed resilient design, the AIA now embraces the concept, and its use especially in restoration of historical buildings. A new organization was announced – the National Resilience Initiative, supported through the Rockefeller Foundation, AIA, and Architecture for Humanity. The “100 Resilient Cities Program”, which is part of the Clinton Climate Initiative, is the main effort for this new organization. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 75% of the world’s population will live in cities, and 60% of the buildings in those cities have not even been built yet. Resilient strategies for neighborhoods, communities and regions are also subject to resilient design. The National Resilience Initiative is working to unite architects from all over the world to get engaged in this program before the end of 2017.

A glimpse into where LEED is heading was revealed during the opening plenary when USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi announced the creation of a new pilot credit that will address social equity. Other glimpses of where LEED is focused are possible by simply considering the terms that were spoken at Greenbuild by  22,000 attendees.  Here are a few comments heard:

• Transparency is nothing. Seeing nothing in the way of truth;
• Regulations are an example of our failure;
• A toxin is a good chemical in the wrong place;
• What is a product?;
• We support promiscuous collaboration;
• Pain is a stronger motivator than pleasure;
• This product was awarded an Environmental Product Declaration;
• This product can Declare that it is Red List Free;
• Why do we even need and use carpeting?; and
• Oil companies run the world.

And here are titles of some of the education sessions that the author attended:

• Greening What’s Already Here;
• The Missing Links to Sustainability;
• Designing for Resilience;
• How Building Products Contribute to a Sustainable Louisiana;
• Future-Proofing Buildings;
• Resilient Design;
• Eliminating The Top 5 Chemicals of Concern;
• Beyond Hazard Disclosure, Are Our Buildings Safe?; and
• Lessons Learned by LEEDv4.

One surprising theme that I sensed was that the USGBC has shifted away from their original goal of building green structures in order to save the planet from man-made climate change.  Now the conversation has become how we can adapt to climate change through sustainable and resilient building and community strategies. There is also a broadening of the scope of USGBC away from focus on just building systems that reduce energy and environmental footprints to incorporating the social aspect of the built community. That now extends into the health of the workers and occupants, and to social equity with regard to the supply chains of material manufacturers.

In the closing plenary, the USGBC hierarchy piqued our curiosity by suggesting that there will be even more surprising changes to be announced at next year’s Greenbuild in Washington DC.  There is a hint of a better collaboration between USGBC and Industry where in the past these relationships have been strained to say the least. Perhaps the surprises we have been promised will be good ones.

Scott Kriner is the president and founder of Green Metal Consulting Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional who began his career in the metal construction industry in 1981. His company is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the California Association of Building Energy Consultants and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

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