By Bob Zabcik, P.E. LEED AP BD+C, NCI Group, Inc.
A huge buzzword in the building products industry these days is transparency. The green building movement, which has previously focused on high-performing buildings with a strong emphasis on energy efficiency and fossil fuel use reduction, has increasingly put its cross hairs on occupant exposure risk in the last few years. Although that change alone is probably enough to start some controversy, how this new emphasis is being implemented is really fueling the fire for new arguments.
If you read my last article, The Importance Of Consensus In Building Standards - Part 1, then you should be familiar with how building codes are developed in a consensus-based forum in which all affected parties have some say. However, many of the movers and shakers of the green building movement have bypassed that forum by folding the requirements they want to emphasize into voluntary programs of their own creation. At the same time, they lobby owners and building officials to carry some level of compliance to these programs, offering a benefit of being able to say their buildings or communities are “green” by displaying plaques on the façade or being listed on a website.
Although that tact seems fair on the surface, it really puts a lot of power into the hands of self-proclaimed experts to decide on the definition of “green” they want to use for their program. As we discussed in Part 1, the ANSI consensus process requires policy-making organizations to transparently prove their competence in subjects they affect with their policy. Furthermore, they also have to publicly announce the formation of a committee (called a “Call for Committee”) they designate to create and maintain this policy. They must also allow members of the public to submit curricula vitae for consideration to join the committee without necessarily being a member of the organization. This introduces a mechanism to balance the power the committee is usurping by having control of the policy going forward. Unfortunately, no such mechanism exists for many of the authors of voluntary green building programs and the negative aspects of this are particularly pronounced in the area of building product transparency.
One of the most common ways green building programs administer transparency is through the use of a “red list,” which is essentially a list of banned substances. Using California Proposition 65 or Europe’s RoHS as a model, many of the NGO-based programs related to buildings have some type of requirement that aims to reduce or eliminate the use of ingredients that could possibly be harmful to building occupants. In many instances, these same NGOs offer third-party listing programs that a building manufacturer can join and have their products declared as meeting the requirements. Many people see this as a conflict of interest since an NGO, typically funded through donations, is in a position to act as a gatekeeper, allowing in only those companies or industries that support the NGO financially or align themselves with the NGO’s agenda.
But there is a deeper, more disturbing aspect: Although the list itself may start out as a publicly accepted and scientifically based enumeration of toxic ingredients, NGOs often add other substances that are not known, or in some cases, even suspected, to be toxic in order to dissuade architects from specifying certain products or deploying certain construction methods. Quite often, the NGO will develop the red list in closed discussion forums where manufacturers have no ability to provide evidence to substantiate that their products are indeed safe. At best, a manufacturer can ask the NGO to consider exceptions or modifications. But ultimately, a manufacturer has no assurance that their case has been adequately considered because they are not allowed to attend the forum. Sadly, this is what passes for transparency in green construction more often than not lately.
This lack of due process came to a head in 2013, when members of congress began to express concern that LEED, the green building program used by the military and the General Services Administration, was not an ANSI-based standard. In response, the GSA formally announced that they would take public comment on the subject and decided nine months later that they would continue to specify LEED but other ANSI-based programs would be considered going forward as well. Meanwhile, the military announced that they were developing their own standard, distancing themselves from LEED. This quelled the discussion for a while and allowed other, even hotter subjects like healthcare to take the spotlight. But concern lives on that the lack of transparency in the development of LEED and similar programs is leading the public down a dangerous, politics-as-usual road.
However, the news is not all bad. There are several organizations that use an ANSI-based process to develop and maintain their programs so that the requirements can readily be incorporated into public policy. ASHRAE, ICC, and a newcomer in the U.S., The Green Building Initiative, have all invested the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to develop their standards in an ANSI-based public forum, and their respective programs offer a building owner or code official a great alternative to vague voluntary programs subject to interpretation by self-proclaimed experts. I will explore several of those options in my next article (Part 3).