LEED Pilot Credit 43 and Product Disclosure: Right Direction, Wrong Weighting
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There's already been a lot of excellent debate around the new LEED Pilot Credit 43. I find myself agreeing with both sides! Here's where I stand in what may be the eye of the storm. LEED is supposed to be about buildings--and market transforma... We really need better disclosure around products--and better products We have neither the certifications nor the information on which to base truly robust comparisons between material alternatives. We're desperately in need of better disclosure on the environmental characteristics of products--and so far it's been like pulling teeth to get it. Given this state of affairs, we need every effort to encourage more comprehensive, comparable disclosure, like what EPDs have the potential to provide--so if LEED (along with UL and others) can really help with that, I'm all for it! Once there is robust disclosure, there are numerous alternative ways for preferred purchasing to drive improvement; we've barely scratched the surface of what could be possible (imagine being able to select the lower-impact assembly based on the data aggregated up through your BIM tool). On the other hand, we're desperately in need of dramatic leaps forward in terms of the life-cycle environmental performance of products. We're not going to get a sustainable world out of championing baby-steps forward, or any steps back to status quo. We need to be really clear that disclosure does not equal performance. Just because it has a nutrition label doesn't make it good for you. We need standards and certifications that push the industry toward continually higher performance--and we need all the market pull we can get (from LEED and elsewhere) to encourage their creation. It's also a lot simpler to specify, and rally behind, BIFMA level 3 certified furniture or FSC wood, than read and understand the fine print for every product choice--and these standards and certifications can cover things that aren't so easily quantified in an EPD. Back to FSC/SFI-- think of all that goes into a forestry certification, and the finer points that differentiate them. Now imagine, as a designer, trying to read comprehensive disclosure on forestry practices for every batch of wood sourced. It's either incomprehensible and takes too much time or doesn't cover all the areas of concern. There's something to be said for choosing a certification you trust as the starting point. End unequal scrutiny of product categories--by looking more closely By the way, we also need to end the highly unequal scrutiny on the environmental impact of different building product categories. There are far too many product categories for which the scrutiny is very mild or woefully incomplete (don't get me started on the list of concerns that go unaddressed for other "biobased" materials--and that's just one category). Right direction, wrong weighting I think LEED is going in the right direction with the overall thrust of this credit, but USGBC needs to be really careful with the weighting, and I'm not convinced they've got the balance right. We need to increase scrutiny on every product and material type, not just focus on wood, but we also need to be very clear that along with greater disclosure, the performance bar will be raised. Just having a nutrition label doesn't help if there are no healthy options. I wonder how much this whole debate is overblown by interests on both sides. I gave a webinar on green building product certifications to specifiers associated with CSI and raised the question of whether designers ever switched away from wood to another material when they couldn't find FSC. I was told no, they look for FSC--and if it's not available they go with SFI or one of the others. I didn't get the indication that designers were choosing between, say, steel and wood, merely based on ability to get a point for FSC or recycled content. I'd be interested to hear of specific examples to the contrary, but to me that's good news, because what's missing in the FSC/SFI debate is a similarly in-depth, chain-of-custody view of the environmental and social impacts associated with sourcing of wood alternatives. So this takes me back to the pilot credit. Refocus the energy of the wood debate If USGBC can find its way out of having to expend so many resources on the FSC/SFI debate, refocus most of that energy on driving creation of high-performance green buildings, while at the same time leading all industries to provide comprehensive disclosure and truly sustainable products, we all win. I'm not sure Pilot Credit 43 gets us there now (although I think it could develop in that direction), and I'm not sure folks on either side of the FSC/SFI debate will ever let up, but I do hope that somehow USGBC can use this pilot to navigate treacherous waters into a solution that does work. To my mind it'd be a shame if the positive direction implied by this pilot credit got trumped by its current weaknesses. Disclosure: I'm research director at BuildingGreen and on the Technical Committee at USGBC, but this post is purely my own current viewpoint. The complexity is far too great, with far too many perspectives, to speak as representative of anyone else!