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Dissenting Opinion: LEED v4’s ‘Chemicals of Concern’ Plan Defended

Monday, July 9, 2012

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Countering strong opinions voiced by the chemical industry and building-material manufacturers about the U.S. Green Building Council’s pending LEED v4, a sustainable-business coalition is applauding USGBC’s plans to add a “chemicals of concern” section to the green building rating system.  

“Trade associations that are claiming that LEED v4 is a ‘tool to punish chemical companies’ are supporting a set of chemical processes that belong to our past—not our future…It’s time to move on,” Robin Guenther, principal, Perkins+Will, told Durability + Design.

Perkins+Will, one of the nation’s largest architectural and building firms, is a member of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), an organization committed to advancing “a new sustainable economy.”

 Robin Guenther
 Robin Guenther, principal

The organization recently went on record to applaud USGBC’s “ethical and innovative move toward safer chemical use.” See: Chemical Industry Trade Association Condemns U.S. Green Building Council.

Voting on the troubled LEED v4 green-building standard (previously known as LEED 2012) was recently postponed until June 2013. USGBC says the action came in response to its members’ requests for more time to absorb the changes in the updated version of the rating system.

Prior to the postponement, however, building-materials manufacturers and trade associations, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC), were outspoken in voicing reservations about the standard.


USGBC’s plan to make significant changes to its LEED green-building rating system also hit rocky terrain with a controversial import—incorporation of a European Union law known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) as a basis for judging the LEED credit-worthiness of materials.

Building-materials manufacturers and organizations, including the American Coatings Association (ACA), say REACH represents a complex chemical risk-management program that would present major compliance issues for U.S. suppliers and other parties with ties to building construction and renovation.

 Howard Williams
 Howard Williams
 Construction Specialties Inc.

Manufacturers currently face the task of complying with domestic regulatory requirements, and bringing the REACH program into the picture would add a whole new set of regulatory requirements, ACA said in raising a number of issues with the “avoidance of chemicals of concern” credit provision. See: A REACH for LEED?

Members of the American Sustainable Business Council disagree with that view, and also note the lack of any homegrown alternative.

“I would have preferred a v4 reference a U.S. standard, but there is no up-to-date, uniform and comprehensive U.S. standard/code identifying and addressing chemicals of concern,” said Howard Williams, LEED AP ID +C, Construction Specialties Inc.

“Congressional hesitancy and failure to act on Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Reform and consider a Safe Chemicals Act may be why we see REACH in v4; as we have no effective alternative of our own,” Williams said.

Guenther agreed, saying REACH has its flaws, but “represents a significant global step forward for safer chemicals.”

She added: “The USGBC is not a standard-setting organization; it gathers the very best third-party standards in order to transform the market in the service of healthy and sustainable built environments.

“Unfortunately, on the subject of safer chemicals, there is no equivalent U.S. standard to REACH.”

Guenther said it is “time to act on both the disclosure as well as the safety of chemicals in building products in buildings. As specifiers for projects on a global scale, we support the USGBC decision to move to this platform in LEED tools.”

Transformation of Market

The LEED plan to make avoidance of chemicals of concern a part of the rating system reflects an important aspect of sustainability, and the proposed new credits reward both disclosure of chemicals in products and avoidance of chemicals of concern in its new credits, ASBC said.

David Levine, ASBC CEO, told D+D the time has come for “economic growth that taps the innovation and ingenuity of American businesses and mobilizes entrepreneurs to use the best science to create safer, healthier chemicals and products” rather than attacking the USGBC’s first stab at crafting a chemicals-of-concern credit.

“The market transformation to healthier and safer products is just that—a wholesale transformation,” Guenther said. “Innovative product manufacturers are in fact bundling significant product innovations with a shift away from chemicals of concern—a win-win situation for both forward-thinking chemical companies and the manufacturers who rely on them.”

“Inevitably, this transformation produces winners and losers,” she said. “As specifiers, we look forward to a healthy, creative and vibrant chemical industry producing non-toxic, sustainable chemicals that support safer jobs, healthy communities, and biodiversity—a vision we believe the best of the chemical manufacturers share. Ultimately, we need to reward the companies that design chemicals that safely and successfully navigate all life cycle impacts—from production through disposal.  It’s time to move on.”

Richard Liroff, executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network—also a member of ASBC—echoed Guenther’s comments, saying attacks on the LEED program are a “disservice to those chemical companies who recognize the growth and profit potential of developing innovative materials to satisfy the steadily increasing market demand for energy-efficient buildings employing less hazardous chemicals.

“For example,” Liroff said, “there’s been increasing market demand for non-phthalate plasticizers and alternatives to Bisphenol-A, because of toxicity concerns around these chemicals, and Eastman Chemical has reaped financial rewards by offering these safer alternatives.

“Markets can be cruel, punishing companies that don't respond to changing demands. The business school term for this is disruptive innovation,” he said.

The American Chemistry Council, meanwhile, called postponement of the ballot vote on LEED v4 a “good first step;” although according to various news reports USGBC has indicated it has no intention of significantly altering the proposed credits to appease critics.

The American Sustainable Business Council was founded in 2009 and says it consists of more than 150,000 businesses and more than 300,000 entrepreneurs, owners, executives, investors, and business professionals. Membership represents a diverse range of sectors, including some manufacturers and distributors of building materials, paint/coatings, and chemicals.

More information: American Sustainable Business Council; LEED v4.


Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Associations; Construction chemicals; Design; Green building; Green design; LEED; Sustainability; U.S. Green Building Council

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/10/2012, 8:42 AM)

Okay, I started digging through the REACH database and associated information. Definitely complex. I'm not finding much on the term "Chemicals of Concern" - does LEED really mean "Substances of Very High Concern" (SVHC)?

Comment from Joe Maty, (7/10/2012, 9:16 AM)

Tom, maybe these previous stories in D+D News would be of use: A REACH for LEED? USGBC Hits Turbulence with Controversial Import http://www.durabilityanddesign.com/news/?fuseaction=view&id=7808 Delay of LEED Game: USGBC Postpones Plans to Finalize Troubled Update http://www.durabilityanddesign.com/news/?fuseaction=view&id=7823

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/10/2012, 9:32 AM)

Thanks, Joe! It looks like instead of using the existing REACH category, USGBC/LEED decided to add a layer of confusion by putting in their own terminology.

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