Commentary: Making Sure LEED Leads

Lead Author:

Publish date: 01.01.2005


Feedback on the Green Building Standards


In 1993, a number of advocates of sustainable design founded the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). This effort resulted in the creation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED®) building rating system. Since its creation in 1999, this “green” building standard has become the benchmark for major building projects of every size and shape. The USGBC now boasts over 5,000 members and has over 50 chapters and organizing groups throughout the U.S. The first and most widely applied LEED® standard, LEED-NC, is currently up for review and comment. As LEED® grows, it has a number of critical issues to address in order to retain its status as a program that encourages leadership, innovation and sustainability, especially in regard to its handling of materials selection and wood products.


It is widely known that the leading cause of tropical forest destruction is conversion of forests to agriculture. With this in mind, it is worth considering whether rapidly renewable materials that may have resulted from the conversion of an endangered tropical rain forest are environmentally appropriate products. Currently under LEED they qualify. The LEED standards do not evaluate how “rapidly renewable” materials are produced or how the resources that produced these materials were managed. The use of rapidly renewable materials is encouraged by assuming that their use “reduces the depletion of finite raw materials and long-cycled renewable materials.” The only requirement under this criterion is that the materials are made from “plants that are typically harvested within a ten-year cycle”, and there is no relationship to the environmental appropriateness of that material itself except that it can grow fast. Heavy use of herbicides and pesticides, soil erosion, and water depletion are all attributes often associated with rapidly renewable plant crops.


The proposed changes to LEED-NC, currently open for comment, would allow for two credits for renewable materials. The first allows for the use of residues from bio-based materials or materials “grown or harvested under a recognized sustainable management system”. Independent third-party certification is not required. The lack of a requirement for a chain of custody or source verification program as part of this credit makes it difficult to confirm product claims about a "sustainable management system" and conceivably, almost any building project in the U.S. could achieve this credit without implementing any changes, and wood that originated from converted natural forest could be considered as meeting the LEED standards.


The second proposed change to the renewable materials section is to provide a credit for the use of “renewable, bio-based materials that are certified in accordance with one or more USGBC-approved premier certification programs.” The materials that would qualify include solid wood, engineered wood, bamboo, wool, cotton, cork, and agricultural fibers. A flaw in this proposed standard is that the examples of “USGBC-approved premier certification programs” only include one, the Forest Ste wardship Council (FSC), while the others mentioned are all trade associations.


The LEED program has had a significant impact on promoting environmentally appropriate and socially responsible forestry through its current provision of a credit for certified wood. The number of companies offering FSC certified wood products to the green building marketplace has grown by 64% percent in the last two years. The number of acres of forests certified has increased by over 40 million acres and many attribute much of this growth to the increased demand that has resulted from LEED. Close to 25 percent of LEED certified projects have received the credit for certified wood.


By providing a unique credit for certified wood, the USGBC has helped drive early adopters to innovative practices that can create change in the marketplace that leads to a more sustainable world, an accomplishment that is well aligned with the USGBC's original vision for the LEED program. It is important for the USGBC and its members to consider carefully the impacts the LEED standards can have outside of the built environment and assure that they truly lead towards sustainability.


Phil Guillery