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LEED 2012 draft: Wood industry has mixed reactions to proposed changes

The second iteration of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED 2012 standard presents an incomplete picture. So say several leaders of the sustainable wood industry, some of whom contend the draft lowers the bar on wood and forests, and would undermine movement toward forest conservation and sustainability.

The good news is the draft is a work in progress, and industry input will be taken into account before LEED 2012 is released a year from November. Typical of the fluid nature of the draft, Kathy Abusow, president and CEO, Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), said when USGBC released a version of LEED 2012 in June, she thought it represented a positive change from what she viewed as USGBC’s unfair treatment of certified wood. “It appeared USGBC was heading in the right direction because Pilot Credit 43 for non-structural wood products such as flooring, furniture and windows lists forest certification standards equally in a section on ‘pre-approved certifications and labels.”

But, “barely a month later,” she added, “USGBC released its proposed updates to LEED’s Materials and Resources (MR) credits for commercial and residential construction, and we have taken a step back.”

The Pilot Credit 43 inclusion upset some industry people who said it was lowering the standard for what can be certified. A subsequent draft features a revamping of the MR section, which emphasizes both lifecycle assessment (LCA) and transparency by manufacturers.

“It’s a transition from where we think the market needs to be to get up-to-date with the rest of the world, and where it is right now,” said Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED at USGBC. Many of the leading principles in the wood industry had sharply diverging viewpoints about the latest draft.

What the industry likes

Bob Johnston, president of Tropical Forest Foundation, sees the latest draft as a “movement in the right direction. USGBC is looking at other organizations as it works toward documenting standards. That’s what we teach in the field. Our goal is to ensure legality, seek greater transparency and work with other organizations to improve forestry practices.”

Abusow said she “appreciates” USGBC is starting to look at issues such as LCA because when it come to using wood products, they “will be viewed more favorably than other building materials.”

Jason Grant, a consultant with the Sierra Club Forest Certification Team, said it is good that FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) remains a prerequisite for tropical wood in the LEED for Homes program, “although one wonders why only tropical forests are worthy of such treatment.”

What the industry does not like

While MR credits have been substantially overhauled, Abu- sow said the new “Responsible Sourcing of Raw Materials” credit fails to recognize the important contributions of made-in North America forest certification standards like SFI, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

She points out, of the certified woodlands in North America, SFI has about 80% while FSC has only 18%. “Building teams in the U.S. and Canada are being forced in many cases to go overseas instead of being able to use certified wood from their own backyards.”

When using science-based ISO LCA methodologies, as the USGBC is proposing to do, wood products would be viewed more favorably than other building materials, Abusow added.

However, Grant said LCA models as described in the draft fail to account for site-specific ecological impacts. “A fundamental problem is, under most LCA models, all wood looks the same regardless of how it was harvested. This so-called lifecycle assessment might be better called ‘half-cycle assessment’ given all the important impacts for which it fails to account.”

FSC vs. other certifications

Pilot Credit 43 recognizes SFI, along with other forest certification standards and Abusow wants that credit to be included in the final LEED draft and has encouraged builders and architects to provide feedback about the value of multiple forest certification standards like SFI. Countering that belief is Grant, who said SFI and other “low-bar forest certification schemes” should be scrapped from the final LEED 2012 proposal.

One aspect that all seem to agree on is that wood gets shafted in the latest LEED 2012 draft compared with other materials. “Does wood get a fair treatment vis-a-vis other materials?” Abusow asked. “No. One significant change under the new Responsible Sourcing of Raw Materials credit is USGBC has narrowed its recognition of wood products to only those with the FSC PURE designation. This is the only way for wood to get a point under this credit.”

A spokesman for FSC said while other materials can get a LEED point by meeting four basic criteria, “once again, USGBC has made it easier for other materials such as steel or concrete to receive points over wood.”

The hardwood leaders also questioned why USGBC doesn’t require other building products to “prove” their environmental bona fides to the same extent that it does wood products.

Recommendations

SFI suggests LEED revise its draft and award points to the North American groups. Of all the certified forest land in North America, these forest certification standards make up nearly 75% of certified forests in North America, Abusow said.

“Shutting these standards out discourages builders and architects from sourcing locally and supporting local communities and jobs.”

Johnston said USGBC should turn to organizations like CORRIM (the Consort- ium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials) to help set guidelines. “It researches the use of wood as a renewable material.” He pointed out its recent study on LCA found construction of wood-frame homes uses 17% less energy than the matching steel-frame home and 16% less energy than the matching concrete-frame home.

“CORRIM has gathered up the experts on renewable materials and their environmental impact and created a labeling system,” Johnston concluded. “What they are interested in is what we are interested in, which is the legality, transparency and sustainable practices necessary to keep forests intact.”

-Louis Iannaco