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Lack of Life Cycle Assessment Continues to Plague Green Building Rating Systems

According to University of Minnesota emeritus professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering James L. Bowyer, USGBC’s LEED system may be doing more harm than good when it comes to fostering sustainable design practices. In a recent article in Professional Builder, Bowyer specifically pointed to LEED’s current lack of life cycle assessment (“LCA”) for building materials.

LCA in the context of sustainable building refers to an analysis of the environmental impact of construction materials and building systems during the course of their entire useful lives. Bowyer’s main point is that, in the absence of LCA, LEED encourages project teams to achieve as many credits as possible, which may actually end up increasing- rather than decreasing- the environmental impact of purportedly green construction. While USGBC is contemplating the inclusion of LCA in the LEED Version 3.0 system, Bowyer stated that the organization “has a history of implementing change at glacial speed.” He also critiqued the NAHB residential standards, pointing out that the organization “simply says you can use LCA if you want to, and you get a point for doing it . . . [b]ut there’s no real provision that LCA be used. The way the standard’s written, it’s kind of unlikely that anybody is even going to do that.”

In the same article, Eric Corey Freed of San Francisco-based organicARCHITECT acknowledged that while LEED is “wonderfully democratic . . . like most democracies, it is achingly slow to adopt change.” Freed identified two different LCA standards that might eventually be incorporated into LEED- the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability’s Smart Consensus Sustainable Product Standard and the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Lens. Nevertheless, the trick for USGBC, NAHB, and other standard-setting organizations as they contemplate LCA in future versions of their respective rating systems will be to ensure that any LCA standard is both easily understandable for project teams, as well as objective and free from influence by green product or manufacturer lobbyists.

It should be noted that the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes rating standard- which to date has been incorporated into legislation by 11 states- does currently offer points for LCA efforts. LCA assessment will undoubtedly be an important green building issue throughout the course of 2008 as it moves onto the collective radar screen of the various sustainable building standard-setting organizations.

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