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House Committee Holds Important Hearing on Science Behind Green Building Rating Systems

On May 8, 2012, the House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing titled “The Science Behind Green Building Rating Systems.” The Subcommittee, which is chaired by Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, heard testimony from a number of organizations, including USGBC, the Green Building Initiative, and ASHRAE. It called the hearing as part of the five-year cycle required under Section 436(h) of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 for the federal government to choose – and subsequently evaluate – one or more third-party rating systems for federal buildings. The hearing also coincided with the release of the results of GSA’s study for the end of the current cycle (which found that although LEED matched GSA’s requirements most closely for existing buildings, Green Globes was more closely aligned for existing buildings).

From the outset, Representative Broun made it clear that the Subcommittee’s goals for the hearing were to focus on many of the pressure points behind the debates over green building policy that have reverberated across the industry for nearly a decade, framing his goals for the hearing as follows during his introductory remarks:

“Are taxpayers saving money as a result of LEED standards? . . . I’d like to learn why [LEED and Green Globes] are more effective than one that could be developed by DOE and GSA themselves. . . . I am also concerned that consensus appears to be missing in some cases. . . . Recent proposed changes to LEED for 2012 also appear to penalize some common building materials with little to no basis in science such as PVC piping. . . . Shouldn’t we instead be focusing on saving taxpayer dollars rather than social engineering? Adopting standards that don’t save taxpayer money or tell American workers that the products they make are not welcome in federal buildings defies common sense.”

One of the witnesses – Professor John Scofield of Oberlin College – was particularly critical of LEED and its promises of increased energy performance during his remarks. Professor Scofield spoke at length about the 2008 New Buildings Institute study and the peer-reviewed papers he has published based on the NBI study’s LEED data, telling the Committee that there “appears to be no scientific basis for institutions such as colleges, universities, or the federal government to require LEED certification as a greenhouse gas or energy reduction strategy for its buildings.” Scofield concluded his testimony by arguing for a green building rating system that “combines the sex appeal of LEED with the substance of Energy Star and, of course, has scientifically demonstrated success before any consideration of a mandate.”

Testimony from Roger Platt, USGBC’s Senior Vice President of Global Policy and Law, was predictably less controversial and read more like an excerpt from USGBC’s marketing materials than a data-driven business case for the energy efficiency of LEED-rated buildings. For example, Mr. Platt testified that “LEED-certified buildings have been proven to generate higher rents, have a greater resale value, offer faster lease-up and retain higher occupancy rates. It is results like these that make it easy to see why nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies use LEED certification to increase their brand value and their bottom line, all the while preserving natural resources.” Much of Mr. Platt’s rationale for why LEED saves taxpayer dollars was simply listing a selection of federal buildings that have earned the LEED label from USGBC. While the testimony that Mr. Platt did provide was footnoted extensively, it is worth noting the stark difference between his and Mr. Scofield’s approaches to their respective testimony.

All of the witnesses’ testimony is worth reviewing in detail, as is the entire hearing (available here). But the Subcommittee’s decision to call the hearing in the first place is important for two crucial reasons. First, whether driven by Henry Gifford’s lawsuit, the floundering economy, or something else, Congress is focused on the implementation of green building policy at the federal level. This will have repercussions for lower-level agencies and governments, as well as the private sector. Second, the explicit focus on building performance data as driving future congressional decisions will – hopefully – increase the body of building performance data available to all players – not just the government – and allow better real estate decisions across the board.

But what’s most clear after the hearing is that winds of change are blowing through green building policy at the federal level. The recent flap over DOD’s decision to create its own internal building code that would complement any LEED certification efforts that do not involve any cost premium could bode for a similar situation at GSA, particularly in light of Representative Broun’s opening remarks at the hearing. Regardless of the market penetration that systems like LEED and Green Globes have made in the private sector over the past decade, a drop in federal applications for certification could be a significant blow to both, particularly if the economy remains soft.

Anecdotally, both USGBC and GSA are feeling pressure related to LEED 2012. The former has already (1) delayed the member vote on LEED 2012 until November (from August); and (2) rebranded LEED 2012 as LEED v4, pushing the ballot back until June of 2013 in breaking news last night. And on May 18, a bi-partisan group of 56 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to GSA requesting that it discontinue using LEED if USGBC’s proposed changes in LEED 2012 are approved. The letter expresses concern over a specific credit within LEED 2012 that offers a point for projects that avoid a list of “chemicals of concern.” The lawmakers wrote that they are “deeply concerned that the LEED rating system is becoming a tool to punish chemical companies and plastics makers and spread misinformation about materials that have been at the forefront of improving environmental performance — and even occupancy safety — and in buildings.” According to the letter, GSA’s adoption of LEED 2012 would “amount to the federal government sanctioning an unscientific, arbitrary, and discriminatory program of material selection.”

The full roster of witnesses who testified before the Subcommittee was: Kathleen Hogan of DOE, Kevin Kampschroer of GSA, Ward Hubbell, President of the Green Building Initiative, Roger Platt, Senior Vice President of Global Policy and Law at USGBC, Professor John Scofield of Oberlin College, Victor Olgya of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Tom Talbot, the CEO of Glen Oak Lumber and Milling of Wisconsin.

A video of the entire hearing is available here for your review. I look forward to your comments below.

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