If you sell wood products, you need to know more about the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. The National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) believes that LEED, as written today, raises serious concerns for the future use of wood products in construction.

LEED is a system developed by the USGBC to accelerate the development and implementation of green building practices. The goal of the USGBC is to make LEED the “leading-edge system for designing, constructing, and certifying the world's greenest and best buildings.” There are currently several LEED rating systems for commercial construction, but most importantly for pro dealers, there is a proposed plan for a LEED system for residential homes, LEED-H.

NLBMDA and several other industry associations have identified several significant flaws in the overall structure of LEED and more significantly in the proposed guidelines for the use of wood products in construction. Though green building and LEED are still in their infancy in the construction market, we fear that due to the rapid growth of the USGBC and the continued recommendation of the LEED system as the green building guideline by federal and state agencies for government construction, LEED will become the de facto green building standard across the country. We feel that a flawed standard such as LEED combined with a growing awareness and demand by consumers for green building could cause a future decrease in the use of wood and significant restrictions on dealers trying to supply materials to and compete for green building projects.

It is important to understand that “green” or sustainable building, done fairly and scientifically, has numerous environmental and commercial benefits for everyone and should continue to be promoted and used. It should also be noted that LEED has several supporters among dealers and manufacturers that have benefited from the increase in sales due to the demand for green building. However, NLBMDA and other associations believe that there are several problems that need to be addressed before LEED or any other green building rating system is promulgated.

NLBMDA believes the current LEED system lacks important scientific research. The LEED rating system is inherently unfair because it was not developed through a true consensus-based process. The USGBC prohibits building material trade associations from joining the organization and providing input on the LEED system. By excluding organizations such as the American Forest and Paper Association, NLBMDA, and several other trade associations, the final system was skewed toward a small, unrepresentative segment of the construction industry. The USGBC continues to prevent trade associations from directly participating in the organization and, despite promises of better access to information, there are few ways for building material industry associations to make their voices heard in the creation of LEED-H.

NLBMDA also believes current LEED rating systems ignore important and widely accepted scientific research. LEED does not use life-cycle assessment (LCA) in the determination of what are recyclable, renewable and environmentally friendly products. Since LEED does not use LCA, steel and other alternative products are viewed as equal or better green building alternatives than wood. The lack of LCA use in LEED has similar impacts on other building material products, making certain alternative products appear more environmentally friendly despite scientific studies that prove otherwise.

The LEED rating system has four certification levels for buildings: certified, silver, gold, and platinum. An increasing number of points must be earned for a building to achieve each subsequent level of certification. There are many different areas of construction that LEED awards points for, such as energy and atmosphere, water efficiency, and indoor environmental air quality, but the most important portion for the building products industry is the section on materials and resources, which covers several different types of products such as vinyl and insulation. Most importantly, we believe, it provides guidelines and a point structure for the sourcing and use of wood products that NLBMDA feels is detrimental to the forest products industry and pro dealers.

  • LEED only rewards points for using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)–certified wood materials. This ignores several other well-recognized forest management systems, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and the American Tree Farm System. It also excludes non-industrial U.S. and foreign-managed forests that are not certified under FSC. This significantly limits dealers and the places they can source wood materials from if they are supplying a LEED project. The long-term effect may be a reduced supply and increase in demand, leading to greater competition and higher prices. It may also put smaller dealers at a disadvantage to larger dealers that can purchase and source at greater quantities and distances.
  • LEED ignores the benefits of renewable building materials such as wood in favor of recycled-content materials. The system rewards points for higher-energy content and non-renewable resources such as steel. This could have an obvious negative impact on the “bread and butter” of most dealers.
  • LEED awards points for the use of rapidly renewable resources but so narrowly defines “rapidly renewable” that only products that originate from plants that are harvested within a 10-year cycle are included. The guideline discriminates against several types of forest management processes and hardwoods that require longer maturation cycles.
  • The LEED system provides additional points only for the use of materials manufactured within 500 miles of their end use. This ignores the environmental advantages of some products that happen to come from greater distances. Dealers will again be limited under this provision if providing materials for a LEED project.
  • These concerns and several others led to the formation of the North American Coalition on Green Building (NACGB) in 2003. The NACGB was established by some of the leading building material product associations, including NLBMDA, with the mission of reducing the environmental impact of buildings through the application of scientifically justified green building standards. NACGB is working with USGBC to gain access for affected trade associations, incorporate LCA into LEED, change unfair biases in current LEED systems, and provide input on future LEED rating systems. The NACGB is also working to educate legislators and agency officials on the state and federal levels about its concerns and to prevent the further adoption of the system until it is appropriately changed.

    In addition, the NAHB Research Center is developing its own green building guidelines for residential construction. The new guidelines, expected for release at the end of this year, will provide home builders with fair and scientifically based green building guidelines. The NAHB-RC guidelines are expected to address several of the concerns building product associations have with LEED.

    There is still much that needs to be done to ensure a fair playing field for wood products. NLBMDA will continue to work with the NACGB to promote changes to LEED and prevent the adoption of the flawed system throughout the country. The association also plans further efforts to educate the supply chain about LEED and green building programs. Dealers need to be aware of both the potential benefits and drawbacks of green building as demand for it increases and dealers are asked to get involved. For more information about LEED, efforts to change it, or about green building, contact me at 800.634.8645 or tj@dealer.org. —T.J. Cantwell is NLBMDA director of regulatory and industry affairs.