Part III – Transparency Plus Consensus: A Win-Win for Everyone

Part III transparency plus consensusIt has been a long time since my last blog on this subject. This is not only because I’ve been busy but also because the landscape of green building programs in general has changed significantly since Part II, and I wanted to wait to see how things shook out before I wrote something that might be immediately outdated. If you remember, we left off in Part II talking about how LEED, the most popular green building program in the US, has not been developed through an ANSI accredited consensus process. Furthermore, the resulting lack of transparency was dubiously ironic given that LEED demands a high level of transparency from building product manufacturers min the latest version of their program, LEED v4.

We also discussed the related but more general movement for manufacturers to fully disclose all of the ingredients in their products to a third party who then compares that list to lists of known hazardous substances and disclose any matches on a product label or public disclosure for all to see. This movement has been fueled by several large architecture firms sending letters to building product manufacturers threatening to stop specifying their products unless they participate. Although most manufactures agree that there is merit to disclosure and are anxious to participate in a fair program, they have not been privy to discussions regarding the logistics of such a program nor have they been allowed to participate in any kind of a standard development governing the disclosure process. This makes manufacturers reluctant to participate, given their vulnerability in such a situation. This risk is leveraged by the fact that currently the only standards that dictate the rules of such a program are under the control of consortiums who have little to no scientific expertise and, frankly, have not been friendly to the building products industry in the past.

I also mentioned that there are alternative programs to LEED that have been developed through a valid consensus process. Specifically, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC), ASHRAE 189.1 and Green Building Assessment Protocol for Commercial Buildings (also known as Green Globes) are ANSI standards that outline the relevant requirements for anyone to view. However, the USGBC marketing machine and resulting popularity of LEED prevented wide use of these standards. Thus, they remained largely unutilized. That is until this year, when the USGBC, IgCC and ASHRAE signed a Memorandum of Understanding, promising to work together and create a favorable consensus by eliminating duplication of provisions and assigning an area of responsibility for each group to maintain separately.

Although no documents have yet to be created, it appears that the administration and enforcement provisions of the new standard will come from the IgCC, and the technical content will come from ASHRAE 189.1, both of which are consensus based. Meanwhile, LEED will require compliance with 189.1 as a prerequisite to an upcoming interim version of LEED. This approach allows an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) to adopt the IgCC as a minimum standard of construction; dropping any reference to LEED they might currently have as minimum project requirements for all buildings. This leaves LEED to evolve as a completely voluntary program going forward and push the envelope of green building, which is their core mission. Meanwhile, Green Globes remains ANSI accredited and still exists as a commercial competitor to LEED. This environment should result in a more user friendly application process, the lack of which been a ubiquitous criticism of LEED for years, because Green Globes is much more user-oriented.

So, it appears that the most popular green building programs are poised to move in the
direction of a true consensus, which is fantastic news for everyone involved. However, the creation and development of disclosure programs, which will not be in the initial technical requirements provided by ASHRAE 189.1, remains largely a one-sided affair with no seat for manufacturers at the table. Besides the contentious nature of the subject in general, there are major philosophical questions that have to be addressed before Health Product Declarations (HPDs), or any type of disclosure in general, can be brought into the main stream. That subject is beyond the scope of this blog, but I encourage you to read a very good article on the trappings of HPDs called “Disclosure: The Newest Dimension of Green Building” by Jim Hoff.

The good news is that there may be a viable alternative to HPDs on the horizon. ASTM has a current open work item to develop a true consensus based standard guiding the issuance of a Product Transparency Declaration (PTD), which has much the same intent as an HPD. As discussed in Part I, the development of ASTM standards is a highly transparent process that allows everyone, including manufacturers, to come to the table. I encourage every designer to join ASTM and get involved in this process, especially those firms who participated in the letter writing campaign, and forgo HPDs until PTDs are available.

Yes, it will take a little longer; the reality that the development of consensus based standards takes time. But just like the development of the laws that govern this country, there is far too much risk involved in getting it wrong. Instead, having these standards developed by a consensus-based process is the only way the finished product will be truly useful and meaningful.

Part II – Transparency in Building Products

Transparency in Building Products

A huge buzzword in the building products industry these days is transparency.  The green building movement, which has previously focused on high-performing buildings with a strong emphasis on energy efficiency and fossil fuel use reduction, has increasingly put its cross hairs on occupant exposure risk in the last few years.  Although that change alone is probably enough to start some controversy, how this new emphasis is being implemented is really fueling the fire for new arguments.  If you read our last blog, Part I – The importance of consensus in building standards,  then you should be familiar with how building codes are developed in a consensus-based forum in which all affected parties have some say.  However, many of the movers and shakers of the green building movement have bypassed that forum by folding the requirements they want to emphasize into voluntary programs of their own creation.  At the same time, they lobby owners and building officials to carry some level of compliance to these programs, offering a benefit of being able to say their buildings or communities are “green” by displaying plaques on the façade or being listed on a website.

Although that tact seems fair on the surface, it really puts a lot of power into the hands of self-proclaimed experts to decide on the definition of “green” they want to use for their program. As we discussed in Part I, the ANSI consensus process requires policy-making organizations to transparently prove their competence in subjects they affect with their policy.  Furthermore, they also have to publicly announce the formation of a committee (called a “Call for Committee”) they designate to create and maintain this policy.  They must also allow members of the public to submit curricula vitae for consideration to join the committee without necessarily being a member of the organization.  This introduces a mechanism to balance the power the committee is usurping by having control of the policy going forward.  Unfortunately, no such mechanism exists for many of the authors of voluntary green building programs and the negative aspects of this are particularly pronounced in the area of building product transparency.

One of the most common ways green building programs administer transparency is through the use of a “red list,” which is essentially a list of banned substances.  Using California Proposition 65 or Europe’s RoHS as a model, many of the NGO-based programs related to buildings have some type of requirement that aims to reduce or eliminate the use of ingredients that could possibly be harmful to building occupants.  In many instances, these same NGOs offer third-party listing programs that a building manufacturer can join and have their products declared as meeting the requirements.  Many people see this as a conflict of interest since an NGO, typically funded through donations, is in a position to act as a gatekeeper, allowing in only those companies or industries that support the NGO financially or align themselves with the NGO’s agenda.

But there is a deeper, more disturbing aspect:  Although the list itself may start out as a publicly accepted and scientifically based enumeration of toxic ingredients, NGOs often add other substances that are not known, or in some cases, even suspected, to be toxic in order to dissuade architects from specifying certain products or deploying certain construction methods.  Quite often, the NGO will develop the red list in closed discussion forums where manufacturers have no ability to provide evidence to substantiate that their products are indeed safe.  At best, a manufacturer can ask the NGO to consider exceptions or modifications.  But ultimately, a manufacturer has no assurance that their case has been adequately considered because they are not allowed to attend the forum.  Sadly, this is what passes for transparency in green construction more often than not lately.

This lack of due process came to a head in 2013, when members of congress began to express concern that LEED, the green building program used by the military and the General Services Administration, was not an ANSI-based standard.  In response, the GSA formally announced that they would take public comment on the subject and decided nine months later that they would continue to specify LEED but other ANSI-based programs would be considered going forward as well.  Meanwhile, the military announced that they were developing their own standard, distancing themselves from LEED.  This quelled the discussion for a while and allowed other, even hotter subjects like healthcare to take the spotlight.  But concern lives on that the lack of transparency in the development of LEED and similar programs is leading the public down a dangerous, politics-as-usual road.

However, the news is not all bad.  There are several organizations that use an ANSI-based process to develop and maintain their programs so that the requirements can readily be incorporated into public policy.  ASHRAE, ICC, and a newcomer in the U.S., The Green Building Initiative, have all invested the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to develop their standards in an ANSI-based public forum, and their respective programs offer a building owner or code official a great alternative to vague voluntary programs subject to interpretation by self-proclaimed experts.  We will explore several of those options in our next blog.

Part 1 – The Importance of Consensus in Building Standards

Building Code Standards BlogMost people understand the purpose of a building code: To ensure the safety of the occupants and to establish the minimum accepted performance level of the building and its systems.  Fewer people understand that because building codes are adopted into law by a governing body, technically referred to as an Authority Having Jurisdiction or AHJ, they are an in fact an extension of the law or ordinance that brings them into effect.  Knowing that, you should not be surprised to learn that like laws, building codes in America can’t just be arbitrarily made up by somebody having the authority and know-how to do so.  Instead, they must have gone through some type of consensus process in which all affected entities or their representatives have the opportunity to participate. This concept, called Due Process of Law, is central to many governmental charters such as the Magna Carta and The Constitution of the United States of America and is designed to ensure that a person’s individual rights are not unfairly taken away.

Under the US Constitution, laws are written by Congress and interpreted by judges.  Members of Congress are elected by their constituents and judges are either appointed by elected officials or elected themselves.  Similarly, building codes are written by consensus bodies, like the International Code Council or ICC, and interpreted by Building Officials, who are generally appointed by elected officials.  The code development process used by ICC is one where any interested member of the public can participate and is guaranteed a forum to propose changes and comment on the proposed changes submitted by others using a system governed by Roberts Rules of Order.  After discussion and debate, the code committee votes on the individual proposals and those that pass are incorporated into the code, guaranteeing due process.  (Actually, it’s quite a bit more complicated than this but for purposes of this blog, let’s just leave it at that.)

However, building codes commonly do not actually spell out all of the requirements for buildings and building systems.  More and more, the code will delegate low-level detailed requirements to a different type of document called a standard, and then brings the requirements contained within by referencing the standard in the code by name.  Likewise, these standards then must also be developed through a consensus process administered by an adequate standard development body.  But because all standard development bodies are structured a little differently, it is not realistic to mandate that consensus process directly.  Instead, another independent body called The American National Standards Institute or ANSI, certifies standard development bodies as having a sufficient consensus processes to be deemed as meeting the incorporating code requirements for due process.  Examples of these bodies are the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) who develop ASCE 7, the document that determines the minimum load requirements for buildings; the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) a group widely known for developing material and testing specifications for general use; and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), who develops ASHRAE 90.1, the document that spells out the minimum building energy efficiency requirements.  If you are an architect or engineer, all of these acronyms should sound very familiar to you.

Another acronym that you are probably familiar with is LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  It is developed and maintained by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and is the premier green building program in the world.  Interestingly though, the development landscape changes drastically when it comes to green construction programs like LEED.  You see, the USGBC is not an ANSI accredited standard developer and thus LEED is not an actual official standard, hence the use of the word “program”.  How then is it possible that USGBC can have so much say in how buildings, particularly publicly owned buildings, get built?  The answer is that they get around this limitation by structuring LEED as a voluntary program and then lobbying the potential owners of buildings, like the US and state governments, into using their program by executive order rather than legislating the requirement directly.  If you’ve watched TV at all in the last year, particularly with respect to immigration reform, you know how controversial this approach can be.  Nevertheless, it is perfectly legal in this context.

This really has not been a significant issue to date because LEED does have a consensus process (albeit not an ANSI accredited one) and LEED credit requirements have been fairly uncontroversial in past versions.  However, LEED v4, the latest generation of the wildly popular green building program, changed all of that by adding credits that are less about design and functionality of the building and more about transparency with respect to building product ingredients to ensure occupant health and comfort.  Let’s be clear: Most reasonable people, including building product manufacturers, don’t have a problem with increased transparency and want more occupant comfort and health.  But it is how LEED defines “transparency” in version 4 has many people up in arms and they point to the hypocrisy of developing a definition to the word “transparency” during a closed-door meeting with no manufacturers at the table as what is wrong with green building as it exists today.  My next blog will explore that concept further.

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