'Green' growth fuels an entire industry
By: Thomas Frank
When Rob Watson was writing the nation's first private standard for environmentally friendly construction in the 1990s, he wanted to require "green" buildings to get recertified after five years to prove they were actually conserving energy and water.
But Watson, an environmentalist and early U.S. Green Building Council member, was rebuffed by council marketers who feared that developers would shun a green standard if they knew they could lose certification down the road.
"People were terrified that we would do something that would scare people away," Watson recalled. "It would on some level be a terrible PR thing if you had to remove a building's (environmental) plaque."
Watson's proposal was rejected, illustrating the building industry's power in shaping the wildly popular green-building standard called LEED, which more than 200 federal, state and local government agencies now require in hope of conserving energy and minimizing environmental damage.
The non-profit council calls itself a "diverse group of builders and environmentalists, corporations and non-profits, teachers and students, lawmakers and citizens."
In practice, the council is a business group dominated by architects, engineers, builders and suppliers that profit as tens of thousands of buildings and homes are built to meet LEED, a point-based rating system that stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
Business interests make up 89% of the council's voting membership, according to a USA TODAY analysis of council records, and include 91 Fortune 500 companies such as McDonald's, PepsiCo, DuPont and Alcoa. Eighteen of the board's 20 voting members are officials at for-profit firms. Businesses have given the council tens of millions of dollars the past decade in both membership dues and donations, council records show.
By contrast, the council's board has just one person who works for an environmental advocacy group. Only 100 voting members of the council — about 1% — are environmental non-profits. The board didn't have a public-health specialist until 2010 — 17 years after it formed — though LEED encourages the design of buildings that protect occupants' health.
"You've got the building industry playing a strong role in setting these standards that are then being adopted as law. I don't think many people understand that," said John Wargo, a Yale University environmental health professor.
The building industry's influence over LEED, while raising some concerns, also has propelled LEED's dramatic growth across the U.S. and into 139 countries. LEED has won wide acceptance among people who plan, design and construct buildings as a way to win environmental approval and boost profit. There are 13,500 LEED-certified commercial buildings in the U.S., and another 30,000 have applied for LEED approval.
"There are more businesses engaged in the business/environmental movement than there ever would have been," building council CEO Rick Fedrizzi said. "The whole game has changed because of our inclusiveness."
The council has attracted top building-industry firms. Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Heider is an executive at global construction firm Skanska. Board Secretary Punit Jain works for international architects and engineers Cannon Design. Treasurer Lisa Shpritz is a senior vice president at Bank of America, the nation's second-largest bank.
Council Senior Vice President Scot Horst said responsible growth must consider both the environment and the economy: "Our goal is to have a healthy economy. You can't have a failing economy and pretend that the environment won't suffer."
Watson, now a consultant, doesn't fault the council for its caution. "LEED had to save energy and save water, but it also had to make money," he said. "Our job in the first couple of years was to make friends in the industry with something that was sufficiently aggressive and sufficiently comfortable to do. Once we had some traction, then we could start ratcheting up the standards."
LEED has grown more stringent since its launch in 2000, imposing tougher water- and energy-conservation requirements.
The 'green' building boom
Largely as a result of LEED, green construction has soared from $3 billion in 2005 to $58 billion in 2011 and will reach $122 billion in 2015, according to researcher McGraw-Hill. Green design generates another $4 billion a year for architects and engineers.
The nation's largest green builder, Turner Construction of New York City, helped form the building council in the 1990s and held a board seat for most of the past decade. Turner has earned $16.3 billion in the past decade from LEED-certified projects, said Michael Deane, the company's sustainability chief and a former building council board member.
Some leaders have benefited directly as the council created new LEED standards.
Wisconsin environmental consultant Michael Arny became chairman of a council committee formed in 2001 to create a LEED rating system for existing buildings. His consulting group, the Leonardo Academy, then was hired to help write the standard, receiving $793,000 from 2003 through 2005, according to council tax records. Arny's group is now a leading consultant for property owners seeking certification under the standard that Arny helped write.
"We played a really significant role in helping to create and promote a program that's become very successful," Arny said.
The council has paid current and former board members and their firms at least $3.5 million for work on LEED, council tax records show. The work helped position the council members and their firms as top LEED experts.
Council members have lobbied for LEED and green building at all levels of government. About 30,000 members of 79 council chapters influenced 202 proposed laws in 2011 alone, a council report states. The council itself has spent $3.3 million since 2005 lobbying the federal government and Congress on dozens of measures to promote green building through grants, tax breaks and construction standards, federal records show.
Published 6 months, 3 weeks ago under The Good Life