Healthy Building Network  [Printer-friendly version]
September 13, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The same forces that corrupted the urban
renewal process in the 1970s -- big-money developers -- are now
trying to corrupt the "green building" movement. They are pouring
millions of dollars in cash and staff time into controlling -- and
changing -- the very definition of "green building."]

By Bill Walsh

Four months after the death of New York's urban visionary Jane Jacobs
(May 4, 1916 -- April 25, 2006)[1], I found myself jockeying for
position on the Cross Bronx Expressway stretch of Interstate 95.[2]
By the time of her death, Jacobs was revered; and the philosophy of
urban renewal she opposed was reviled. But I-95's monotonous
lacerations through cities from Boston to Washington, DC remain
monuments to the limits of Jacobs' contemporary influence. I wondered:
how will history judge the structures that will define our
generation's green building legacy?

Urban Renewal, like the Green Building movement, was inspired and
catalyzed by some of the best and brightest design professionals of
its generation. Their persuasive vision promised to link financial
success and social well-being within a pleasing aesthetic.

But something went wrong.

A big part of what went wrong is that those with the most to gain or
lose financially had the greatest incentives and resources to wrest
control of the movement from the merely civic-minded. Even though most
projects were subject to public scrutiny and debate, the big moneyed
interests routinely prevailed over the protests and counterproposals
of architects, planners, community organizations and advocates working
in the public interest.

Similar forces threaten the Green Building movement today. Deep
pocketed product manufacturers understand the promise of a "green"
marketing advantage conferred upon their product by a LEED credit, and
the peril of not having a "green" product in today's market.
Consequently they are pouring millions of dollars in cash and paid
staff hours into controlling -- and changing -- the very definition of
"green building."

According to the plastics and chemical industries, there is no plastic
that is not a green building product. According to the timber
industry, all wood is "good wood." Last year trade associations
representing the two industries unleashed an unrelenting attack on
LEED at both the state and federal level. They continue to threaten
LEED's assimilation into governmental green building standards unless
and until their products receive favorable treatment within the
Materials and Resources section.

It is in this context that the USGBC Board has directed the
membership to consider a proposal this fall that would meet timber
industry demands and award a LEED credit to the greenwash wood
certification label known as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative
(SFI). The Board's move is opposed not only by virtually all public
interest groups dedicated to forest protection, but also by wood
product manufacturers who have dedicated themselves to the consensus-
based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Hundreds of environmental and health advocacy groups also urge
reductions in the use of PVC building materials due to the plastic's
unique association with human carcinogens, heavy metals and phthalate
plasticizers. Most leading green building tools and experts[3] -- our
era's Jane Jacobs -- encourage reduced PVC use, contradicting the
USGBC leadership's decision to remove a proposed PVC reduction credit
from an early draft of LEED-CI (Commercial Interiors). The USGBC
created a task force to study the issue. Their final report is also
due this fall.

One doesn't need 20-20 hindsight to see the connection. Will the next
generation see in our buildings the early expression of green building
ideals and ideas? Or will they see in the vinyl and endangered (by
then extinct?) hardwoods another monument to big money's desecration
of big ideas? The response of the active membership of the USGBC to
the course being set by its elected board and professional staff will
mark a turning point in the history of this movement.


[1] Renowned author of arguably the most influential book on American
urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, see htt


[3] See, e.g. (not a comprehensive list): Michael Braungart,
McDdonough Braungart Design Chemistry; Che Wall, Australian Green
Building Council; Jason McLennan, AIA, CEO Cascadia Region Green
Building Council; Robin Guenther, FAIA; and the Green Guide for
Health Care.