With LEED Version 4 having officially launched in November, new changes to the technical requirements of the world’s most popular green building rating system means woodworkers need to get up to speed to be compliant and stay competitive.

There’s no arguing that the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for green buildings has taken the world by storm. Since its inception in 1993, the USGBC has registered or certified more than 46,000 projects representing nearly 6.6 billion square feet, and it continues to certify projects at a dizzying pace of 1.5 million square feet per day in nearly every conceivable market, including commercial offices, hotels, hospitals, schools, retail outlets and even residential communities.

Love it or hate it, LEED isn’t going away and with the new Version 4 officially having launched at the Greenbuild Conference & Expo in November, woodworkers are now faced with another learning curve as they grapple with substantial changes to the Materials & Resources (MR) credits and revised terminology that coincide with the updated requirements.

“I think LEED is driving the construction industry … it’s forcing code,” suggests Rob Ziegelmeier, Sustainability Resource Representative for the Architectural Woodworking Institute (AWI) in Potomac Falls, Va. “If you’re going to be involved in LEED projects—and whether we like it or not, or whether we agree with it or not—it’s here, it’s here to stay and it’s being used more.”

Ziegelmeier notes that nearly 30 to 35 percent of LEED projects are owned by federal, state and local government and those in the wood industry who want to bid and work on LEED projects should get up to speed with the recent changes to the rating system.

“I would say that LEED can give you an edge in a very competitive market,” says Holley Henderson, Founder of H2 Ecodesign in Atlanta. “If all other things are equal and a woodworking group is going to help with supporting LEED documentation, chain of custody, or whether it’s just being knowledgeable about LEED principles, that’s an advantage.”


What has changed?

According to the USGBC, LEED v4 opens up a wider variety of project types (including existing schools and retail outlets, data centers, warehouses, hospitality and midrise residential) and places a stronger emphasis on building performance. The new rating systems also supports a life cycle approach to product and material specification through a revised Materials & Resources credit category, which has the most direct impact on woodworkers and has also been the source of controversy as it relates to certified wood (more on this below).
“LEED v4 is a dramatic change specifically to the Materials & Resources category, which is where the vast majority of woodworkers get their credit,” explains Ziegelmeier. “The Materials & Resources credits have changed so much so that it’s almost like starting all over again.”

To his point, the USGBC has eliminated the familiar MR Credit 7 for Certified Wood that currently exists in LEED 2009. In its place, LEED v4 contains a new credit titled, “Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Sourcing Raw Materials” (MRc3), which addresses transparency in raw material sourcing and selecting materials that have been appropriately sourced. The credit encourages the use of products and materials for which life-cycle information is available and that have environmentally, economically, and socially preferable life-cycle impacts.

“For smaller shops, what I’m seeing with LEED version 4 is there’s an increased awareness and push toward transparency in products,” says Mark Smith, president of Neil Kelly Cabinets in Portland, Ore. He says the USGBC has set its sights on transparency, and “they’re looking at the product label, they’re looking at Health Product Declarations, they’re looking at as much information as they can up front … and that’s part of the point requirement of LEED 4 that I’m seeing that’s a significant change over what we had before.”

Other significant amendments to the Materials & Resources category include the addition of new credits, such as:
MRc2 – Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Unlike earlier versions of LEED that relied on single-attribute programs identifying recycled, reused or bio-based content, this new credit addresses transparency in environmental life-cycle impacts and selecting products with improved life-cycles, and rewards the use of products with EPDs and that meet the local products criteria.

MRc4 – Material Ingredient Reporting. Another new credit, MRc4 takes into account the transparency in material ingredients and selecting products with optimized (non-hazardous) ingredients and rewards the use of products with ingredient reporting in programs like Health Product Declaration, Cradle 2 Cradle, and others.
Notably, LEED credits familiar to woodworkers, such as Recycled Content, Rapidly Renewable Materials and Regional Materials, have been relocated to the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization category as well. The problem, however, lies in which wood products qualify for credits.


FSC: The Gold Standard

The harshest criticism of LEED among the timber industry and woodworking professionals seems to center around the fact that Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the only accepted third-party certification program for wood products. The current language in LEED v4 states that in order to receive the MRc3 credit for wood products, a project must use at least 25 percent by cost of permanently installed materials that are “certified by FSC or a USGBC-approved equivalent.” To date, no other “equivalent” has been named, which has drawn criticism from the industry.

In response to this endorsement, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) released an official statement in which it says that, “Unfortunately, USGBC does not have a defined process in place to evaluate equivalency or criteria to determine equivalency. This could mean another decade of domestic, well-managed forests certified to SFI and ATFS (American Tree Farm System) not being recognized for LEED credits by USGBC, while forests certified to FSC the world over will be eligible for the LEED ‘sourcing of raw materials’ credit.”

SFI goes on to note that 90 percent of the FSC-certified forests exist outside the U.S. , which calls into question the value of FSC’s sustainability claims given the embodied energy required to import such products. Further, by severely limiting the number of wood products accepted within LEED projects to only those certified by FSC (which it claims has certified 15 percent of the world’s forests), some observers believe that the USGBC’s decision may inadvertently drive up the price of wood and/or force builders to seek alternative building materials that carry a heavier carbon footprint.

Given how costly it can be for a small cabinet shop to obtain FSC certification to prove chain of custody and meet other compliance requirements, it might seem that being “green” is simply too cost prohibitive. Fortunately, “There is a little bit of a work-around with this [FSC requirement],” according to Alicia Snyder-Carlson, senior consultant at Green Building Services in Portland, Ore.

“Let’s say the small cabinetmaker is not FSC-certified and they still want to do work for a particular project,” she explains. “If the products, the raw products that are FSC-certified, are shipped directly to the site and the work happens on-site, then that vendor—the last millworker or cabinetmaker—does not need to have chain of custody certification because essentially the chain of custody is held intact because it made it to the project site with the last person being certified.”


The bottom line

Ultimately, being involved in a LEED program, especially for a smaller wood shop, “can be somewhat daunting—there’s no question about that,” says Zeigelmeier. But as Henderson points out, wood product specifiers and clients alike are beginning to embrace a more holistic approach to design and construction, and concerns about toxicity, human health and “the gesture toward life-cycle thinking will be a new, future trend direction.”

For all its flaws, the LEED rating system is still the most viable tool for green building professionals, and it’s clearly gaining more momentum as the new version expands into more markets and raises the bar in terms of building performance. For the wood industry, there are many hurdles to overcome, but the price of entry into the green playing field is one that can’t be deferred for much longer if things continue at their current pace.
“I hear the state pushing back, I hear the forest industry, timber industry pushing back a little bit,” says Smith. “But the bottom line is we need to be working all together toward a better environment, whether that’s through sustainable manufacturing, sustainable timber or looking at lower toxic products that we’re putting in homes. So I really think people need to get on board with it.”

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