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Green Building Proposals Would Include More Forest Certification Programs: Opposition to Genetics a Concern for Forestry Industry
‘Green’ Building: ‘Green’ construction programs expanding to include more forest certification organizations; opposition to genetics a concern for forest products industry.
By Matthew Harrison
Date Posted: 10/1/2008
Earlier this year, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) finalized plans to seek accreditation for its National Green Building Standard. While the new standard aims to provide clear-cut guidance to contractors and homeowners on a variety of issues, one of the hot topics has been the decision to allow credit for all major forest certification programs in the U.S. and Canada.
The standard is perceived by some in the industry as a possible rival to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) ubiquitous Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for residential construction. Currently, the LEED system only recognizes wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Using FSC-certified wood allows home builders to earn points that in turn can be used to attain a higher LEED rating.
Wood credits for both the proposed NAHB standard and the LEED program are scored for homeowners based on the percentage of certified wood used in structural components, such as beams and trusses.
Derived from over three years of studies and public comment periods, the new NAHB National Green Building Standard is under review by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Once the review is complete, NAHB will publish the new guidelines in collaboration with the International Code Council.
“The idea is to create a definition of ‘green’ building,” said Kevin Morrow, NAHB green building project manager. The primary goal of the NAHB Green Building Standard is to reduce confusion about what constitutes environmentally sustainable or ‘green’ building practices, he said.
NAHB encouraged broad industry representation when designing its new standards. A committee approved the final document before submission to ANSI. Advisors from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, USGBC and state and local officials added valuable input while formulating the new guidelines.
“The idea of the standard is that it would be applicable nationally, but that it would also maintain enough flexibility (for homeowners to) develop a home that is appropriately green for the location where that home will sit,” explained Kevin.
In addition to establishing a definition for green building standards, NAHB also aims to make the guidelines more accessible to contractors.
Inclusion of Other Certification Programs Possible for LEED
Several months after the standard was submitted to ANSI, USGBC released a draft version of changes to the LEED Certified Wood credit for public comment. In an effort to increase objectivity and stakeholder input, USGBC enlisted the support of Yale University’s Program on Forest Policy and Governance.
“We’ve gone beyond labels,” said Brendan Owens, LEED vice president of technical development, suggesting that LEED is attempting to break from its history of only approving FSC-certified wood for green building credits.
“What we’ve created is a benchmark with which all programs are going to have the ability to demonstrate conformance,” said Brendan. “If a product that is out there conforms to our benchmark, then it’s in. And if it doesn’t, then it’s not in.”
The revised LEED language in the new Forest Certification System Benchmark does not specifically list forest certification programs whose wood can be used to receive green building credit. Instead, forest certification programs are eligible for inclusion if they meet a set of criteria established in the new LEED language.
Representatives of the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) expressed optimism at the possibility of joining FSC under USGBC’s LEED umbrella.
Allison Welde, manager of conservation partnerships and green building for SFI, which is an initiative of the American Forest & Paper Association, a forest products industry trade organization, thinks that LEED’s proposed inclusiveness will help expand the certified wood market.
“People try to spec the LEED certified wood, and because of the supply the way it is, they can’t get it quick enough or they can’t get it at the right price because there are too many projects using the same product,” she said.
“If LEED does go to an inclusive policy, it would create more supply of certified wood products, thus eliminating the competition for the really scarce supply of one certification program,” Allison added. “Maybe other forest landowners will see the benefits of the green building market as an outlet for certified wood products, and perhaps we will be able to increase our certified locations, which will also add to the supply.”
Victoria Lockheart, American Tree Farm System certification manager, said the current LEED program “unfortunately discourages the use of wood by limiting the scope of their wood credit to FSC only products.”
Rewarding credit for using materials from one certification system limits materials and raises costs for everyone, Victoria noted. “It makes building greener prohibitively expensive for most home builders.”
American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) executive director Michael Virga also believes the new LEED proposal could eventually benefit the forestry industry, even though AFPA has historically denounced the LEED program. “To say that we were a little bit resistant in the past is a gross understatement,” he said. “We were not happy at all.”
Michael mentioned several points in the revised LEED language that may prove problematic for AFPA, particularly the complete ban on genetically modified organisms. “Genetically modified organisms are going to be the wave of forestry a decade down the road,” he predicted.
AFPA is scouring the revised language and plans to submit comments to USGBC, but Michael is hopeful that some compromises can be forged. “To be fair to USGBC, they did a fairly good job in laying out the benchmarks, and most of them are very reasonable,” he noted. “These are the types of benchmarks or criteria that every credible certification system should have.”
Although the new LEED revisions were released after NAHB sent its Green Building Standards to ANSI, Brendan remarked that the timing was merely a coincidence. “(The NAHB process) was a parallel track, and it did not inform the development of the (LEED) proposal that is currently out there for public comment very much at all,” he said. “I don’t think there’s much cross-pollination between those two initiatives.”
U.S. standards are also starting to gain acceptance in the global market. The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) schemes recently endorsed the certified wood program run by the ATFS. PEFC is a non-governmental organization that operates the largest forest certification program in the world.
ATFS stated, “Forest owners who voluntarily commit the extra time and expense to produce wood sustainably under the ATFS program will now qualify for access to international markets they never had before.”
Experts Gauge Impact of New Guidelines in Home Construction
As NAHB strives to define green building in a more concise and clear-cut manner, experts are wondering if future inclusion of ATFS and SFI will affect the certified wood market.
“There’s no doubt about it that (the NAHB Green Building Standard) can only increase the demand for certified wood, said Mark Barford, executive director of the National Hardwood Lumber Association. “There’s going to be more demand for certified wood, and the industry needs to respond to it.”
Mark cautioned not to expect drastic changes overnight, though. “I don’t see this one event being all that important…It’s still a niche market.”
Michael of AFPA agreed that certified wood is facing an uphill battle because of current economic conditions. “Right now, even with the very limited supply of certified wood for construction, there is no premium being paid for commodity products like lumber,” he remarked.
“The general public does not have an interest in paying a green premium for a 2x4,” Michael added. “Nobody goes to Home Depot and says, ‘Where is that certified piece of lumber? I’m willing to pay 10 cents more per board foot.’ It’s just not there. There are other top-of-mind issues for the public, and it’s not green certification and green wood.”
Although green building practices may be gaining popularity, evidence suggests that homeowners and residential building contractors rarely choose certified wood in new home construction.
A study by the University of Washington Center for International Trade in Forest Products found that, in many cases, contractors are unaware that certified wood is even an option. On average, less than 20% of contractors use certified wood, the study showed. At the time of the study, only about 40% of the 210 respondents were even aware of the existence of certified wood as a choice in structural residential applications.
Dr. Ivan Eastin, director of the center, said the reason that contractors remain oblivious to certified wood is because the majority of homeowners does not request it.
“Homeowners get excited when a designer talks about sustainable bamboo flooring or sustainably produced cherry that’s in their cabinets,” he noted. “It becomes a tougher sell when it costs you three percent more for a house because you use certified wood for the structural framework.”
Even though the new NAHB Green Building Standard may bolster certified wood use in residential construction, industry experts are at odds about whether or not NAHB will contend with the LEED program.
LEED potential acceptance of certified wood programs may be the difference, according to Ivan. “If LEED accepts SFI, then it’s a whole different ballgame because so much of the forestland now has been certified,” he said. “Otherwise, they just become a peripheral player, and they’re irrelevant to the industry. They may want to tout themselves as being the greener of the two programs, but if no one uses it, then they’re no longer on the horizon anymore.”
LEED is still the more recognizable of the two for consumers, noted Mark. “It’s clear that LEED is first and foremost out of the box right now, and if it comes down to a battle between the two, then LEED will take precedent over NAHB. Will that change in the years to come? Yes, it could.”
Still, having multiple green building programs may actually promote much needed competition in the fledgling market for green building materials.
“As with anything, in most cases a builder is going to build what a customer wants,” said Kevin from NAHB. He acknowledged that many green homes are likely to meet both LEED and NAHB guidelines. “These are scoring tools, and the builders in general can tackle each project individually based on what the customer wants.”
“Will it be considered the definition of green building?” Kevin asked about the new NAHB guideline. “That’s for the people that build these things to decide on their own, but it’s the only one so far that’s gone through this ANSI process.”
“Having multiple credible standards in the marketplace will make the standards better because competition tends to have that effect on products. It tends to increase product quality and decrease costs,” said Ward Hubbell, president of the Green Building Initiative.
“To think for one second that one rating system will be appropriate for every single home and every single homeowner, builder, developer in all regions of the country is really a little naïve,” Ward added. He also remarked that the competition may help more people take notice of the issue and decide to build green in the future.
As green building grows into a niche industry of its own, local and federal tax credits will likely drive homeowners to seek more sustainable and energy efficient construction.
Currently, there is 24.6 million acres of land certified under the FSC program in the United States. SFI has almost 152.6 million acres of certified lands — an area almost as big as France and Austria combined. The ATFS oversees 90,473 tree farmers who own 24 million acres of certified forestland in 46 states.
With the advent of the new NAHB Green Building Standard, homeowners will have more choices about what kind of certified wood to use in their home. As lumber from other certification programs like SFI and ATFS becomes available to residential contractors, certified wood could soon become a staple of home building.