Giving Birth? Not Yet!

June 1, 2004
Penny Bonda, FASID

LEED-CI approaches the final stages

Eco Design Matters Giving Birth? Not Yet!By Pennt Bonda, FASIDIt's been a long, arduous process and it's not over yet. I had hoped that for this issue of the Green Guide to NeoCon I would be writing the story of LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) as a fully launched product—not done, for LEED will never truly be done—but at least balloted and out there as a mature member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) family. Foolish me!We came close. As the chair of the LEED-CI core committee, I was determined to complete the birthing process by mid-2004. Little by little, however, the due date was pushed back and it now seems that the gestation period won't end until the fourth quarter of this year. My frustration, I fear, is palpable. At the risk of stretching this analogy too far, I feel as though I've been pregnant for five years and in labor for the past six months. Ouch—it hurts!The reasons are varied. Part of the blame, and I'm not sure that blame is the right word, might be the extraordinary growth of the USGBC and phenomenal success of LEED itself. A look at the metrics tells the story. At the end of 2001, council membership stood at 1,137; through the first three months of this year it had risen to 4,149—and don't forget, USGBC is an organization of organizations that represent thousands of people. With that many stakeholders, there are bound to be bumps. LEED Accredited Professionals numbered 527 at the end of '01; today there are more than 7,500 and every one of them has an opinion.I've often said that one of the virtues of USGBC is its consensus process. It's also one of its shortcomings. In an effort to get it right, but also to appease and protect, the council labors over its every move, ad infinitum. If it were a corporation with viable competitors, it would have been driven out of business long ago. However, at the moment, in spite of itself and its seemingly over-cautious procedures, the, USGBC has the green building rating system market all wrapped up. One of LEED's originally stated goals—market transformation—has surely been achieved. The number of LEED registered projects (1,245) and certified projects (103) through March 2004 hardly tell the story. Buildings from every market sector are being designed and constructed sustainably using LEED guidelines even though their designers and/or owners have opted out of formal certification. Even individual credits have made a market impact. Within LEED-CI, we've seen all the major commercial furniture manufacturers scramble to assure that their product lines meet low emissions standards following our inclusion of an emissions criteria credit. As a result, office workers are breathing cleaner air and that's pretty impressive.USGBC has multiple products under development: LEED for New Construction (NC) is fully launched, but is undergoing upgrades to many of its credits; LEED for Existing Buildings (EB), LEED CI and LEED for Core and Shell (CS) are currently in their pilot phases. The LEED Foundations Document, its procedures manual, dictates the process that all the products must follow: development by committees of volunteers with strong (and immensely capable) staff support, multiple reviews by the LEED Steering Committee and the USGBC Board of Directors, a public comment period—or two—and finally, an up or down ballot by the membership. This slow and tedious approach was designed to insure that all constituent voices are heard, which is critical for its success. However, its effect, I fear, is to slow the process, sometimes beyond what might be seen as a reasonable timeframe. Michael Arny, chair of LEED-EB, has said that LEED is the triumph of good over perfect, yet USGBC's leadership sometimes seems to be striving for the elusive perfect. In fairness I must admit that a good bit of the delay in getting these products to market is the careful, almost painstaking work that the TAGs (Technical Advisory Groups—USGBC so loves acronyms that is has a cheat sheet listing them all) are doing with some of the particularly difficult credits. This is due, in part, to the necessity of making each credit resolution acceptable to each of the various LEED products—no simple task. It is also due to the fact that many green building issues are fuzzy, with no obvious resolution, and different stakeholders will, in good faith, argue widely divergent opinions. All of this leaves us and you—USGBC's customers—floundering. Are we so afraid of controversy that we'll massage something to death rather than risk moving forward and being criticized? It's difficult for me to be objective about the USGBC because I've been so much a part of it for a long time, but as the "public" face of LEED-CI, I am the recipient of much of the frustration from potential users who are being denied access to a fully developed tool. Over these last 10 years I've worked with amazing people who are as eager as I to get on with it and as disappointed as I by the continuous encroachment of what might appear to be bureaucracy to the uninitiated. We sometimes wistfully reminisce about the good old days when we made up the rules as we went along. Eons ago I wrote a credit for CI that awarded a point for avoiding the use of PVC in projects. The ruckus that ensued continues today, still without a resolution, although every environmentalist I know agrees that vinyl hasn't any place in a green building. Hamstrung, I believe, by process the council has left both sides of the issue hanging for too long. The volunteers who are the backbone of the organization are becoming frustrated and, frankly, burned out. "Just do it" is becoming the rallying cry from many of us. So, where's my baby? LEED-CI is in the supremely capable hands of the contractors hired to bring it through the pilot process. Keith Winn and John Stivers of Catalyst Partners have managed the 84 active projects while continuously revising the rating system through the lessons learned from the pilots and other external influences. Working with them and me is the CI Core Committee—dedicated professionals who show up every other week for long and often tedious conference calls. Gina Baker (Burt Hill), Kirsten Childs (Croxton Collaborative), Don Horn (GSA), Scot Horst (7 Group), Fran Mazarella (GSA), Hernando Miranda (Soltierra) and Ken Wilson (EnvisionDesign), along with staff liaison Emily Mensone Turk, have been faithful and inspired companions on this journey. By NeoCon, CI will be in its first comment period where the public can weigh in on what we've done to date. The core team and the TAGs will respond to each comment and make revisions to the rating system as appropriate. Then through a still-evolving (sigh!) process, there will be more comments, more revisions, more approvals and finally submission to the USGBC membership for ballot. At last, the commercial interiors community will have at its disposal a tool that recognizes the significant environmental impact of the interiors fit-out. As for me, I think I'll enjoy motherhood, basking in the glow of my offspring while watching it grow—from a distant beach. Woo-Hoo!

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