Last April, when I heard a bill had been introduced in the Alabama Senate that would effectively prohibit LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for public buildings in Alabama, I was taken aback. Why would our legislators ban the world’s leading green building certification system, one that has proven successful at reducing energy demand and results in more healthy, efficient buildings? Turns out it had nothing to do with logic or promoting green building.
SB 326 was strikingly similar to bills introduced in other Southeastern states that included language directed at excluding LEED because a single optional point in the building rating system can be earned by using products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
There has been an ongoing battle between FSC and the Sustainable Forestry Institute (SFI) over the years, with SFI getting support from the big timber industry associations. FSC and SFI have both done a terrific job selling their programs, leading to market demand for their certified products. An increasing number of forestry businesses — including the Westervelt Company in Tuscaloosa — have certification from both FSC and SFI because this helps optimize business by fetching a higher price for their products depending on their customer’s varying needs.
As a LEED accredited professional, I know that optional point is only one of several that can be gained by using wood products. Trees are a renewable resource, the backbone of an important industry for Alabama. Wood products in general — certified by SFI, FSC and a number of other organizations — are frequently used in LEED projects to attain points for renewable materials and regionally sourced products. In my queries to other LEED practitioners in Alabama, none of us could think of a project in Alabama that had pursued that single point related to FSC.
The LEED rating system is updated every few years to continue pushing the green building industry forward, always striving to do better. Proposed changes are developed by technical experts, reviewed by experienced green building professionals and the general public, then voted on by thousands of U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) members. The most recent update, LEED v4, actually increases the number of points involving wood, thanks to greater emphasis on green materials and life cycle analysis than in past versions.
LEED buildings are designed using an integrated approach, considering buildings as a system of interrelated components rather than separate parts. For instance, we consider the tradeoffs of large windows to increase daylight and how that affects the need to heat or cool a work area. Close coordination among engineers, architects and building owners early in the design along with advanced design tools and modeling software minimize problems during construction and help control costs. All of these efforts and detailed analyses result in a resource-efficient, resilient building project with better, healthier materials that costs less to operate and maintain.
LEED is an approach which could be used to radically improve conditions and reduce operating costs at our many deteriorating schools. Alabama’s legislators should encourage better buildings for all of our schools, community centers, government buildings and other public projects. LEED is a viable strategy to ensure those buildings are designed and operated to protect the health of our citizens, conserve our resources, and make the most of our state’s limited budget.
When SB 326 stalled at the end of the 2013 legislative session, I was hopeful that enough of our Alabama lawmakers had come to understand LEED certification was not a threat to the Alabama forest industry. However, Gov. Robert Bentley had signed Executive Order 39, which was similar to SB 326, but not so clearly prohibitive of LEED.
I had corresponded with a number of state legislators who seemed to think the bill would not reappear. Over the summer, USGBC Alabama representatives began working with building industry groups as well as forestry associations in an attempt to find ways we could work together for resolution. We hosted seminars to educate more professionals about the various forestry certifications and LEED.
On the very first day of the 2014 legislative session, SB 152 was introduced. It was identical to last year’s SB 326. Powerful lobbyists had obviously earned their pay, wasting no time getting this bill through the senate in an election year. By day two of the session, SB152 had a public hearing in the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Requests to amend the bill to allow LEED Certification if the single FSC point was excluded were reportedly ignored.
What happens next? SB 152 will be passed in the Alabama Senate on Tuesday if we do not rally enough opposition. If passed in the senate, it goes to the house and will likely be swept through just as quickly unless we can rally enough opposition. That is why I am appealing to other citizens of Alabama to contact our legislators and local leaders right away, to stop SB 152.
We not only deserve the right to pursue LEED certification and provide better public buildings for Alabama’s citizens, we should encourage it.