Energy, Homes, People, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings

Putting the Rad in Radiator

No Comments Posted on 12 February 2014 by Richard Leigh

My grandmother had a tea cozy. Woven from wool of subdued colors (probably the only wools available), her tea stayed warm all afternoon because (wait for it…) the cozy kept the heat inside the pot!

In overheated New York City apartments, it would be great to be able to keep some heat inside steam radiators. Of course the super has to turn the heat up enough to quiet the noisier tenants in colder apartments. But once he does, most of the other apartments in the building are overheated, and “double-hung thermostats,” aka windows, are regulating temperatures by exchanging cold air for heat and wasting lots and lots of fuel. What to do?

One answer is thermostatically controlled radiator valves (TRVs). These keep the steam out of the radiator unless they sense a room temperature below an adjustable set point. They work well on hot water and two-pipe steam systems, and they’re OK on one-pipe steam if the super knows enough to keep the system steam pressure down. BUT they require plumbing work to install, the resident has to let the owner in to install the system, and given the hassle, the owner may prefer to let the residents stew in the steam. (There are owners who do not seem to be tempted by devices that pay for themselves in fuel savings in a few years – surprising numbers of them.) What can a tenant sweltering in an overheated apartment do?

Soon, urban winter heat-stroke victims, you may have an option that does not depend on the cooperation of the building owner! A New York City startup with a big idea is coming to your rescue with the radiator cozy, a device that will imprison the heat in your radiator, only releasing the modest amount needed to maintain the temperature you choose to set1. With your mobile phone!

Any technology that puts decision-making power on a comfort-inducing item completely in the hands of tenants is a game changer. If you’re overheated, you don’t have to even talk to the owner to install a radiator cozy, and in NYC rental world, that’s often a plus. But if you did, it’s hard to see what an objection could be, since you’ll be lowering demand for fuel.  In fact, owners who are reluctant to bring in the professionals needed to install TRVs should consider paying for cozies themselves. At $300 each, a five-year payback2 seems easy to come by if the cozies are installed in overheated rooms with windows that are often open.

Disclaimer: Urban Green Council does not endorse companies or products, and since this product is not yet available, it would make no sense to do so even if we did. But we totally endorse the idea of better tenant control of heating systems, so please consider this a “heads up” to potential progress in this area.

My only complaint is that the developers felt they had to bad-mouth TRVs in some of their material. Since I live in an apartment that is made totally comfortable by TRVs, and has been for years, I found that set of complaints unconvincing. And they don’t need them: the cozy’s ease of installation is a very big deal. Nana would have liked it.

Note 1: The technical stuff: The cozy is an insulated box that covers the whole radiator. It has a fan that comes on when the room temperature drops below the set point, blowing air through the radiator and out, bring heat to the room. When the room warms up, the fan shuts off. Maybe it could be simpler, but I don’t see how.

Note 2: If a radiator services 300 square feet, and an NYC building uses 15 Btu/ft2-HDD, lowering demand by 10% will save 2.2 million Btu of fuel, worth about $65 at $4.00 per gallon.  That’s less than a five-year payback. But will it save 10%? The developer says “up to 30%,” but we all know what “up to” means. If they are only installed in overheated rooms with presently open windows, I think 10% (for that radiator, not the system) is a pretty sure bet.

Construction, Green Codes, Greening Codes, Removing Barriers, Products & Materials

It’s Time for Green Concrete, says NYC’s New Building Code

No Comments Posted on 06 January 2014 by Cecil Scheib

Long in the making, New York City’s updated building code was enacted just before the final buzzer on December 30, 2013. While the bill was over 2,400 pages long, there’s an easily overlooked provision (literally, a footnote) that will help NYC reduce its carbon emissions from concrete.

Cement, a key ingredient of concrete, produces its own weight in CO2 and is a giant contributor to global warming. It helps if concrete incorporates recycled ingredients in place of new cement, but there’s a limit set by the building code. The new code will increase by 40% the amount of fly ash or other recycled materials allowed in concrete exposed to de-icing chemicals (like sidewalks). This was recommended by the Green Codes Task Force as “Reduce CO2 Emissions From Specialized Concrete”.

This means concrete with the same strength but less carbon pollution. The next step: getting the 50,000 cubic yards of concrete used each year subject to this law to increase their recycled content.

Congrats to the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and Department of Buildings for completing this triennial building code update. We look forward to more sustainable sidewalks along with the many other benefits of the new code!

Building Envelope, Energy, Products & Materials

Seduced by the View

1 Comment Posted on 06 December 2013 by Cecil Scheib


A glance at the New York City skyline tells an instant story: glass is in. More windows translate into higher rents for both commercial and residential buildings, say owners and brokers. But looking up at all-glass buildings, it often seems that a lot of the blinds are closed, blocking out the beautiful cityscape.

Seduced by the View observed how people who live and work in all-glass buildings use their windows after move-in day. With help from volunteers, we took pictures of dozens of buildings and found that on average, blinds or shades covered about 59 percent of the window area. And over 75 percent of buildings had more than half of their window area covered. As the study puts it, “Tenants are moving into these rooms with a view, but more often than not, can’t see out the window.” (Read coverage of the study in today’s Daily News.)

Our results were unambiguous, but the reasons for this widespread behavior are far less obvious. My first assumption would have been that shades are pulled to stop glare. To check this, we specifically compared how much blinds were pulled on windows facing east (towards the rising sun) in the morning, and facing west (toward the setting sun) in the afternoon.

I expected that more blinds would be shut in the side of the building facing the sun’s bright rays, but that wasn’t the case. Results didn’t change based on this factor. In fact, none of the factors we observed changed the results. Window coverage was about the same regardless of the time of day, direction the window faced, and whether the building was commercial or residential.

So glare can’t be the only reason blinds are pulled. Because the study observations are so consistent, I suspect that blinds aren’t getting moved up and down much at all. My guess is that that they get pulled due to glare, for privacy, or other factors, and then just left down most of the time.

But answering the why wouldn’t change reality: for whatever reason, New Yorkers are paying for more glass and then pulling down the shades. Of course, that’s their choice. But along with whatever loss of privacy, increased noise, and uncomfortable temperatures tenants experience, the city suffers too. Because they insulate poorly compared to walls, windows waste energy and cause carbon pollution. They have lower resiliency during power outages, since the glass doesn’t hold heat in winter or keep it out in summer. And it’s not easy to harden your heart against what glass buildings do to birds, killing 90,000 annually just in NYC.

All-glass facades are a long-term problem. Twenty, thirty, or even fifty years from now, when the equipment in the building is more efficient due to replacements, the same glass windows will be there, putting a hard limit on how much the building can improve its resiliency and sustainability. Tenants have to decide if it’s worth paying this price for the views. But if the shades are down, it just doesn’t seem worth it. With good design, buildings can have great views and save energy, too. We can, and should, do better.

Climate Change, Commercial Buildings, Construction, Energy, NYC Local Laws, Planning, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings, Resiliency

Greenbuild Speaker Highlights

No Comments Posted on 13 November 2013 by Ariana Vito

Headed to Greenbuild next week? Sign up to hear Urban Green staff, board members, Task Force members, and supporters speak at educational sessions throughout the week.

Developing Resilience Action Plans for Cities
Russell Unger, Urban Green Council
November 19, 2:30-3:30pm 

“Green Regs & Ham” – A Greenbuild Policy Breakfast
Russell Unger, Urban Green Council
November 20, 7:00-10:00am 

Bring the Outside Inside: Using the Outdoors to Create Indoor Comfort
Daniel Nall, Thornton Tomasetti
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Creating Resilient Communities: Building (and Rebuilding) Affordable Housing Projects to Endure the Impact of Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events
Pat Sapinsley, Build Efficiently, LLC
November 19, 4:00-5:30pm

EBOMing Your Portfolio: Process Mastery to Inspire Innovation
Yetsuh Frank, Green Light New York
November 22, 9:30-10:30am 

Evaluating New York City’s Energy Benchmarking Policy
John Lee, Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability
Jonathon Flaherty, Tishman Speyer
November 21, 3:30-5:30pm 

Highrise Residential Trends and Strategies for Success
Adrian Tuluca, Vidaris Inc
November 21, 9:30-10:30pm 

Insights on Multifamily Benchmarking from EPA & Fannie Mae
Michael Zatz, US Environmental Protection Agency
November 20, 2:00-3:00pm 

International Summit Opening Plenary – Collaboration and Commerce: Environmental Architecture of the Future
Shanta Tucker, Atelier Ten
November 19, 9:00-10:00am 

LEED v4 Tools: Finding Products (and your Footing) in LEED v4
Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen, Inc.
November 21, 11:30-12:30pm 

Let There Be Daylight: Deploying Advanced Daylight Controls
Richard Yancey, Green Light New York
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Linking NYC Energy Database to Tenant Contribution to Economy
Steven Baumgartner, Buro Happold
November 20, 3:30-4:30pm 

Midcentury (Un)Modern: The1958-73 Office Building
Bob Fox, Terrapin Bright Green
November 22, 8:00-9:00am 

Motivating Green Building Around the World
John Mandyck, Carrier Corporation
November 21, 9:30-10:30am 

New York City in 2050: Two Views
Marc Zuluaga, Steven Winter Associates
Dick Leigh, Urban Green Council
Laurie Kerr, Natural Resources Defense Council
November 21, 8:00-9:00am 

Resiliency in the Eye of the Storm: Lessons from Sandy
Aine Brazil, Thornton Tomasetti
Alex Wilson, Resilient Design Institute
November 20, 3:30-4:30pm 

Stories from the Field: Lend Lease as an Integrated Solutions Partner
James Stawniczy, Lend Lease US Construction LMB Inc.
November 20, 1:00-2:00pm 

Transforming Buildings Through Product Innovation
Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen, Inc.
November 21, 9:30-10:30am 

Valuing Green: Working with Tenants, Appraisers, and Lenders to Capture the Value of Green Buildings
Charlotte Matthews, Related Companies
November 22, 9:30-10:30am

Ventilate Multifamily Buildings Successfully in Eight Steps!
Maureen Mahle, Steven Winter Associates
November 21, 9:30-10:30am

Products & Materials

Special Event Summary:
Living in a Material World

2 Comments Posted on 09 August 2013 by Cecil Scheib

Urban Green’s event on August 8 focused on being transparent about materials – aiding designers and the public in knowing the contents and potential health effects of the thousands of items that go into a modern building. A packed house gleaned insights from an expert panel of practitioners before peppering them with pointed questions. It was clearly a hot-button topic for many: How can we build high-performing, affordable buildings, while also safeguarding the health of their occupants?

Michael Fletcher (BASF) discussed his company’s efforts in this field, including the increased use of Health Product Declarations, or HPDs. This standard is used by both LEED v4 and the Living Building Challenge, and aims to share information about product content in a way that is clear for users and streamlined for producers. Michael offered some interesting tidbits throughout the evening – did you know that BASF, which was involved in the production of ammonia-based fertilizers from the earliest stages of its development – spun off the business entirely last year? He also made a comment that drew a wry audience reaction: buyers complain that green-certified products are more expensive, but don’t take into account that the certification process itself is part of that extra expense. Nevertheless, Michael said he sees the value in third-party verification for security in reporting. 

During the panel discussion, Caspar Wagner (Google) said his company uses the precautionary principle – if it might be dangerous, don’t bring it into the building in the first place – to decide what materials to use in Google properties. He is keeping a list of products and compounds that are approved and ones that are not to aid in decision- making, and hopes that other companies follow suit. Despite eager inquiries from attendees, Google won’t be sharing that list soon, as it’s meant for internal use only; the list is far from complete, and some of the information was obtained from manufacturers with the understanding that it would not be made public.

Amanda Kaminsky (Durst) picked up Caspar’s topic to point out that while Google may not share its list, there are other tools that consumers can use to evaluate the health of materials, including Cradle To Cradle, GreenWizard, and Pharos. She is directly involved in efforts to get more information from manufacturers, while noting that there are business reasons to keep some information proprietary.

This conflict between business needs versus the benefits of disclosure was a repeated theme throughout the evening; a respect for a reasonable level of intellectual property protection for corporations must be balanced with the need of buyers to have data in order to make informed decisions. Amanda pointed out that data is not the same as judgment: a data sheet can overwhelm with facts and figures, and still not answer the question people really want to know – “Can I use this product in my building safely?”

Chris Garvin (Terrapin Bright Green) agreed that as a practitioner, it’s a constant challenge to balance reducing toxins along with all the other needs of a project. In the long run, he said that occupant health might just become another building performance indicator to be including in the design, construction, and maintenance process, just like energy savings (and for that matter, making sure the building doesn’t fall down, which isn’t good for occupant health either). Chris surely spoke for many of us in the audience when he discussed the conflicting feelings we have about the materials in the modern world; in the pursuit of durable, wrinkle-free fashion, even our clothes may have formaldehyde in them.

The panel discussion and audience questions made it clear that we are living at a time of great change in construction techniques, where we are developing new materials much faster than we are clarifying their health effects. Michael said that the industry moves relatively slowly (“You don’t just discover a new molecule every week”), but cumulatively there are tens of thousands of newish compounds in our everyday lives and we are still figuring out if and when to use them. Perhaps this will be a short-lived phenomenon that we will work out in a few decades…or perhaps our great-grandchildren will enjoy productive careers as industrial hygienists.

Overall, the discussion reminded me of the health concerns around nutrition. Every week it seems there is a new study about what foods are good or bad for us, and as often as not it contradicts last week’s study (or the headline about it does, anyway). As a result, there is a general feeling that dietary science is a young field and that no one really knows for sure. Yet, Michael Pollan has been able to distill all the confusion around nutrition and our health into just seven words that capture the essence of what science has discovered in a way that we can actually use. Can someone do the same for building materials?

Building Envelope, Construction, Planning, Products & Materials, Residential Buildings

Salon Summary
Green Affordable Housing Pros Share Lessons Learned

No Comments Posted on 30 July 2013 by Urban Green Council

On July 25, Urban Green Council hosted Keeping it Green: Operating Affordable Housing. The three Salon panelists spoke about the green affordable housing buildings they work in and the challenges of operating and maintaining them.

Davidson Headley (Building Director, Common Ground Community) and Ely Sepulveda (Maintenance Supervisor, Common Ground Community) discussed two of Common Ground’s LEED Silver supportive housing residences: The Hegeman, a 161- unit building in Brownsville and The Brook, a 190-unit building in the South Bronx. Both buildings use an electronic Building Management System (BMS), and each tenant has a swipe card to activate the electricity and air conditioning in their apartment, which automatically switches off when they leave.

David and Ely shared some of the operational challenges they faced. The Brook was built with dual flush toilets, so the flush handle could be pulled up to use less water, and down to use more water. However, as most of the tenants were accustomed to pushing the flush handle down all the time, minimal water savings were made despite efforts to educate tenants on the new system. In addition, the internal mechanisms of the dual flush toilets were fragile and up to 20 replacement parts would need to be ordered every few months. For newer construction projects, the dual flush toilets were replaced with single flush ultra-low-flow toilets, saving the same amount of water with less maintenance and user training required.

Tenants would also try to circumvent the BMS. For example, if they wanted to leave the air conditioning on while they are out, they would swipe out and quickly swipe back in. This required modifications to be made to the BMS to work like an unlimited Metrocard – after a successful swipe out, tenants could swipe back in and enter the building, but the power wouldn’t turn back on for a few minutes without intervention from building staff. Ely also commented that many of the green products used at the Brook are often difficult to source, and when replacements are needed urgently, a standard product is sometimes substituted instead.

Max Ruperti (Senior Property Manager, Phipps House Services Inc.) spoke about  Via Verde, a new LEED Gold co-op and supportive housing facility in the South Bronx.

The operational challenges at Via Verde mainly relate to building design issues. Via Verde has a combined ventilation system, and the bathroom exhaust fan only operates when the bathroom light is on. If a tenant is smoking in their apartment and the exhaust fan is off, smoke will enter the combined ventilation system and other apartments. Since the building was tightly sealed to prevent air infiltration, as new construction should be, building staff discovered that it was essential to keep ventilation fans running in order to prevent condensation on the windows during certain seasons. There has also been flooding of the outdoor elevators and problems with the heating system. Max’s opinion is that often the architects and the design team are focused on obtaining LEED certification and do not always consider operational or maintenance issues at the design phase, and that the rental income achieved from supportive housing does not always cover the costs of operating and maintaining elaborate green design features.

The key message from the panel was that there must be a clear dialogue between the design team and the operations team in the design phase. This will prevent unnecessary expenses being incurred by the operations team later down the track, who must manage a tight budget and a larger number of tenants per square foot than most residential buildings. Tenant education on the green features of a building is essential, as tenants are more likely to maintain their apartment and amenities if the building management also takes it seriously. This also helps create a sense of community amongst the tenants, which is the key to providing effective supportive housing.

LEED, Products & Materials

Kudos to Skanska

No Comments Posted on 10 July 2013 by Russell Unger

It’s not Urban Green’s practice to highlight the business policies of specific firms, but sometimes an exception is in order. Yesterday, Skanska announced its withdrawal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “to protest the organization’s backing of a chemical industry-led initiative to effectively ban the future use of LEED for government buildings.”

The chemical industry is lobbying vigorously under the guise of the “American High-Performance Building Coalition“ to insert an innocuous-sounding provision into the Senate’s Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill (S.761) that would prevent the U.S. government from using LEED. According to Skanska’s announcement, they withdrew from the Chamber after an unsuccessful effort to convince the association to drop its support of this anti-LEED initiative.

Why does the chemical industry have LEED in its sights? The short answer is that it’s about one or two points out of 100 that would reward the use of healthier building materials. The longer answer is the industry probably fears the precedent and where this may go in the long run.

If the chemical lobby is successful, it could be a major setback for LEED and the wider green building industry. The federal government has been one of the most committed users of LEED since the standard’s early days and countless designers, contractors, and trades cut their teeth on federal projects. If the chemical industry wins at the federal level, we can expect them to redouble their efforts to undermine green building in statehouses and city halls across the country.

Some of you – our members and readers – work for firms that are members of the Chamber of Commerce. And the rest of you regularly hear from manufacturers touting their green credentials with the hope you will buy or spec their products for LEED projects. Now’s a good time to put those green claims to a real test: ask them as environmental leaders whether they are going to follow Skanska’s suit.

Products & Materials

Salon Summary: Innovative Techniques for Air Purification

No Comments Posted on 02 July 2013 by Jessica Cooper

Poor air quality is said to contribute to approximately six percent of deaths annually in New York City.  Citywide initiatives are in place to reduce the pollutants produced by burning fuels that operate our vehicles and buildings and, as a supplement to these policies, architects, engineers, and manufacturers are looking for ways to passively purify the air.  Urban Green Council’s Salon on June 27 highlighted some of these innovative techniques.

We all know that green roofs and living walls inherently improve air quality, but Adam Friedberg (Arup) told us exactly how this happens: stomata absorb harmful gases, leaves interrupt airborne particulates, and roots absorb heavy metals.  Depending on where these systems are installed, they can have an impact on both our indoor and outdoor air quality.  Exterior green roofs have the added benefits of decreasing stormwater runoff and mitigating the urban heat island effect.  One caveat–both green roofs and living walls are dependent on smart plant selection and regular maintenance, so, it’s best to consult with a horticulturalist before selecting plants and to implement a strong maintenance plan post-installation.

Glen Finkel (PURETi Group, LLC) and Adam Hostetler (Hollwich Kushner) discussed technology and design implications of a new invisible spray (99% water and 1% titanium dioxide) that reacts with light to keep surfaces clean while passively purifying the air.  According to Finkel, one application of the spray will last at least five years and installation costs are close to what you would pay for paint.  The product can be applied to almost any exterior or interior finish and is safe enough for food surfaces.  Spraying windows, curtains, and light fixtures is enough to purify the air in a room, and its self-cleaning properties drastically decrease maintenance for building exteriors. Finkel believes this technology is ripe for market adoption.

Together, green roofs, living walls, and spray purification technology are all just parts of a broad approach to sustainable design.  As buildings invest in renewable energy and cleaner fuels to reduce pollution and their carbon footprint, it’s important to think about air quality, too.  Luckily, we’re sure to recognize how important this is – with every breath we take serving as a reminder.

Products & Materials

How We Make Things

No Comments Posted on 03 April 2013 by Yetsuh Frank

The New York Times carried a remarkable, front-page piece this weekend on the severe health risks of a chemical called normal propyl bromide (nPB), a substance known for many years to cause nerve damage, infertility and cancer.  Commonly used in aerosol form in furniture adhesives, the focus of the piece is on the mendacious practices of Royale, a foam cushion company with a long history of exposing their employees to the stuff, and the ineffectiveness of OSHA in either limiting the general use of nPB or disciplining Royale for their myriad infractions.  The Times also frames the issue in terms of unintended consequences- OSHA banned the use of something called trichloroethane (TCA) because it damages the ozone layer and companies began using nPB instead.  Leaving aside the horrifying callousness of certain business managers-  one is quoted as saying, “There are people lined up out there for jobs. If they start dropping like flies . . . we can replace them today”- one wonders how we got ourselves into a situation in which the various impacts of every chemical deployed have to be chased down by government agencies and employees.  The article reads like a keystone cops version of regulatory malfeasance.  Employees tell their bosses that nPB makes them sick.  The employees (and their doctors) tell OSHA that nPB makes them sick.  OSHA doles out fines that are so small the employers hardly notice so they continue to use nPB unabated, even as multiple employees are left unable to walk, have children, or get another job.  For me, the moment of highest tragi-comic value in the story is when Mid South Adhesives, the company that makes the nPB-based adhesive, tells Royale to stop using their product. But they keep selling it to them, and Royale keeps pumping it into their employees lungs because, hey, it’s legal.

All of this has direct bearing on the building industry, where the vast majority of materials include substances with a huge variety of severe health impacts, from cancer to arsenic poisoning to lung diseases.  A recent study by Perkins + Will found 374 substances in common building materials that are linked just to asthma.  It is just this sort of staggering data that has led to the development of the Perkins + Will Precautionary List, the Living Building Challenge Red List, and for organizations like the Healthy Building Network to focus on eliminating the “worst in class” substances commonly deployed by the three-billion dollar building material industry.  To date, the focus has been on simple transparency of what is actually in building materials. Astonishingly, most manufacturers are unable to tell you what’s in their products.  No one has ever asked them.  So programs like Declare are aiming to rectify this lack of knowledge.  Which is all well and good.  But maybe we should ask ourselves a different question.  Like, why is it the victims’ responsibility, the people getting sick, to PROVE that a specific material has led to their specific illness?  Shouldn’t the folks that are pumping the carcinogens and toxins into the system be required to, you know, stop doing that?  Why isn’t it the responsibility of manufacturers to prove to us that they’re products won’t make us sick?  As Michael Braungart once said to me, “If it causes cancer, and shows up in breast milk, surely we can all agree this is a bad thing?”

We’ve been nibbling away at the periphery of this system for a long time.  Decades of banning the very worst substances, limiting the use of a few others, replacing a small percentage of raw materials with salvaged and recycled stuff- all of this has had an impact, in some cases dramatic.  But we still are left with a system that enables the use of truly horrible substances, stuff that we’d never be exposed to in a just and equitable world.  Helder Camara, the Brazilian Archbishop and champion of social justice for the poor, is famous for saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Perhaps we need to be asking similarly fundamental questions about how we make things, in the building industry and beyond.

Postscript: Ian Urbina’s piece in the New York Times, referenced above, clocks in at more than 5,000 words and clearly involved a huge amount of research and interviews of dozens of people.  Although he soft-pedals some of the conclusions that might be drawn from all this work, the piece is a clarion call for the kind of long-form investigative journalism that seems imperiled these days and which our society needs as much as ever.  The message I take from this is that paying for online content (as the NYT requires after a few views) is very much worth it and we should all be prepared to do so more often on the internet.


LEED, Products & Materials

LEED, the GSA and Dark Money

1 Comment Posted on 20 February 2013 by Yetsuh Frank

I attended Greenbuild for the first time in 2004 when it was hosted in Portland and it was truly a revelation.  I understood for the first time, in a really tangible way, that I was not alone in my interest in healthy, energy-conserving buildings and communities.  Having felt like a pretty lonely voice at various architecture firms over the years, this was enormously empowering.  At that time, there were also very few places you could learn about products or systems that were greener than the rest.  The floor of that showroom was where I first learned of the existence of Icestone countertops, tankless hot water heating, biodegradable textiles and a host of other amazing materials that few if any architecture firms had in their materials libraries.

Sadly- it was also the first time I would run into the forces of darkness and their heavily funded program to retain the status quo (in which we DO NOT ask questions and we continue poisoning our environment and ourselves.)  This came in the form of a booth for the Vinyl Institute.  Back in those days most manufacturers had not invested heavily in marketing for Greenbuild.  Booths were mostly scrappy affairs, high on content and low on glitz.  In the middle of the floor, however, the Vinyl Institute had erected a gleaming white rectangular space, with a staff in pristine white uniforms.

It was like a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey and was almost as creepy since it included no products or materials- just disconcertingly cheerful staff handing out white postcards with their pitch for using vinyl in buildings.  Written by what must be the most brazen PR team in history, I kept this comical brochure on my desk for years.  The debate about whether LEED should reward buildings that avoided vinyl was brewing and the brochure was full of vague language asserting that vinyl created “healthy” buildings because the surface was easy to clean of germs and bacteria- totally ignoring the up- and downstream impacts of polyvinyl chloride.  It was mealy-mouthed stuff but the best part was the asterisk at the end of a paragraph, which referenced the following caveat: “This is not meant to be a technical document.”  I was very glad to have THAT cleared up.

Sadly- almost ten years later the debate about vinyl and many other materials rages on.  The most recent evidence of this battle is industry pressure on the Government Services Administration (GSA) to include other rating systems than LEED in their performance standards.  Eco Building Pulse notes the efforts of a group called the American High Performance Buildings Coalition (AHPBC) to influence the public comment process.  Certainly this is a decision that should be reviewed.  Green Globes is a much better system than it once was, and as code standards like IGCC and ASHRAE 189.1 are developed, the GSA and others should look into whether and how to incorporate them.

But I think we are allowed to question the motives of a group like AHPBC professing deep concern for the environmental impact of our buildings that is funded by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the Adhesive and Sealant Council, the American Chemistry Council, and the aforementioned Vinyl Institute.

Among other complaints, the AHBPC is opposed to the inclusion of the European REACH standard in LEED v4.  One of their prominent spokespersons, Craig Silvertooth of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing, has even said that the materials standards proposed in LEED v4 “prohibits the design and construction of energy-efficiency, safe buildings.”  Because, you know, they don’t have any of THOSE in Europe.  Many positions of the AHBPC seemed predicated on a willful misunderstanding about the role of voluntary, market leadership guidelines like LEED and minimum threshold codes for things like life safety.  They also have failed to understand that not getting credit for something isn’t the same as that thing being prohibited.  You can pack all the non-FSC woods you want in your LEED Platinum building- you’re just not going to get the FSC credit.  It must be frustrating to them that LEED is structured so reasonably.  The real problem seems to be that they just don’t want anyone, ever, pointing out that lots of their materials contain toxins and carcinogens, or that their extraction processes are deeply harmful to the regional ecology.

In related news, Lloyd Alter over at Treehugger does some digging to discover who is funding the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, another group that seems determined to undermine LEED, and finds deep connections to major players in the far-right conservative universe, including Dick Cheney.

As a proponent of LEED and as someone who disagrees with everything I have read about the positions of AHBPC and TPA, I actually find it heartening to learn that Dick Cheney may be our enemy.  From a purely objective perspective, having someone as prominent as that as a detractor is clear evidence that the green building community is an important movement making real impact.  Big enough to be noticed by the biggest players is a good thing.  It is also evidence that those of us who disagree with folks like AHBPC and TPA need to remain vigilant, engaged and determined.  We are what stands between progress and a harsh reversion to the status quo of 20 years ago.


© 2013 Urban Green Blog.