Green Building Programs More About Bias than Science, Expert Argues

James L. Bowyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is challenging the science – or lack of it – behind many widely used green building programs.

By By Susan Bady, Senior Editor, Design | January 31, 2008


Jim Bowyer believes the lack of life-cycle assessment in many green building programs could defeat the purpose of building green in the first place.

Arguing that personal bias has more to do with green-building standards than science, a University of Minnesota professor is challenging LEED, the NAHB green building standard and other widely used programs. James L. Bowyer, emeritus professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering, contends that in many cases, the prescriptive standards of those programs are leading people away from green rather than toward it.

One of Bowyer's criticisms is that only one of the major programs he's studied, Green Globes, calls for systematic analysis of the environmental impact of materials during their entire life cycles. "I think it's really time for the major programs to move toward adoption of life-cycle assessment/life-cycle inventory, especially when it comes to identifying environmentally preferable construction materials," says Bowyer.

Although adopting LCA won't be easy, without such analysis, seeking to maximize the number of credits could lead to an increase — rather than a decrease — in environmental effects associated with construction.

The U.S. Green Building Council has announced it wants to incorporate LCA throughout its LEED programs, but Bowyer notes, "The USGBC has a history of implementing change at glacial speed." And NAHB isn't faring any better at incorporating LCA into its green building program. "It simply says you can use LCA if you want to, and you get a point for doing it," he says. "But there's no real provision that LCA be used. The way the standard's written, it's kind of unlikely that anybody is even going to do that."

Responding to Bowyer's comments about LEED, Eric Corey Freed, LEED AP and principal of organicArchitect in San Francisco, says, "The good news is that LEED is wonderfully democratic. The bad news is that, like most democracies, it is achingly slow to adopt change."

Freed thinks that as LEED continues to evolve, the standards will become more stringent. But to be successfully incorporated into LEED, an LCA standard would have to be "strong, widely adoptable and easy to understand — not to mention objective, independent and free from possible greenwashing by manufacturers."

He notes that two such LCA standards are becoming available. One is the Smart Consensus Sustainable Product Standard, developed by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability. The other is the Pharos Lens, a "beautifully simple" LCA labeling standard from the Healthy Building Network.


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