Conflicts of Interest at the American Institute of Architects: Trade Associations Set The Greenwash Agenda

Bill Walsh - July 19, 2005

The race to the bottom of green building standards starts on July 25, 2005 when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) convenes a Sustainable Building Standards Policy Summit[1] that appears to have been scripted by the leading opponents of legitimate green building standards. Troubling conflicts of interest at the AIA suggest a relationship between financial contributions from trade associations, and a not-so-subtle campaign by AIA officials to promote a suspect green building rating system known as Green Globes.

Launched only months ago, Green Globes is little more than an online checklist, reminiscent of LEED but developed without a legitimate and transparent process. It requires no documentation of claims. Its precise requirements are not publicly available.[2] This is a textbook model of industry greenwash,[3] designed to confuse the market and drive down standards by rewarding minimal efforts with a maximum public relations bonanza.

Dreamed up by Ward Hubbel, an Oregon timber industry public relations executive who recreated himself overnight as a green building expert and Executive Director of the Green Building Initiative (GBI),[4] the GBI does not disclose how it is funded or who its board members are. According to the DailyJournal of Commerce, "The Green Building Initiative, Hubbell says, is 'fast,' 'affordable,' 'flexible' and 'less cumbersome.' And no one knows how it works."[5]

The GBI is bankrolled by the North American Green Building Coalition which was founded largely to lobby against the Green Building Council's LEED® Rating System, and operates at the direction of anti-environmental trade groups including the American Forest and Paper Association, American Plastics Council, and the Vinyl Institute. In Canada, Green Globes supporters resisted the introduction of LEED, but were rebuffed by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada.[6] In the U.S., the forest products association now targets the USGBC for offering LEED credits for wood products bearing the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, to the exclusion of its own greenwash label known as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Vinyl interests resisting LEED credits that would reward vinyl avoidance,[7] filed an abortive lawsuit to overturn a New York state green building tax credit derived from LEED because it excludes vinyl.[8] Both groups wage debilitating campaigns within USGBC to weaken LEED, all the while lobbying the federal and state governments to recognize the unproven Green Globes.

At the AIA, the Vinyl Institute (an affiliate of the American Plastics Council)[9] has been the only industry group contributing financial support for special projects of AIA's Chief Executive Officer, Norman Koonce, and its former Director of Research and Planning, John P. Eberhard.[10] Both the Vinyl Institute and the American Plastics Council are Platinum Level sponsors of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), the sole student voice in the decision making process of the AIA, as is another forest products trade group the Hardwood Council.[11]

Tom Wolfe, Senior Director, AIA Federal Affairs and himself a former lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council, says the July summit will recommend a clear position on green building standards for the AIA Board of Directors.[12] But of the two dozen[13] green building standards in use, only LEED and Green Globes appear to be under consideration. On what basis did Green Globes earn instantaneous AIA recognition?

Access to the meeting is by invitation only, and the thirteen panelists seem to be limited to representatives of green building groups, standard setting groups, and government, with two exceptions: the Plastics Council and Forest and Paper Association will make presentations.[14]

The AIA has invited broad-based member input on "any and all aspects of the green buildings issue, and on the creation of an AIA sustainable buildings standards policy."[15] By acting now, you might stop the race to the bottom before it starts.


Footnotes

[1] American Institute of Architects newsletter, "The Angle" http://www.aia.org/nwsltr_angle.cfm?pagename=angle_nwsltr_20050623&archive=1#green, June 23, 2005 edition.

[2] Environmental Building News, http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?fileName=140304b.xml, March, 2005.

[3] See Centers for Media and Democracy, PRWatch, http://www.prwatch.org/books [July 18, 2005]

[4] Green Building Initiative website, http://www.thegbi.org

[5] Daily Journal of Commerce, "LEED Gets Green Globes Competition," http://www.djcoregon.com/section/grnbldg/leed.html

[6] Environmental Building News, http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?fileName=140304b.xml, March, 2005.

[7] The Australian Green Building Council rewards vinyl avoidance, see Healthy Building News, January 20, 2005

[8] Healthy Building Network press release, "Vinyl Industry Concedes to New York State:Vinyl Flooring Not a "Green" Building Material" May 29, 2003 http://www.healthybuilding.net/docs/052903vinylrelease.pdf

[9] American Plastics Council website, http://www.americanplasticscouncil.org/s_apc/sec.asp?CID=188&DID=502&VID=1 [July 18, 2005]

[10] The Vinyl Institute has sponsored conferences, newsletters and films in the eclectic field of neuroscience and architecture, a well-documented interest of Koonce and the AIA's former director of Research and Planning, John P. Eberhard, who also serves as Executive Director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Meeting attendees can be viewed at http://www.aia.org/aiarchitect/thisweek02/tw1018/1018tjiwoodsholereport.pdf

[11] American Institute of Architecture Students website, http://www.aias.org

[12] American Institute of Architects newsletter, "The Angle" http://www.aia.org/nwsltr_angle.cfm?pagename=angle_nwsltr_20050623&archive=1#green, June 23, 2005 edition.

[13] Environmental Building News, http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?fileName=140304b.xml, March, 2005.

[14] American Institute of Architects website, Sustainable Building Standards Policy Summit, http://www.aia.org/SiteObjects/files/summitpanelists.pdf, [July 18, 2005]

[15] American Institute of Architects newsletter, "The Angle" http://www.aia.org/nwsltr_angle.cfm?pagename=angle_nwsltr_20050623&archive=1#green, June 23, 2005 edition.


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