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The World Turned Upside Down: The Australian Green Building Council Rewards PVC Reduction

by Bill Walsh, National Coordinator of the Healthy Building Network

January 20, 2005

An Interview with Che Wall, Director of Green Building Council of Australia

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) five year resistance to a PVC reduction credit in LEED is the fact that it flies in the face of best practices established by so many green building leaders. From pioneers like McDonough Braungart to the freshly minted Green Guidelines for Healthcare (GGHC), PVC is rejected as a green building material. But no clearer path is offered to the USGBC than that cut by Green Star, the Australian Green Building Council's green building rating tool, which awards 1 or 2 credits respectively for 30 or 60% reductions (by cost) of "total PVC content cost for major services elements (pipes, conduits & cables) . . . by replacing with alternative materials." Could it happen here? We called the Australian GBC to find out. You can decide for yourself.

HBN: I take it you are familiar with the USGBC, LEED and the PVC controversy?

CHE: Very much so. I have deep respect for both the USGBC and LEED, and have kept informed about the PVC debate. I personally have quite a bit of experience with regard to thinking through materials credits, having served on the technical working group that developed the first version of our Green Star rating tool. I currently chair Green Star's Technical Steering Committee, which is the equivalent of the LEED Steering Committee.

HBN: Why does Green Star offer a credit for PVC reduction?

CHE: We determined that such a credit was warranted in order to make Green Star consonant with numerous precedents regarding PVC. These include the Commission of European Communities, and our local planning laws, which mandated PVC minimization for the 2000 Summer Olympics precinct in Sydney.

HBN: Have you been challenged for failing to provide a scientific rationale for the credit?

CHE: We don't feel it is our job to conduct an independent review given the precedents and the best practices within the green building community itself. The vinyl industry opposed this credit, but there was no other real opposition. It's been a very smooth ride, really.

HBN: Has the credit proven practical to implement? Any problems finding alternatives, or any sense that the alternatives are no better than PVC?

CHE: There have been no problems implementing the credit. Nor have there been any problems with regard to alternatives. It's well-trod ground, actually, given the Sydney Olympic precedents and others around the world. The barrier is one of cost, and that becomes a commercial consideration.

HBN: What about a comparative life cycle analysis that compares PVC to other materials in various applications like windows, roofing or siding? Wouldn't that provide a more accurate basis for evaluating materials and establishing credits?

CHE: Quite the contrary. We actually started by trying to use life cycle analysis as the basis for Green Star, but it failed to hold up under scrutiny. It was tried and failed terribly in the Sydney Olympics because the data, despite being ridiculously expensive to gather and analyze, were so unreliable. Some could be adjusted to vary by a factor of 200%, even 300%. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (author of the Eco Specifier) also rejected an LCA approach and advised us against it. It is a tool that makes it very hard to do anything, and very easy to do nothing. It also threatens the very basis of Green Star's strength and credibility.

HBN: How so?

CHE: The strength of our rating systems are twofold: their transparency, and the extent to which they foster collaboration among professionals who share a common base of understanding about the intentions of the credits and the means of achieving them. LCA threatens both. It favors the single pocket of expertise over the interdisciplinary and collaborative approach. It establishes a black box methodology which is neither transparent nor well understood by practitioners. The evaluation tool is taken out of the hands of practitioners, and becomes controlled principally by manufacturers who possess the required data and specialized knowledge. You lose the feedback loop between building owner, designer and manufacturer. The professional certification, Green Star or LEED, risks being devalued.

HBN: The USGBC is currently signaling that it intends to adapt LEED to LCA. How do you reconcile these approaches?

CHE : I know many people in the USGBC leadership, respect their intelligence and trust their judgment. I'm sure they are working to do the right thing. We benefited enormously from vigorous participation by green building professionals in determining the relevant inclusions for Green Star. I believe that if the USGBC inquiry leads the organization down the same paths we traveled, a similar conclusion could very well be reached.


OTHER NEWS

Make Your Voice Heard at the USGBC

The public has until February 15 to comment on the USGBC's draft report on PVC. The draft report fails to address key environmental health priorities and threatens to undermine progress made toward reducing PVC use by governments, green building professionals, and manufacturers.

Check out HBN's action points on the draft report at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/usgbc_comments.html. And send your comments to tsac@committees.usgbc.org today!


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