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USGBC is all about green … in more ways than one

By Marie Rohde

The U.S. Green Building Council’s name gives the impression that it is an organization of building trade professions, perhaps an agency of the federal government.

It is not.

Its founders were a marketer and a sales executive; not engineers and architects. It is a $64 million a year non-profit advocacy group that promotes an environmental agenda that has done more than any other to raise the public consciousness of the need to conserve energy, particularly in buildings where most of the nation’s energy money is spent.

But critics question whether the USGBC produces greener buildings — or greener wallets for designers and red tape for customers.

A decade ago, the USGBC created standards for green building and offered Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for buildings meeting those standards, as well as for individual professionals.

According to the USGBC’s most recent financial report from the 2008 tax year, it rakes in more than $16 million in certification fees, more than $14 million in registration and conference fees and another $10 million through its publications.

Not bad for an organization founded in 1993.

The council’s influence is growing and many observers say its goal is to make LEED certification legally required, not just voluntary standards.

It is quickly becoming the national standard.

In April, the Wisconsin Senate passed a measure that would have required state construction projects 10,000 gross square feet or larger obtain at least silver LEED certification.

Other states and governmental agencies are requiring similar or tougher standards. One example: the US Army requires LEED certification for some of its new housing.

If the LEED standards are encoded in legislation, that will be very good for the USGBC.

“It will drive revenue to them in perpetuity,” said Ujjval Vyas, a Chicago construction lawyer who has taught architecture at schools in the U.S. and Canada. “It literally forces everyone to do what they want.”

The LEED standards have widespread approval among those who want to go green. It’s the certification process and its costs that irk critics.

Doing the paperwork to get LEED certification isn’t cheap. Generally, it adds between 1 and 5 percent to a project’s cost — it cost the taxpayers in Eagle River at least $150,000 more, according to its design firm.

The process isn’t easy. Randy Udall and Auden Schendler, two Colorado green building experts who wrote a lengthy 2005 report calling for reform of the LEED process, likened it to a colonoscopy and said LEED had become a Soviet-style bureaucracy.

Judy Krause, director of finance and operations for the Milwaukee Urban Ecology Center, said her group bypassed certification because of its $70,000 price tag. Instead, the group followed the standards when building in Riverside Park.

“We decided to spend our money on green features rather than seek the recognition that certification would have brought,” said Krause of the building that has gotten national attention despite its lack of certification. “We didn’t feel we needed it.”

When critics of the $28.5 million Northland Pines High School in tiny Eagle River asked for the revocation of school’s gold LEED certification, the challenge sent out national shock waves.

The critics questioned whether LEED standards were followed during construction and if the new building was more energy efficient than comparable, uncertified buildings. Bottom line: Did the taxpayers get what their money’s worth?

The USGBC has not responded to a request for a telephone interview.

Marie Rohde is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. She is not a green blogger.

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