A Climate Change In The Green Building Movement

Bill Walsh | January 19, 2007 | Policies

The first Healthy Building News for 2007 is a week late. On the eve of publication last week, our scheduled topic was rendered moot by the US EPA's decision to prohibit the residential use of a toxic pressure treated wood formula known as ACC (acid copper chromate). Its main ingredient, hexavalent chromium, is the human carcinogen that made Erin Brockovich a household name.

The urgency of the pending EPA decision had itself bumped our original topic for the 2007 inaugural issue -- highlighting the positive implications of the ambitious USGBC initiatives unveiled last November at GreenBuild. The EPA's surprise but welcome decision brings our thesis full circle: the growing weight of the evidence suggests that the climate of the green building movement is changing, for the better.

Consider this: the US EPA did not move to restrict the use of arsenic-based pressure treated wood until nearly a decade after the green building movement's journal of record, Environmental Building News, suggested it should be phased out. [1] Yet last week, the notoriously anti-environmental Bush Administration banned the chromium-based compound for residential use before a single board reached the playground. One significant, arguably decisive, difference in the intervening decade is the fact that the wood treaters defended arsenic until the end, but they largely opposed the new toxic brew being developed by the chromium interests. As one industry insider put it (off the record, of course): We've turned that page. We don't want to use materials that people believe cause cancer.

The green building movement, by and large, hasn't turned that page, yet. The USGBC's LEED® Rating System has yet to proscribe chromium treated wood, or for that matter most other materials made from chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects. But the USGBC leadership team is capable of writing a new chapter on healthy building.

At GreenBuild in Denver, USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi introduced a package of climate change initiatives which, taken together, did more than promise to make carbon dioxide reductions from buildings "immediate and measurable." They set a precedent for a future "bias for action" where, he promised, "results will always matter more than intentions." [2]

That bias was evident in Fedrizzi's acknowledgement of the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge is the brainchild of the Cascadia GBC's new CEO, Jason McLennan. Its prominent placement on the GreenBuild Member's Day agenda gives a green light to the organization's grassroots leadership, signaling that ambition, innovation and leadership are welcomed and rewarded.

The Living Building Challenge does not have credits. There are only prerequisites and a challenge to continuously improving building design and operation to be as beneficial to the planet as possible.

Increasingly, these improvements hold the promise of fully integrating healthy building principles into green building strategies, as Fedrizzi also acknowledged in his discussion of the business case for building green schools. [3]

Now it can only be a matter of time before engaged USGBC members lead the organization to embrace the mainstream consensus that green building materials must also be healthy building materials; that green buildings should be as non-toxic to the planet as they are climate neutral; and that international treaties that seek to reduce global toxic contamination should be honored as much as those which seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The USGBC's message at GreenBuild 2006 was that the organization intends to liberate, not litigate the definition of a green building.

That's a climate change that will benefit us all.


[1] Environmental Building News, Vol. 6, No. 3, March, 1997

[2] GreenBuild 2006, Opening Plenary Remarks by S. Richard Fedrizzi, President, CEO and Founding Chairman, US Green Building Council. Page 23.

[3] Ibid. pp.5-8