GREENBUILD 2005: Perspectives from Tabletop 12

Bill Walsh | November 17, 2005 | Policies

Last week, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) attended Greenbuild, the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) annual conference and exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. HBN Founder Bill Walsh spoke on a panel entitled "Ethics and Green Building," and our annual Healthy Building Leadership Awards reception honored six long-time environmental justice leaders from Louisiana.[1] As in previous years, we could be found at our non-profit tabletop on the exhibition floor. It is on the exhibition floor where the real networking happens, rumors swirl, and you get a feel for the state of the green building movement. With apologies for its extended length (it was a big conference) and the promise of returning to our brief format next time, here are the perspectives we gained, from A to Z, from our post at Tabletop 12, the HBN exhibit at Greenbuild 2005.

A+ work by the green building professionals involved in the Gulf Coast rebuilding charrettes convened by Bill Browning at Greenbuild. In the Sustainable Community workgroup, unencumbered by manufacturer representatives and trade association lobbyists, the professionals who make up the core of the USGBC proved once again that they are deeply committed, deeply talented and deeply green.

Building Research Establishment Ltd , (BRE).[2] The USGBC's Nigel Howard cast a long shadow during his tenure as director of the Centre for Sustainable Construction at BRE, playing a key role in developing their Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based tool. It's now been brought to our attention that PVC building products consistently compare unfavorably against other materials in the BRE LCA tool.[3] Curiously, we could find no evidence in the USGBC's PVC Task Group database of sources or its draft report that they ever considered BRE's evaluation of PVC during the five years of research and deliberation over whether PVC is or is not a green building material. What's up with that?

Character. We wish Interface would replace their PVC backing on carpet, but we honor their sponsorship of the Master Speaker session featuring Interface Sustainability executive George Bandy and Board Member Diane Dillon-Ridgely. Ms. Dillon-Ridgely eloquently placed in a global context the environmental injustices she has personally witnessed in the chemical corridors of Louisiana, where environmental justice groups have made PVC-related concerns a priority. Mr. Bandy announced a new leadership initiative designed to diversify the USGBC membership. Thumbs up to Interface for characteristic leadership.

Debunk we must the greenwash printed on the Lonseal display at booth #821, claiming that vinyl is less polluting than linoleum. The BEES LCA study[4] they cited is a dramatic example of how data gaps can pervert an LCA's results. HBN's Tom Lent exposed this during a Greenbuild panel two years ago, when he demonstrated that including missing dioxin data would have reversed the results and noted that: "BEES actually calculates that VCT performs worse than linoleum in every category in which either of the materials has a significant impact . . . except eutrophication - excess nutrient...Does linoleum's contribution to eutrophication really outweigh the human health issues raised by the vinyl life cycle ? . . ."[5]

Ethics & Green Building was a topic that filled a Thursday session convened by BNIM architect Jason McLennan[6], suggesting that there is an appetite for this discussion among the USGBC membership.

Formosa Plastics, PVC manufacturer extraordinaire. For the second year in a row Greenbuild takes place in the aftermath of an explosion of one of their plants. Last year the small town of Illiopolis, Illinois was devastated. This year, an explosion rocked the Gulf Coast town of Point Comfort, Texas. We would have asked the USGBC's PVC Task Group to account for this explosion when evaluating the PVC lifecycle, but according to local authorities, there were absolutely no toxic emissions in the thick black cloud of smoke billowing from the burning plastics factory.[7]

GreenFaith[8] is an organization with a mission of inspiring people of diverse spiritual backgrounds and religious traditions to deepen their relationship with nature and to take action for the earth. They joined us for a tour of the exhibition hall, and it was mission accomplished.

Hawken, Paul continued the unofficial tradition of plenary speakers who note that PVC is not a green building material, even when embossed with the USGBC logo. The Vinyl Institute was giving away PVC architectural scales made from Christo's Central Park Gates[9] installations. Judging by the trash heaps at the Georgia World Congress center last Friday, the Vinyl Institute did not offer to recycle the USGBC banners into next year's booby prize.

Iceman is what we call Peter Strugatz one of the founders of the IceStone[10] company, which makes PVC-free countertop material from recycled glass and concrete. The visit from the GreenFaith crew inspired him to confess his plans for building social justice goals into his his company's definition of sustainability. That warmed their hearts and made us believers in this young company's future as a leader in the green building movement.

J. Last year, we dedicated the letter J to Blue Vinyl Director Judith Helfand.[11] This year, even though the new Blue Vinyl DVD edition includes a special feature on our non-PVC Habitat for Humanity House in New Orleans, we have chosen to acknowledge the Vinyl Institute's own Judith, Judith Nordgren, Director of Industry Affairs. She is everything that vinyl is not, smart and classy and wholesome. This Judith is to the green building professionals what the mythical Sirens were to ancient mariners. Watch out, sailor.

Kilts. What's with the kilts? Hyde,[12] your legs!

Linoleum. Again the steady gaze of nuns and priests extracts a confession from an industry rep, in this case from Forbo. When demand reaches the point where shifting production to the US will not cause job cuts in Europe, Forbo will build a US manufacturing plant. So, let's invest in America: spec natural linoleum.

Max's Pot. That's what cool people call Austin's Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems,[13] celebrating 30 years of "serious commotion" in the green building movement. Guided by the uncompromising principles and unflagging leadership of Co-Directors Pliny Fisk and Gail Vittori, Max's Pot has developed the GroHome modular building system to serve the diverse needs of hurricane victims. We second that commotion.

N is for (nee-land) phonetic for Kneeland, Craig, who accepted the USGBC's Leadership Award on behalf of his employer, NYSERDA.[14] Ever the bridesmaid, Craig has also twice been recognized for his role in helping New York State agencies win Healthy Building Leadership awards. But really, we all know, it's all about Craig.

Only 14% of eligible voters elected the last USGBC Board of Directors. Critically important issues command Board attention in 2006. Find out where the candidates stand on important issues such as defending the FSC[15] wood certification credit, establishing health-based materials credits, creating a code of conduct that would stop trade associations from working to undermine LEED, and the Chairman's kilt. Then vote.

Paper. Greenbuild attendees relied upon a conference program printed with soy-based ink on 100% post consumer waste content paper that was also 100% chlorine-free in the recycling process. Sadly, this still can't be done without a lot of tenacity and hard work, so a big thumbs up to the USGBC's Gwyn Jones who got it done.

Quote of the conference: " . . . walking through that exhibit hall it's clear, there is no standard." Who said it? Find out how you can find out, down at the letter Y.

Rick Fedrizzi. Last year we compared him to Nixon (in a good way!), but this year his presence at Greenbuild was positively Clintonesque (in the good way!)

Signs of the times. More and more products are advertised as PVC-free these days, have you noticed?

Trade Associations. Many very nice people from very nice trade associations admonished us that all trade associations are not as anti-environmental as the Vinyl Institute and the American Forest and Paper Association. Maybe so. Perhaps we need a trade association of trade associations, with full USGBC membership of course, to set some standards of trade association conduct that prohibit things like lying, bullying, and economic reprisals.[16]

US General Services Administration (GSA).[17] They make you proud to be a green American taxpayer by demonstrating consistently high standards in their operations and presentations to the green building community. This year they outdid themselves though, by tackling the scourge of all conferences: the vinyl refrigerator magnet take-away. Nothing frosts us more than vinyl refrigerator magnets proclaiming an eco-message. Not anymore. Check out the GSA's paper faced magnet. We're going to track down the manufacturer so that we can eradicate vinyl magnets for once and for all from the Greenbuild expo floor.

V. The Vinyl Institute vigorously vamped its venal vagueries at Greenbuild once again from Booth 1034. Representative of Vinyl Institute tactics was the slick 5 x 7 post card that quotes selectively the USGBC's draft report on PVC building products. The catch is that the report itself says "Not for Citation or Quotation" on top of every single page, because it is, after all, a draft undergoing major revision. There oughta be a law, but evidently there isn't. (Note to readers: This column is not for citation, quotation, or especially recirculation.)

Weapons of Mass Destruction comes to mind in the way the critics and data have been ignored in the USGBC's draft report on PVC. Flying in the face of mounting contrary evidence, best professional practices, and old-fashioned common sense, the report now threatens the reputation of all the experts bound up in its tortured history. Will this lead USGBC President and CEO Fedrizzi down the bushy path from the Clintonesque to Powelless? The whole green building world is watching.

X. Exhibition is made easy for NGOs by an honorable USGBC policy that is among the most accommodating to non-profit groups of any major conference. The discount rate NGO tables make it possible for groups like HBN, Max'sPot, Forest Ethics and Greenpeace meet with green building professionals on their home turf.

Year end charitable giving. This year, for the first time, HBN will ask the green building community to include us in your charitable giving plans. Watch this space for some worthwhile rewards. To cut costs we scavenged the exhibition floor after hours, collecting vinyl refrigerator magnets and architectural scales made from pieces of Christo's Central Park Gates, all suitable for re-gifting to our supporters. Triple glazed platinum level donors will receive this year's Quote of the Conference imprinted, with source, on a sheet of Blue Vinyl.

Z. DPZ's[18] principal and New Urbanist[19] icon Andres Duany did confirm even after meeting me that I am not an idiot.[20] (It was a brief meeting.) If you missed his packed master speaker session at Greenbuild, watch for Andres' challenging take on how to rebuild New Orleans in an HBN newsletter next month.


[1] 2005 Healthy Building Network Leadership Awards


[3] See Green Guide to Specification, Third Edition ((C) 2002, reprinted 2003, 2004)


[5] Tom Lent, "Toxic Data Bias and the Challenges of Using LCA in the Design Community", Presented at Greenbuild 2003 - Pittsburgh PA


[7] Paul Bogart, "Why This Texas Town Might Not Want To Breathe Easy", Austin American-Statesman, October 21, 2005.




[11] GREENBUILD 2004 FROM A to Z: Perspectives from Tabletop 14

[12] Kevin Hyde is the kilt-wearing Chairman of the USGBC Board of Directors


[14] New York State Energy Research and Development Authority

[15] Forest Stewardship Council

[16] "Where is the US Green Building Council LEEDing Us? Trade Associations Draw the Map" HBNews, January 10, 2005




[20] "Andres Duany on Rebuilding After Hurricane Katrina - Part 1 - The Gulf Coast" HBNews, Oct. 10, 2005