Growin' Up: The US Green Building Council at 15

Bill Walsh | December 12, 2008 | Policies

Invited to contribute my thoughts to the US Green Building Council’s 15th Anniversary commemoration, I offered a metaphor suggested to me by a colleague. When you think about it, the USGBC is a lot like a 15-year-old.

Public displays of confidence and idealism guild a workaday manner heavy on insistent experimentation and inconsistent judgment. The potential is breathtaking. There is anxiety still. The green building movement, in a vehicle turbocharged by a $50 million annual budget, approved by corporate America, is turning heads on a very slippery road.

The big concern, of course, is peer pressure. Inspirational role models and industry leaders are elevated center stage at Greenbuild, but reactionary industry forces work over the committees and working groups like bullies defending their turf. Nowhere has this been more visible than in the stalemate over LEED materials credits.

For years, crowds applauded Greenbuild keynoters like Paul Hawken who championed USGBC member efforts to institute a LEED credit for PVC avoidance. Meanwhile architects and designers complained, and complain still, that if Walmart can have a PVC avoidance policy, so should LEED. In the end, despite an internal task force analysis that found “PVC consistently among the worst materials for human health impacts,” the industry successfully maneuvered to keep the proposed credit out of LEED. That took seven years, half a lifetime.

This year, the commanding presence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Greenbuild 08 amplified the USGBC’s elevation of social equity “as a value and outcome integral to sustainable built environments.”[1] But Archbishop Tutu won’t be in the room when someone decides whether the timber companies get their LEED amendments that will leave indigenous peoples “open to exploitation.” You can bet the timber industry, and their lawyers, will be just outside. This is not kid stuff. There is real pressure and real consequence at issue in rolling back the modest protections offered the world’s forests and forest peoples by Forest Stewardship Council certification.

There is also real reason to believe that as the institution matures, it will be better equipped to handle these pressures. In its new 5-year Strategic Plan for 2009-2013, the USGBC eschews self-congratulation and acknowledges that “achieving sustainability is very far off, . . . green buildings . . . remain very small percentages of market share, and [t]he pace of change must increase to prevent significant deterioration of ecological conditions in many places around the world.”[2] This acknowledgement is significant because the pace of change cannot possibly increase if we continue to indulge – for years – those who, like the plastics and timber lobbyists, push resistance to change to the top of the organizational agenda. Standing up to bullies is, after all, a rite of passage in the maturation process.

The strategic plan also expands the organizational Guiding Principles to include a commitment to Fostering Social Equity. Combined with the Precautionary Principle, this sets a remarkable leadership standard for a business organization. It challenges USGBC members, chapters, board and staff to lead rather than follow the crowd in pursuit of the final point on its Agenda for Transformation: Organizational Excellence.

Admittedly, these are only preconditions. The devil, or as my architect friends like to say – God – is in the details, and in our expectations, as the USGBC approaches its full expression as the enduring progeny of this generation’s green building movement.

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[1] US Green Building Council Annual Report 2008, p.19.

[2] Ibid.