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'Green' According to Whom?


By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

The ongoing evolution of green building rating systems has intensified debate over a critical question: “Green according to whom?”

The dialogue has thickened as the green building movement grows internationally and the question is filtered through cultural differences and disparate priorities.

Scrutiny of material and product qualities and features has also grown, as standards for green building performance and expectations have risen.

That Other Green

Fueling the discussion is increasing awareness of the potential for economic gain.

© / deliormanli

Does green mean building plans? Materials? Processes? All three?

This is evident in the high-stakes debate among LEED, Green Globes and the Living Building Challenge, where politics and competition for market share have resulted in more than a little acrimony.

Meanwhile, clouding all of this is widespread misunderstanding about the role of the main players in determining what is green (and how green it is).

Fact v. Fiction

For instance:

  • Many people do not understand that nothing was invented for LEED, Green Globes or the Living Building Challenge. Where necessary, each defaults to industry standards and existing agencies such as ASHRAE, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), UL, ASTM and others.
  • There are no “certified materials.” There are only materials that meet the rating systems’ credit criteria. The systems do not endorse materials or products.
  • Building rating systems are not codes, although the USGBC has partnered with ASHRAE, the AIA, the International Code Council and others to create the International Green Building Code.

Who’s Greener?

At this point, the three primary rating systems are playing on a fairly level field.

© / Sharon Foelz

Building materials are at the forefront of the growing debate over what green building means—and who gets to decide.

And that field is where building materials are being increasingly leveraged in the “green according to whom” debate.

For example, in LEED v4 for New Construction, Option 1 of Building Product Disclosure and Optimization—Material Ingredients advocates for increased awareness of materials known to be carcinogens, mutagens and endocrine blockers using methodologies developed by the Cradle to Cradle organization.

Option 2, Material Ingredient Optimization, goes farther, rewarding project teams for selecting products verified to minimize the use and generation of harmful substances.

The USGBC cites this credit as evidence that LEED buildings are “greener” than those pursuing Green Globes certification.

In fact, the USGBC has attacked Green Globes for its support from the Vinyl Institute and others whose common building materials were deemed environmental harmful or unhealthful by Cradle to Cradle.

LEED Logo Living Building Challenge
Green Globes

The three top green building rating systems seek to stand out in an ever-louder debate over who is greenest. Widespread misunderstanding over their roles does not help.

Meanwhile, the Living Building Challenge bans these materials outright, underscoring its claim to the most rigorous green rating system.

The Call for Clarity

In response to the need for clarity and objective data, several third-party organizations have emerged that use accepted science and methodologies for material and product testing:

EcoLogo is a third-party certification program that measures multiple attributes—such as recycled content and reductions of undesirable chemicals—of the environmental impact of more than 20 types of products.

FloorScore, developed by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), tests hard surface flooring and flooring adhesives for compliance with indoor air quality standards.

C2C Life Cycle

The holistic Cradle to Cradle system measures manufacturers’ use of safe and healthy materials, design for material reuse, water and energy efficiency during production, and social responsibility.

Greenguard Environmental Institute (Greenguard) is a third-party testing program for low-emitting products and materials.

Green Label and Green Label Plus, developed by the Carpet and Rug Institute, are certifications that measure the VOCs emitted by carpets.

The nonprofit Green Seal develops standards for, and certifies a variety of, building products based on environmental and performance criteria.

Certification by MBDC Cradle to Cradle, noted earlier, measures manufacturers’ use of environmentally safe and healthy materials, design for material reuse, water and energy efficiency during production, and implementation of socially responsible strategies.

Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) is a for-profit testing facility that  independently certifies environmental and sustainability claims.

Sustainable Materials Rating System (SMaRT) is a comprehensive certification scheme by the Institute for the Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) that awards a LEED-like level of certification based on a product’s sustainable features.

The Road from Here

Clearly, materials are only one indicator of what constitutes a green building, and the debate continues.

Hopefully, today’s divisions among the rating systems will serve to positively inform our green building material choices and practices tomorrow.


Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Certifications and standards; Green Globes; Green Guard; Green Seal; International Green Construction Code; LEED v4; Living Building Challenge; North America; Renewable raw materials; Sustainability

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (12/10/2014, 8:14 AM)

"Green" standards are NOT energy efficiency standards, though they often incorporate energy efficiency as a minority component of the rating system.

Comment from Mikhail Davis, (12/10/2014, 8:02 PM)

You've seriously misrepresented the role Cradle to Cradle plays in any Green Building rating system. C2C products can contribute to 2 credits in the new LEED v4 system as one of several possible pathways to achieving the credits.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (12/11/2014, 8:55 AM)

Tom Schwerdt - I believe we are saying the same thing. I understand the difference between standards and codes and rating systems. I stated building rating systems are NOT codes. The rating system defaults to them. And, the USGBC and ASHRAE did collaborate on the International Green Building Construction Code. Mihail Davis - My comments regarding Cradle to Cradle are limited to the Credits where it is referenced in LEED V4. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm not sure how that constitutes overstating the influence of Cradle to Cradle? We know LEED is much, much more than that. Thank you both for your comments. Dialog is what makes the blog useful.

Comment from Mikhail Davis, (12/11/2014, 10:23 PM)

In both Options 1 and 2, you've made it sound like C2C is the authoritative body that has determined the criteria for LEED v4. This role would more accurately be described as belonging to GreenScreen or the HPD Priority Lists since the full C2C screening methodology is not publically available. There is an effort to harmonize these three systems, which might make this all less confusing.

Comment from Robert Kobet, (12/12/2014, 9:15 AM)

Mikhail - My statement that Cradle to Cradle is referenced in the LEED Credits discussed is accurate, and supported by the USGBC, the Products Innovation Institute, LEED User, Building Green, and many others. I did not claim Cradle to Cradle was the only methodology or compliance path, and I do not agree with your assertion I believe Cradle to Cradle is the authoritative body that has determined the criteria for LEED V4. Again, it is referenced in the Credits discussed. The point I was trying to make is each of the three rating systems mentioned uses different agencies and organizations to support their claim of material qualities and attributes. USGBC membership solidly supported involving Cradle to Cradle in the LEED V4 process, and it was, but Cradle to Cradle is in no way dominates the M&R Credits. I do hope all organizations involved continue to cooperate and work for additional clarity. I also hope they continue to influence manufacturers to supply more and better nontoxic materials.

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