Originally posted Monday, 19 May 2014

Written by Chris Towery

When it comes to assessing and rating the environmental sustainability of buildings, the LEED program has held a virtual monopoly within the construction industry for more than 10 years. LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is run by the nonprofit US Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. and seeks to reduce the use of energy, water, and greenhouse gas emissions in new construction and renovation projects.

Over the years, LEED has been widely adopted in both commercial and government construction projects. While the program is voluntary and market-based, numerous states, cities, and even the federal government require or incentivize LEED’s use in public buildings. Currently, LEED is being used in more than 44,000 projects in the U.S., including many of projects being overseen by COAA members.

But now, LEED has some serious competition.

That competition is Green Globes, a sustainable building rating system run by the Oregon-based nonprofit Green Building Institute (GBI), which is touting the system as a web-based, lower-cost alternative to LEED. Though Green Globes has been available in the US since 2005, it was given a huge boost in October 2013, when the General Services Administration (GSA) announced that federal agencies may now use either LEED or Green Globes as their green building certification system. Previously, LEED was the only option for certifying the sustainability of federal construction projects. But with the GSA’s seal of approval, the door is now wide open for Green Globes to capture a more healthy share of the booming green building market, which is expected to reach $204 billion by 2016.

However, because Green Globes has been so overshadowed by LEED, many Owners aren’t aware of the program’s existence, much less how it works. Here, we’ll look at the history of Green Globes, how the system can be used to certify projects, and how it stacks up to its rival.

A Canadian Import

The origin of Green Globes comes from the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), which was created in the United Kingdom in 1990. In 1996, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) launched BREEAM Canada for Existing Buildings, which was later converted into an online sustainability rating system and renamed Green Globes for Existing Buildings in 2000. By 2004, the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada had adopted Green Globes, and today the system is used by numerous large developers in the country as well as in all of Canada’s federal construction projects. It was also in 2004 when GBI acquired the rights to operate Green Globes in the US.

Since starting in the US, Green Globes has been used to certify some 850 buildings, including nearly 300 federal buildings. Now, with the green light from the GSA, Green Globes is poised to increase those numbers in both the public and private sectors. Like LEED, Green Globes is a points-based system that awards between one and four “Globes” depending on how many points the project earns. While LEED offers a maximum of 110 points, Green Globes point scale goes up to 1000. The GSA is advising agencies looking to design sustainable buildings to score at least LEED silver (50-59 points) or two Green Globes (55 percent of 1000 points). Viewed side by side, the Green Globes scoring system of one to four Globes is seen as mirroring LEED’s platinum, gold, silver, and basic certifications.

A New Alternative

To entice builders to adopt Green Globes, GBI is specifically marketing the system as a faster, cheaper, and more user-friendly alternative to LEED. To this end, Green Globes seems specifically tailored to capitalize upon on some of LEED’s problem areas. For example, given LEED’s notoriously laborious certification process, one of Green Globes main selling points is its ease of use.

Unlike LEED, which requires project teams to produce copious amounts of paperwork and documentation that are analyzed and scored by consultants, Green Globes initially has project teams perform a self-assessment using an interactive online program. Depending on the type of project, Owners register online as either a new project (New Construction) or a renovation (Continual Improvement of Existing Buildings). Then the project manager completes a lengthy web-based questionnaire that tallies the preliminary score of the project based on its sustainable attributes. For new projects, Green Globes offers seven assessment areas: Energy, Indoor Environment, Site, Resources, Water, Emissions and Effluence, and Project Management. Renovation projects include six assessment areas: Energy, Indoor Environment, Emissions and Effluence, Resources, Environmental Management, and Performance.

Once a project attains a minimum of 35 percent of the 1000 available points on the questionnaire, the Owner can order a third-party assessment and certification. This third-party certification is conducted by a Green Globes Assessor, who examines all of the project data and conducts an on-site evaluation to validate the results. Additional consultants, such as independent commissioning agents, may be required during the final stages of certification; however, most of the work on the front end is done by the project team, rather than outside consultants. This is specifically designed to save both time and money, as the online component determines the project’s eligibility before the Owner has to invest in third-party assessment and certification.

In fact, GBI’s Vice President for Business Development Sharene Rekow told ECOBUILDING Pulse that Green Globes program fees are 30 to 50 percent that of LEED. Further, the GBI website estimates the certification process for LEED can take up to four times longer than Green Globes. If these figures are accurate, the time and money saved using Green Globes should be a major attraction to Owners, who often list the added time and expense of LEED certification as one of its primary drawbacks.

Another area where Green Globes is designed to have an advantage over LEED is in the flexibility and weighting of its scoring system. Unlike LEED, Green Globes has no prerequisites, so all of the points achieved by a project count toward the final rating and certification. Critics of LEED argue that having prerequisites discourages the ultimate goal of increasing building sustainability because it excludes some projects, especially smaller ones, from the green assessment and rating process.

Moreover, Green Globes allows a limited number of questions to be marked as “non-applicable” if it would be impossible or unreasonable for a building to achieve those points. This lowers what would be considered a perfect score, and then allows the project to work towards points based on a percentage of the new potential perfect score. The GBI says this helps eliminate “point chasing” and allows for a more common-sense approach to sustainability by taking into account regional variations, building occupancy type, and conflicts with state or local jurisdictions. Additionally, Green Globes requires the third-party Assessor to review all N/A answers for accuracy and limits the number of N/A designations to a total of 100 points for each project.

Clash of the Green Giants

Green Globes, however, is not without its own critics. The biggest criticism of Green Globes is that it’s designed to skirt LEED’s strict environmental standards by offering a new rating system that’s more friendly to big business interests, such as timber, plastic, and building materials companies. Critics point to the fact that GBI, which oversees Green Globes, was founded by a former timber executive and has a board of directors that includes members of Dow Chemical, American Chemistry Council, the American Wood Council, the Vinyl Institute, and the American Gas Association.

U.S. Green Building Council Senior Vice President Scot Horst told Charleston, South Carolina’s, Post and Courier that Green Globes is simply a way for these industry groups to avoid having to deal with LEED’s increasingly stringent regulations.

“The industry supports Green Globes because it does not represent a threat to them—it’s their way of having a green building without having to change their practices,” Horst said. “It’s a good tool, but it’s a light tool.”

Others contend that Green Globes is specifically designed to undercut LEED and could negatively impact the progress LEED has made toward increasing sustainability in the built environment. Lloyd Alter, a writer for TreeHugger.com who has extensively investigated Green Globes over the past few years writes, “Green Globes serves just one purpose: to be a building certification system that is friendlier to big wood and to the plastics industry and to displace LEED.”

The GBI contends that they’re not out to get rid of LEED, rather they simply believe the market deserves an alternative that’s simpler, less costly, and less time consuming—especially for those Owners who might otherwise not incorporate sustainable features into their projects.

“We felt like the marketplace needed a choice,” Rekow told Oregon’s Portland Tribune.

The Value of Competition

In the long run, LEED’s competition with Green Globes may indeed prove beneficial for the market. Now that it has a rival, LEED will likely have to address some of its shortcomings to stay competitive, which could ultimately lead to lowered costs and enhanced customer service. And while LEED is widely acknowledged as holding more rigorous environmental standards, it’s not a perfect fit for all projects. So having another way to become certified will likely be viewed as a positive development for certain Owners. Lawrence Clark, principal of Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, is both a LEED Accredited Professional and a Green Globes Assessor. In a blog for HPAC Engineering, he compares LEED and Green Globes side by side and concludes that there’s room for both systems.

“Like everything else in our industry, there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” writes Clark. “Each project should be evaluated based on its own goals and objectives, and the most beneficial outcome to the Owner should be the deciding factor in selecting which green label to pursue.”

After all, for Owners who are unable to pursue LEED certification, using Green Globes will certainly be more environmentally responsible than doing nothing at all.