Portland, OR - The eco-friendly building rating system known as LEED has been around for more than a decade, powering a green arms race in cities across the nation.
It's an industry force, certifying thousands of buildings and providing a marketing tool, tax breaks and other incentives to builders eager to cash in on the sustainability craze.
But now, LEED has a rival — a controversial, Portland, Ore.-based rating system known as Green Globes, which markets itself as a simpler, less expensive alternative.
The competition comes as the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design process faces attacks from policymakers, with several states banning or considering a ban on its use.
LEED supporters say the opposition has been driven by industry lobbyists who seek to increase Green Globes' prominence and damage the longstanding king of green construction.
In cities such as Portland, where sustainability and so-called smart growth have been the rage for years, LEED has become a de facto brand, adorning everything from the arena where the NBA's Trail Blazers play to the condos in a warehouse district.
The widespread rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., aims to reduce the use of energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions in new construction and renovation projects.
Though it's voluntary and market-based, more than 30 states, multiple cities and the federal government either require LEED construction or incentivize its use in public buildings. LEED has 44,270 U.S. projects, many of which are federal, state and local government buildings.
But critics call it a cumbersome system that has monopolized the market and doesn't always deliver what it promises.
LEED is "a huge bureaucracy that's extremely complex and costs quite a bit," said Byron Courts, director of engineering services for Portland's Melvin Mark Companies. He has used both LEED and its emerging rival Green Globes, which has issued about 850 building certifications in the past few years.
LEED supporters say lobbyists for the timber, plastics and chemical industries are pushing the new system to redefine the meaning of "green" and skirt LEED's stringent environmental standards, which were updated last month.
"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," said Scot Horst, a Green Building Council senior vice president who oversees LEED. "It's a good tool, but it's a light tool."
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to ask Congress to ban the use of LEED in federal construction projects, and executive orders and amendments in several states — including Maine, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama — have essentially banned LEED in state construction. North Carolina, Florida and, most recently, Ohio have also seen anti-LEED legislation.
Even in sustainability-minded Oregon, the governor has ordered officials to examine how green building rating systems benefit the state, though no ban has been put in place.
While most of the orders, amendments and bills don't mention LEED by name, several ban rating systems that they say discriminate against American wood products.
That's a direct stab at LEED, which recognizes a single, stringent forest certification system — one that's opposed by timber industry giants such as Weyerhaeuser, because it does not certify some of U.S. timber. Green Globes accepts less stringent forest certification programs.
Other bans target green building rating systems that don't use the American National Standards Institute consensus process — Green Globes does, but LEED uses a different process.
Groups such as the American Chemistry Council say LEED lacks true consensus building and its latest version "discourages the use of certain products without adequate input from technical experts" — a reaction to LEED's rejection of certain toxic materials.
Some critics say Green Globes is an effort at "green-washing," founded by a former timber executive and overseen by a board of directors that includes the American Chemistry Council, the American Wood Council, DOW Chemical, and the Vinyl Institute.
Its administrator, the Green Building Initiative, says Green Globes should be judged "on merit" — and though most experts agree the alternative is less strict than LEED, it does offer some advantages.
Just like LEED, Green Globes offers a point-based rating system — but unlike LEED, Green Globes applicants fill out an online questionnaire, get an on-site visit and feedback during the process. That cuts down on the price of hiring certified consultants who usually complete a LEED application, said Courts.
LEED certification for retrofitting Portland's Columbia Square building, for example, would have cost under $100,000, Courts said; Green Globes cost only about $20,000 — one of nine Green Globes projects completed in the Portland area.
Though Green Globes is less stringent in some ways, especially when it comes to the types of materials permitted, Courts said, both rating systems use the same yardstick for energy use in existing building renovations.
On new construction projects, LEED certification is still a must, Courts — otherwise, "you might have a problem marketing the building," he said.
That might soon change: in late October, the federal government gave Green Globes a stamp of approval. For the first time, the U.S. General Services Administration recommended that Green Globes can be used alongside LEED for new construction and renovation projects.