Georgia Seeks to Ban LEED in State Projects

Last Friday, a bill passed in the Georgia congress that would effectively ban state-owned construction projects from employing the LEED green building standard. This move is a serious blow to the major cities of Savannah and Atlanta, which have seen tremendous market growth in LEED-based development. The bill requires that only green certification programs which deem Georgia-grown timber as sustainable can be used for state-owned buildings. LEED’s current forestry standards, created by the internationally-adopted Forest Stewardship Council, do not include timber produced in Georgia among the list of sustainably-produced products.

Georgia’s antipathy towards LEED is somewhat perplexing in that of the 110 points allotted to each project for LEED certification, only 1 is granted for FSC-approved lumber. Projects need a minimum of 40 points to be LEED-certified, with 50 points garnering the bronze level, 60-79 points garnering the gold level, and 80+ points garnering the platinum level, which is the highest LEED certification. It is entirely possible to gain the 40 minimum necessary points without FSC-approved timber products. For example, combining water conservation, energy optimization, energy-production, building life-cycle consideration, and daylight incorporation measures with the use of LEED-certified project leaders would be adequate to gain the points needed for basic LEED certification.

The bill’s opponents argue that state-owned buildings can still achieve LEED certification by using local lumber or alternate materials. This has been the rule since the governor-issued executive order in 2012. Nonetheless, Senator Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, claims that LEED “The program basically discriminates against 97 percent of the wood grown in Georgia.” Bill co-sponsor, Representative Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, describes the measure as “a fairness and ‘protect Georgia jobs bill,’ to be honest with you.”

Green design expert Lloyd Alter reports that the lack of FSC approval is actually perceived by Georgia businessmen as an unpleasant reflection upon the Georgia lumber industry rather than as an actual impediment to business. Much of the pine lumber in Georgia is grown on plantations and destined to become pulpwood. While the FSC has provisions for lumber plantations under Principle 10, it “promotes the restoration and conservation of natural forests,” in part by placing limits on clear-cutting to “ensure that forest managers provide adequate habitat for species associated with large trees or decaying trees and dead wood. The expectation applies to all stands, silvicultural systems, and harvest objectives.”

There are a number of reasons that the FSC will not register the bulk of Georgia timber as sustainable. The FSC prefers lumber harvested from naturally mixed woodlands. Provision 10 measures aside, the FSC discourages the sort of plantations and clear-cutting employed by Georgia lumber producers because they are not sustainable practices. FSC also addresses labor relations within the company, how the community’s interests and welfare are preserved, and how much timber can be clearcut at a time. Extraordinary market conditions notwithstanding, the maximum limit is 40 acres. Georgia pine plantations cannot profit in 40-acre increments; neither could they enjoy the advantage of rapid tree maturity spurred by forced harvesting of vast swaths over an extended period of time. In short, the FSC expects trees to be treated like a part of the forest ecosystem, and Georgia timber plantations treat trees like a crop, harvested by temporary workers, that has no bearing on the local community’s ecosystem.

The bill, which proponents expect will shortly become law, is part of a larger effort to encourage contractors to build with locally-produced wood. Construction Dive’s Sharon O’Malley reports that only 32,000 of the state’s 20 million acres of lumber meet the FSC standard. 4.7 million have been certified under other standards which do not meet the FSC requirements. Although over 100 of the state’s buildings are LEED-certified, the bill requires state agencies seeking green building certifications to use Georgia-sourced lumber that qualifies under alternative building standards which register non-FSC lumber as sustainable.

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