ConstructionPro Week, Volume: 1 - Issue: 1 - 05/11/2012

GSA Not Alarmed by the Results of Its Initial Review of Green Building Certification Systems

By Steve Rizer


There is no need to be alarmed by the initial findings of a U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) review to determine how best the federal government can meet its goals for maintaining and constructing more sustainable and efficient buildings, agency spokesperson Adam Elkington told ConstructionPro Week. At first blush, the following results of GSA’s review could give green building advocates cause for concern: only three certification systems out of more than 180 met the agency’s “screening criteria,” and none of those three building certification systems were found to cover all federal building requirements for new construction, major renovations, or existing buildings.


Elkington emphasized that his agency is not worried that so few systems -- the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, and the International Living Building Challenge -- met the screening criteria and that the results of this initial review should not be interpreted as a conclusion that most systems are inadequate. It should be pointed out that Sections 433(a) and 436(h) of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) require the director of GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings to identify the one green building certification system that is “most likely to encourage a comprehensive and environmentally sound approach to certification of green buildings.”

Additionally, Elkington clarified that there would not necessarily be a need to devise an entirely new green building certification system for federal facilities even if all certification existing systems are unable cover 100 percent of the federal government’s building requirements. Instead, he reported that agencies may use a combination of systems to meet their green building objectives.


GSA’s review of certification systems is designed to clarify how current certification systems align with federal sustainable design principles and high-performance operational requirements. The framework for analysis is a set of criteria drawn from EISA and federal building performance requirements. EISA-cited criteria used in reviewing certification systems include the following: 

  • Robustness of the technical components of the certification system to address federal high-performance design and operational requirements for federal facilities.
  • Independence of auditors or assessors.
  • Availability of technically qualified auditors or assessors.
  • A documented verification method.
  • Transparency of certification systems’ approach to collecting and addressing public comments.
  • A consensus-based standard for documenting a development and revision process.
  • System maturity.
  • Usability of the system.
  • National recognition within the building industry.

Although none of the certification systems are identical to the federal requirements, GSA stressed that many users believe the systems offer a useful framework for tracking and/or documenting progress toward meeting requirements.


The systems align well with the EISA-defined review criteria, with Green Globes for new construction and LEED for existing buildings aligning most closely (ratings of 25 and 27, respectively, out of 27 and 28), according to GSA. Green Globes and LEED have a points system offering multiple certification levels whereas the Living Building Challenge is an “all-or-nothing” system. The Living Building Challenge certification system is designed to incorporate the results of at least the first year of a building’s operations into the certification, which means this system has the greatest emphasis on measured performance. Green Globes and Living Building Challenge feature on-site verification of the user-submitted documentation whereas LEED uses online documentation alone. LEED and Living Building Challenge have specific minimum requirements that must be met for certification to be achieved whereas Green Globes defines a minimum number of points within each area with flexibility as to how those points would be met. LEED is the dominant tool in the market, with thousands more users than the other two systems; however, they are all generally recognized by building professionals.


An “apples-to-apples” comparison of the certification systems is challenging because the development basis is different for each system, GSA stated. Green Globes uses a questionnaire-driven approach to guide users through design. LEED uses building codes and standards and a minimum program requirements approach as its base. The Living Building Challenge uses a philosophy-based approach that pushes for advanced building design and operations. Additionally, the certification systems have different strategies for achieving similar goals. In some cases there are multiple paths or approaches for achieving a goal within a certification. An example of the different options is energy use for new construction. Green Globes and LEED have performance and prescriptive path options whereas Living Building Challenge requires 12 months of measured energy use data.


GSA’s findings are included in a report that it considers a “first step” in an “extensive” review process, including a public comment period, which evaluates tools that could help federal agencies meet their goals for maintaining and constructing more sustainable and efficient buildings. When completed, the use of updated building certification systems is expected to help GSA’s customer agencies meet federal requirements for green construction, save taxpayer dollars, and meet the goals of President Obama’s Executive Order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance (E.O. 13514).

The U.S. government owns and leases nearly 3.4 billion square feet of real estate and is the largest consumer of energy in the United States. GSA oversees the leasing and construction of more than 9,600 buildings in the federal government building portfolio, and every five years, the agency is required to review building certification systems for the entire government under EISA.

GSA will hold public listening sessions for members of the public to provide feedback on its review and convene an interagency review group to evaluate and make recommendations on how to guide government construction toward meeting the goals of E.O. 13514. The inter-agency task force is co-chaired by GSA, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD). Federal agencies with large portfolio holdings such as the Department of State, National Park Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Forest Service also have been invited to participate.

The review group’s findings will be shared through a notice-and-comment period advertised in the Federal Register. Following public comment, GSA, DOD, and DOE will develop formal recommendations on how green building certification systems will be used to facilitate high performance in the federal sector. GSA expects to make its final recommendation to the Energy secretary in the fall. The agency has yet to develop a timetable for holding public listening sessions, convening the interagency review group, or opening and closing the public comment period, Elkington said.




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