The debate between the two largest green building rating systems, at least for the men and women who work in this business, comes down to wood. 

Where it's sourced, how it's sourced, the chemical makeup of the sealers and adhesives used in a floor's construction-both the United States Green Building Council (USGBC)'s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Green Building Institute's (GBI) Green Globes take these characteristics into consideration when assessing the sustainability of a project. 

It was an unregulated market, and "green" meant something different to everyone.

So, given their similarities, why has the debate between each system been so contentious that states are creating legislation banning LEED and some of its requirements? Again, it comes down to wood.

The Beginning of Green Building

The path that has brought the industry to this contentious state is full of competing "green" organizations, environmental certifications and certifying bodies, creating plenty of confusion and green claims along the way. It has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s during the environmental movement, when the idea of "green building"—constructing buildings sustainably using products that are ethically sourced and low impact—appeared.

It was an unregulated market, and "green" meant something different to everyone. In the 1990s, proponents realized there needed to be an industry standard-something to refer to in order to say, unequivocally, that a building was green. More than that, green builders wanted a rating system that would bring third-party accountability. 

Out of this push came a number of systems and organizations, like Energy Star, the USGBC and, the template for what would later become Green Globes, the United Kingdom's BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Methodology). 

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

In 1998, after about four years of development spearheaded by a senior scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the USGBC introduced a pilot version of LEED for New Construction. 

Buildings become LEED-certified via a credit system that rewards measures taken to make a building sustainable-reduce water usage by X-amount and receive points, use materials with VOC content below a particular threshold and receive points. 

The USGBC is comprised of almost 13,000 member organizations that get to vote on system changes. The majority of member organizations are in the architecture, engineering and facility management industries.

LEED v4 & Wood Flooring

More than a decade later, LEED is the largest ratings system in the world and is in its fourth iteration. LEED v4 has three credits that specifically mention wood or wood flooring, and the credit based solely on FSC use no longer exists:

1) The new Building Disclosure and Optimization—Sourcing of Raw Materials credit gives points for using FSC-certified wood (or "other USGBC-approved equivalents," of which there currently are none) as well as for non-FSC wood that has been salvaged or recycled. 

The credit in previous LEED versions that gave points for sourcing materials within 500 miles of the project site has been removed. Instead, materials sourced within 100 miles of the project site act as a multiplier for the sourcing of raw material credit calculation. 

2) The Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction credit, an alternative to the above sourcing credit, gives points based on the percentage of structural and enclosure materials and permanently installed interior elements that are from reused and salvaged material, FSC-certified or not. 

3) The Low-Emitting Materials credit requires the volatile organic compounds of interior adhesives and sealants, flooring and composite wood flooring to be below certain thresholds. 

"It's a trade off: With the higher burden of proof, there's more guarantee of environmental performance that comes along with that."

New in LEED v4 is that untreated or unfinished solid wood flooring and salvaged or reused architectural millwork more than one year old at time of occupancy are considered inherently non-emitting sources. 

LEED: Onerous, Expensive?

It is no secret that the LEED-certification process takes effort and a good deal of patience. LEED supporters say this is a benefit: "It's a trade off: With the higher burden of proof, there's more guarantee of environmental performance that comes along with that," says Jason Grant, executive director of Greenwash Action, an organization that spreads awareness about corporate industries watering down environmental protections. 

But LEED's reputation for being both unwieldy and expensive may be taking a toll. The percentage of architecture and construction executives surveyed in Turner Construction's biennial Green Building Market Barometer who said they would pursue LEED dropped from 61 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2012. 

They cited specific reasons, including the "overall perceived difficulty of the process."

They also cited the costs of gaining LEED certification. Byron Courts, director of engineering services for Portland, Ore.-based Melvin Mark Companies, told The Associated Press in December that LEED certification for retrofitting Portland's Columbia Square building would have cost $100,000, about $80,000 more than it took to certify the building to Green Globes' highest rating. 

Green Globes

The Green Building Initiative that administers Green Globes began in 2004. It acquired the U.S. license for Green Globes, a web-based green building survey system from Canada, shortly thereafter. 

Typically viewed as less expensive and easier to complete than LEED, Green Globes pairs each project with an accredited professional who walks the project manager through the process face-to-face.

"People find Green Globes attractive because of the personalized, hands-on assessor," says Paula Melton, analyst and writer for sustainable building website GreenBuilding.com. "That's a very friendly relationship. It makes it easier to do the paperwork."

The GBI was founded by a former timber lobbyist, and a majority (52 percent) of its 36 member companies are product manufacturers and distributors. It is now run by a former LEED trainer. 

Green Globes & Wood Flooring

The materials and resources section of Green Globes is less regimented than in LEED. Full points in this section, 33, are given if an Athena Impact Estimator, a life-cycle assessment from the Canadian Athena Sustainable Materials Institute, is completed. If not, there is a prescriptive option, in which points, 20 total, are given so long as a certain percentage of products used in the project have had an environmental product declaration or life-cycle assessment done, or are certified by a third-party organization. 

In Green Globes, acceptable third-party certification systems include FSC, SFI and the American Tree Farm System.

Points are also awarded for wood flooring and flooring-related emissions. Wood flooring adhesives for architectural applications cannot exceed a VOC content of 100 g/L. Substrates for wood cannot exceed 30 g/L. 

"I don't know that Green Globes, with the weight of its history as very industry-driven and lobbyist-driven, is the alternative people are looking for."

Green Globes will also accept, in lieu of VOC documentation, products certified by EcoLogo, Green Seal, Greenguard and Indoor Advantage Gold.

There is also a point given if measures are taken to protect, during transit and at the construction site, organic materials and materials that absorb moisture.

Green Globes: A Greenwash?

Green Globes, as far as critics are concerned, has yet to move away from its industry-friendly past. It was founded by timber lobbyist Ward Hubbell, and its board, including chemical, timber and building associations, doesn't do much to assuage environmentalists' fears that it is set up to make it easier to cut corners and achieve a green rating. 

"I don't know that Green Globes, with the weight of its history as very industry-driven and lobbyist-driven, is the alternative people are looking for," Melton says. 

Specifically with regard to wood flooring industry related products, Green Globes uses an older version of emissions standards that is much less stringent. The 2007 standard that Green Globes uses, unlike the 2010 standard used by LEED, also doesn't test for VOCs that may be unnamed or proprietary. 

While LEED v4 gives a credit for using products that disclose their chemical ingredients, Green Globes does not. 

Green Globes also, unlike LEED, excludes composite wood products from VOC calculations. 

Wood Wars

Some of the loudest criticisms volleyed between the camps supporting each ratings system have been regarding the wood certifications allowed. 

Green Globes accepts FSC, ATFS and SFI, which was founded a year after FSC in 1994 by the American Forest and Product Association. LEED accepts FSC exclusively. (Builders can build a LEED-certified building without FSC wood products, but non-FSC products do not count toward a credit.)

"It's fair to say FSC is a lot more stringent than SFI," Melton says.

Melton has an Ivy League university to support that assertion. The USGBC, under pressure to accept SFI and other certifications, asked the Yale University School of Forestry to develop a methodology for selecting the forest certification systems that would be accepted by LEED. They came up with three ideas, one of which was a benchmark that would compare each forest certification system criterion-to-criterion. The researchers not only described the benchmark process, they also went ahead and completed it. Although the findings suggested that SFI and FSC address many of the same criteria equally, FSC addressed more criteria and with more rigor than SFI. 

The benchmark system was not prescribed so USGBC could choose the best system and that system only, but so it could more accurately judge how many points to award each system. A system less prescriptive than FSC—all of them, according to Yale's comparison—could be used but would be rewarded percentages of points instead of full points.

"Nearly half of respondents have sought out an alternative supplier in another country when FSC certified timber or products were not available in their own country."

FSC and SFI both disliked the benchmark methodology. FSC didn't because the benchmark meant letting less-rigorous certification systems participate. SFI didn't because it still gave FSC an advantage. When the USGBC held a vote among its members, of the 965 who voted, less than the required two-thirds majority voted "Yes," so the benchmark did not pass.

FSC Domestic Demand Vs. Supply

SFI claims that LEED's FSC-only policy, combined with its smaller-than-SFI acreage in the U.S., forces domestic projects pursuing LEED certification to import wood from abroad, where FSC is more common.  

The president of SFI Kathy Abusow, in an online comment in 2012, quoted FSC's Business Value and Growth Market Survey 2010: "Nearly half of respondents have sought out an alternative supplier in another country when FSC-certified timber or products were not available in their own country," although it is unclear how often that happens in the U.S.

On the state level, in North Carolina, 1.3 million acres of forest are certified by SFI or ATFS, while only about 47,000 acres are certified by FSC. That imbalance was described in a North Carolina Sportsman article by Jeff Burleson, a forest and wildlife consultant, who went on to say that "locally grown timber from a sustainable means will be overlooked for foreign imports from only FSC certified forests to satisfy LEED certification requirements. This is a real problem that is in dire need of legislative action."  

FSC says that this simply isn't happening. "Market dynamics for lumber and flooring—as well as common sense—suggests that LEED projects drive demand largely for North American wood," Brad Hahn, FSC communications director, writes in an email.

Legislative Action

But some legislators are more leery. In recent years, governors from four states have signed executive orders that government building projects must consider using wood from all three certification systems, not just FSC. The Oregon governor made an executive order that said state building projects can use only wood harvested from Oregon, no matter the certification.

"We support choice in the marketplace and we'd be happy to make our case; we don't think one system or the other should be written into law."

The Ohio Senate passed a resolution that all but bans state agencies from seeking LEED certification and, instead, recommended using green building rating system developed using American National Standards Institute's consensus process, a recommendation that doesn't include LEED, which was developed via a consensus process overseen by its members.

South Carolina and Alabama have even passed legislation. In South Carolina, one bill forbids a state facility project to pursue the FSC-specific credit in LEED v3, and another bill forbids pursuing the material ingredient reporting credit in LEED v4. 

And after years of LEED being the sole ratings system recommended by the federal General Services Administration, in 2013, after an intensive study of the ratings systems, the GSA recognized Green Globes as equivalent to LEED for federal purposes. 

"We support choice in the marketplace and we'd be happy to make our case; we don't think one system or the other should be written into law," GBI President Jerry Yudelson says. 

More Than One Option

Despite the passionate opinions on both sides of the debate, there is no clear right or wrong. 

"There is every reason to bury the hatchet in terms of the negative competition and move toward building as many green buildings through as many different pathways as possible," Grant says. "There are many paths up the mountain."

One such path has nothing to do with ratings systems. Instead of a system, a code. Melton says she sees a lot of promise in the International Green Construction Code-a collaborative effort of many organizations, including the International Code Council, American Institute of Architects, ASTM International, and the USGBC, among others. 

The IGCC provides model code language for local governments to use, and it requires energy performance that is 30 percent better than the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. Because it's a code and not a system, there are no payments to be made to assessors or administrators. The code is regulated by the government.  

The IGCC is already effective statewide in Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon and Rhode Island. Cities in Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire and Washington have also adopted it. 

Still, it has a drawback that may or may not be a deal breaker, Melton says.

"Even if you bought it and used it, you wouldn't get a plaque."

Andrew Averill is the former associate editor at Wood Floor Business. A graduate of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, he had internships at newspapers across the country—San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, The Flint Journal—before a bad case of rug burn turned him into an advocate for floors of a harder disposition.