House Bill (HB) 255 passed through the Georgia General Assembly’s 2015 legislative session. Though HB 255 is probably unknown to most citizens, the precedent it creates deserves our attention.
The building codes and ordinances that govern construction in any city, county or state set the minimum standard for safety. There are a significant number of “code plus” programs that require a higher standard of building than our codes and ordinances. These code-plus programs, such as green building programs, are typically voluntary. They’re available for anyone who wants to build a better building – houses are buildings.
Why HB 255 Matters for Homeowners
The timber industry objects to a requirement in the most popular green building program for commercial buildings. Through successful lobbying efforts in the Georgia General Assembly, the timber industry has gotten HB 255 passed. HB 255 effectively outlaws that popular green building program for state buildings.
HB 255 seems to set a precedent. If a producer of lumber like the timber industry can object to a requirement and get legislation blocking the use of that program in all state buildings, why couldn’t any other producer of building products make the same argument against any other program or standard?
Code-plus building programs have helped the real estate market address concerns that aren’t addressed in our building codes and ordinances. Thus voluntary, code-plus programs have advanced our real estate market faster than our building codes and ordinances.
The market competition among voluntary green building programs has given the freedom of choice to people building a home – we can choose what program to use, be inspired by the best practices from each program and choose what level of investment makes sense for each project.
The precedent of HB 255 appears to discourage that level of innovation and choice. A significant number of new homes are built and certified through a voluntary green building program so they can better compete in the housing market. The result for homeowners is homes that are more healthy, comfortable and efficient. If product manufacturers with powerful political lobbies work to weaken those programs, it will have a direct effect on the homes in which we live and the buildings in which we work.
What Is LEED?
The popular green building program to which the timer industry has objected is the LEED for Building Design and Construction. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) created the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) voluntary green building certification program to recognize commercial projects that exceed the minimum standards of building codes. The USGBC claims, “LEED certified buildings save money and resources and have a positive impact on the health of occupants, while promoting renewable, clean energy.”
The LEED standard for commercial buildings is among the most widely recognized and used green building standards in the world. Over the years since it’s creation, the LEED standard for commercial building has evolved through four versions. The USGBC has also created a LEED standard for homes, neighborhoods and other project types.
The LEED v4 for Building Design and Construction contains a requirement for wood that reads, “Wood products must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or USGBC approved equivalent.”
In contrast, Georgia House Bill 255 contains language which reads, “Whenever green building standards are applied to the new construction, operation, repair, or renovation of any state building, the entity applying the standards shall use only those green building standards that give certification credits equally to Georgia forest products grown, manufactured, and certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the American Tree Farm System, the Forest Stewardship Council, or other similar certifying organization approved by such entity.”
The disagreement between the USGBC and the Georgia forestry lobby is over the certification of wood products. USGBC doesn’t recognize the standards that the Georgia forestry lobby wants to use because the USGBC considers them too weak. The timber industry disagrees and the commentators have dubbed the fight the “wood wars”.
The USGBC’s LEED program for commercial building is in its fourth version. Each time a new version is developed, a team of interested parties reviews the standards for certification of products in the LEED program to see if new or revised standards that meet the program requirements should be included. In the USGBC’s view, each time its reviewed the available standards (listed in HB 255), it’s found them unacceptable.
The Political Problem
The disagreement left legislators with the choice between the requirements of LEED (a private voluntary green building program) and a local timber industry arguing that the LEED requirement hurts employment and revenue. When there’s disagreement among parties on the language in proposed legislation, legislators ask for compromise language from the parties to see what common ground exists. In this case, there was no compromise language as neither party would yield.
This is the worst possible situation for legislators because they have to make a decision on a topic about which they probably know very little. When that happens, it’s not unreasonable to expect the group with the best lobbying operation to prevail.
The timber industry was well prepared to lobby in support of HB 255 and other proposed legislation in which it was interested. The local USGBC chapter did not appear well prepared to make an argument against HB 255 and interested parties who spoke against HB 255 did not appear to have much effect.
Georgia legislators enjoyed some political cover from the Governor’s 2013 executive order banning the use of LEED for state buildings and the precedent from a few other states with similar language. That stands in contrast to the thirty-some states and the U.S. government who have previously required or established strong incentives for the use of LEED programs in public buildings.
A Very Particular Legislative Solution
At just two pages, HB 255 is a relatively short piece of legislation. It’s clearly a bill for the Georgia timber industry because its language only addresses wood products.
The Georgia Governor’s 2013 executive order and the language of HB 255 (and the language from a few other states in which the timber industry has successfully lobbied) suggests that the wood certification standards suggested by LEED and the timber industry are equal. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative advanced by the timber industry was created by the timber industry. It’s more lax than the Forest Stewardship Council certification required by LEED. Unless you’re willing to wade into the details, you could easily be mislead.
Georgia’s HB 255 only applies to state buildings yet the precedent may have a much more significant effect. Part of that effect may be the wake-up call for sustainable building program advocates who will realize they must be better organized when it comes to politics. At the very least, we should all acknowledge that our building codes and ordinances are not immune to politics.
For homeowners, Georgia HB 255 underscores the importance of working with design and construction professionals who understand and can guide you through the many decisions you’ll need to make to realize a successful project. You’ll likely need to use a voluntary program that exceeds the building code and local ordinance requirements to realize the most healthy, comfortable and efficient home possible. As mentioned in this blog post, not all programs are created equal. You’ll need to work with your team to find the solutions that make the best use of your project budget.
At the time this blog was posted, Georgia HB 255 has passed the Georgia General Assembly and awaits the Governor’s signature. Georgia’s Governor has 40 days to sign or veto a bill following the adjournment of the Georgia General Assembly session for that year. If the Governor doesn’t sign or veto a bill, it becomes law at the end of that 40-day period.
As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please share it below. Thanks!