by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: KATE STRINGER  - Jerry Yudelson spent years promoting LEED, but now manages a rival business-friendly green building certification program run out of Portland. In the annals of the green building movement, Jerry Yudelson might turn out to be a turncoat, or perhaps a modern-day soldier stowed inside a Trojan Horse to infiltrate enemy lines.

Or maybe a bit of both.

Fifteen years ago, Yudelson was living in Portland and co-founded the Cascadia Green Building Council, which remains a cutting-edge force in the field.

Yudelson became a national authority on LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the U.S. Green Building Council’s popular system for promoting and certifying eco-friendly buildings. He wrote 13 books on green building and helped organize Greenbuild, the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual trade show.

So it surprised many when Yudelson took a job in January leading Portland’s Green Building Initiative, which promotes an industry-friendly alternative to LEED known as Green Globes. The relatively obscure nonprofit was created and financed by big corporations and trade groups in the timber, chemical and plastics industries whose products don’t score well under LEED. Those industries mounted a lobbying assault on LEED that has prompted four conservative-controlled states to ban LEED for state building projects. Last year, they succeeded in pressuring the U.S. General Services Administration, the federal government’s real estate arm, to grant equal status to Green Globes and LEED for federal building projects. That was a status formerly reserved for LEED.  

The Sierra Club and Greenpeace accuse the Green Building Initiative of greenwashing — putting a green seal of approval on undeserving products. In May, the two groups formed a new advocacy group called Greenwash Action. It’s first target: Green Globes. 

Given Yudelson’s impeccable credentials, environmentalists hoped he’d lead the Green Building Initiative in a new direction, says Jason Grant, executive director of Greenwash Action and a Bay Area Sierra Club activist. “I think the jury’s still out on whether he’s going to do that.”

Enter Yudelson

“I want to push the reset button,” Yudelson says. “I’d like the organization to be known much more by what it’s for than what it’s not for.”

Yudelson acknowledges that LEED changed the marketplace, but says its cost and complexity shuts out many would-be participants. 

by: COURTESY OF GREENWASH ACTION  - A new report cosponsored by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace accuse Portland-based Green Building Initiative of greenwashing. “LEED has certified less than 3 percent of the building area in the United States after 15 years,” he says. “We were not reaching our objective of really changing lots of buildings.”

Yudelson, who wouldn’t divulge his new salary, says he relished the chance to run his own organization, and viewed last year’s federal decision as a ripe opportunity to expand Green Globes’ reach.

The Green Building Initiative touts Green Globes as a cheaper, easier way to get a building certified. Applicants fill in an online questionnaire, followed by a site visit from an independent evaluator.

Environmentalists say Green Globes has merit, but is less rigorous than LEED and goes easy on industries that finance and control the business-friendly alternative.

Yudelson disputes any notion that Green Globes is “LEED light.” Rather, he says, it’s “green different.”

Getting a green building certification can’t just be an exercise to get a “plaque on the wall,” he says, but should add value to a building and make it more sustainable.

“I want to be more sustainable, but only to a point,” Yudelson says. Building owners must weigh the “value vs. cost,” he says, so the certification system has to be done in a way to spur more green buildings.

Yudelson insists he’s not out to steal business from LEED.

“I’m like a pastor looking for the unchurched. It’s not a Catholic vs. Protestant thing; I just want to get them in my house.”

Yudelson has recruited some new staff, including Shaina Sullivan, former sustainability specialist for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. The Green Building Initiative also released a new rating system this spring for commercial interiors. 

Yudelson says he wants the group to target smaller buildings and retailers, among those “unchurched” sectors. Whole Foods, Fidelity Investments and Capital One have been using Green Globes, and Yudelson says Portland’s New Seasons is using it for at least one of its local groceries.

Vested interests

The U.S. Green Building Council has 77 chapters, more than 13,000 member organizations and a diverse board.

In contrast, the Green Building Initiative has no chapters and about 40 members, many of them industry trade groups and big corporations that pay dues of $15,000 to $50,000. The members’ appointees control the board.

Greenwash Action calculates that 45 percent of the members are timber companies and trade associations, and 23 percent are from the chemical and plastics industries, and those industries control 47 percent of the board seats.

Yudelson says the board recently added the chief executive of an engineering firm and the Whole Foods sustainability director, and soon will add a prominent Chicago architect and the CEO of a national environmental group.

Yudelson says he also wants to broaden the dues-paying members who largely select the board, to reflect the full universe of the green building sector and not be so reliant on industry. 

Critics call the Green Building Initiative’s governance structure “pay to play.” It’s unclear whether that will change.

“You’ve still got to write a big check to get in the door,” Yudelson says.

Ray Tonjes, an Austin, Texas, homebuilder and board chairman since the Green Building Initiative’s founding in 2004, says it’s common for nonprofits to rely on “special interest groups” in the early going. The hiring of Yudelson signals the group is maturing and evolving in a new direction, Tonjes says.

“I think it is evidence of a commitment to raise the bar on credibility and programs, and develop a focus on the future of the organization,” he says. “I think you’re going to see over time more members.”

Don’t mess with Superman

LEED defenders question why the likes of Weyerhaeuser, the American Chemistry Council, and the vinyl industry are mounting such an aggressive national attack on LEED — lobbying states and the federal government to restrict its usage — when use of their products only pertains to a few points in LEED’s 110-point scoring system.

Yudelson acknowledges those aren’t make-or-break points that determine how most buildings are rated.

“It’s more like you’re telling us our products are no good,” he says. “You step on Superman’s cape, eventually Superman’s going to get pissed off.”

Green building advocates hoped Yudelson’s ascension would bring a cease-fire in industry attacks on LEED, but that hasn’t happened yet. The Ohio state Senate voted in February to ban LEED on state projects.

Yudelson says he has “no idea” if industry attacks on LEED will end. “I doubt it,” he says. “I think the lines are clearly drawn.”

Tonjes, echoing Yudelson, says the nonprofit can’t control what large companies or trade groups do. And it’s naive to think the U.S. Green Building Council and its allies aren’t lobbying as well, he says.

But when asked if states should enact outright bans on the use of LEED, Tonjes didn’t waver. “Absolutely not,” he says. “We think there needs to be choice.”

Greenwash Action and others argue that Yudelson has the credibility and stature to raise his voice against the industry assault on LEED, which they say hurts the entire green building movement.

“It’s essentially using lobbying and brute force to get that market advantage,” Grant says. Yudelson should at least stand up and distance himself, he says, or else changes in the Green Building Initiative will be merely “window dressing.”

Jason McLennan, the CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council that Yudelson co-founded, says he’s “disappointed, to say the least,” that Yudelson hasn’t spoken out against the lobbying attacks on LEED.

McLennan, who also leads the International Living Future Institute that promotes a higher green bar than LEED, says he doesn’t view Green Globes as a credible alternative. So far, he hasn’t seen anything from Yudelson to change that perception. 

“It’s designed to peck away at LEED’s progress,” he says, not grow the green-building pie. “I think presenting it as an altruistic alternative to LEED is false advertising.”

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