Of all the points that a building project may earn under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system for construction, building, and design, perhaps none is more heavily contested than that for sustainable wood. From its first iteration in 2000, LEED has used one standard as a benchmark for allocating sustainable wood points, that of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an independent, nongovernmental, not-for-profit organization with international offices in Germany. At present, if half of the cost of all wood-based materials and products in a building meets FSC criteria, that project can earn one LEED point. If 95 percent or more of the wood is FSC certified, there is an opportunity to earn two points.

However, the USGBC is poised to change the way wood qualifies for LEED credit. “Several years ago, it was decided that it was time to look at this credit and determine: Are we having a big enough impact?” says Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED at the USGBC. “We want to make sure that what we’re giving credit for supporting the responsible management of the world’s forests.”

The USGBC’s Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group (MR TAG) is leading the revision of the LEED-certified wood benchmark. In 2007, the USGBC enlisted the Yale Program on Forest Policy and Governance to assess the USGBC’s certification process and to recommend how to move forward. “If we were looking for the best way to help transform the market, what criteria should we ask for?” Horst says.

The Yale Program concluded what the USGBC already knew anecdotally: that the FSC-only approach was highly criticized among stakeholders, both for the limits it placed on wood resources and the arbitrary nature of the certification. So, why use only FSC?

This is a question that Kathy Abusow of the Washington, D.C.based Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) has been asking for years. She questions why organizations such as hers are being left out of the mix. “Only 10 percent of the world’s forests are [FSC] certified and since the USGBC sees itself as a leader, they should not be discounting the other, more than 50 forest certification standards that exist worldwide,” Abusow says. “The USGBC needs to wake up and stop discriminating against other resources.”

FSC was once considered the only viable benchmark for sustainable certification. But in the past decade, a number of additional certification organizations such as the SFI have matured. All of them have different takes on what it means to harvest wood in an ecological fashion. “When LEED came about in 2000, FSC was the only game in town. SFI didn’t even have a chain of custody yet,” says Corey Brinkema, president of the FSC–US. “There are several competing standards developed after FSC began because the timber industry recognized that they needed to have something for people not willing to participate in FSC. The other systems over time began to add more rigor and, as they improved their systems, their voice got louder with the USGBC.”

The debate began in earnest in 2005 as the USGBC looked to reevaluate some of its standards. “I was in a meeting in the fall of 2005 when [the USGBC] was talking about criteria. They were very honest that [the FSC approach] is an old standard that was grandfathered in and that this program is outdated and needs a fresh look,” Abusow says. “Here we are five years later still talking. It’s just crazy. The USGBC knows what it needs to do and it just needs to hurry up and do it.”

Horst says it’s not that easy. “LEED uses a process by which decisions are made in a consensus-type manner. This idea that we want a group of people to come to basic agreement is what adds a lot of time,” he explains.

Add to that the complexity of determining what qualifies as sustainable forest management. “This is a complex and polarizing issue,” Horst says. “I had someone turn to me at a meeting and say, ‘You have no idea what you stepped in! This is the logging industry against environmentalists!”

In 2008, the Yale Program helped develop an initial set of benchmarks for certifying wood that would be eligible for LEED credits. The USGBC decided to name its own terms in an effort to drive transformation of the forestry market and reconcile all the variant criteria from the different organizations. So rather than defer to the certification standards of one outside organization, the USGBC decided to develop its own. If an organization can meet those standards, its wood may be used to obtain LEED points. The USGBC put forth those benchmarks for public comment in several rounds, starting in 2008 and continuing through this year. It’s been a slow back-and-forth process and today, the benchmarks are coming out of their fourth round of public comment. From this latest round, a final set of criteria is being prepared for a USGBC membership vote, and Horst says the new standards should be in place later this fall. Once the ballot passes, organizations such as FSC and SFI will have to prove that they meet these new USGBC standards.

“We’re trying to help the forestry industry be as beneficial as possible and use the best practices,” Horst says. “This could help change the way forests are managed worldwide. That’s the power of LEED.”

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a contributing editor with ARCHITECT magazine. She can be found online at

Who's Who

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Nongovernment, not-for-profit organization founded in the early 1990s by a group of timber users, traders, and representatives of environmental and human-rights organizations, following the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 1992.

First board of directors of FSC International elected in 1993. The office of the FSC secretariat opened in Mexico in 1994. Established as a legal entity in Mexico in 1996.

Governed by a general assembly of members in three chambers: environmental, social, and economic, each of which are further split into subchambers. A nine-member board of directors reports to the general assembly.

First FSC certificates (one for forest management in Mexico, one for chain of custody in the United States) issued in 1993.

Certifications follow an internationally consistent 10 principles and 56 associated criteria for forest management.

The core document for FSC certification can only be changed or amended by a vote of FSC membership.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)

Nongovernment, not-for-profit organization formally adopted in 1994.

Governed by an 18-member multistakeholder board of directors made up of representatives of environmental, conservation, professional, and academic groups; independent professional loggers; family forest owners; public officials; labor; and the forest products industry.

Became a national standard with a third-party certification component in 1998.

Current standard: SFI 20102014 Standard, effective Jan. 1, 2010. Its core principles are sustainable forestry; forest productivity and health; protection of water resources; protection of biological diversity; aesthetics and recreation; protection of special sites; responsible fiber sourcing practices in North America; avoidance of controversial sources including illegal logging in offshore fiber sourcing; legal compliance; research; training and education; public involvement; transparency; and continual improvement.

The SFI standard is updated every five years.