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Sustainable Me

After years of navigating product certifications and third-party labels, A&D professionals can finally certify themselves as green with the help of a new protocol from NSF.

By Mindy Costello

After years of navigating product certifications and third-party labels, A&D professionals can finally certify themselves as green with the help of a new protocol from NSF.

There’s some good news for A&D firms looking for a competitive edge: Designers and architects can now market their services as “more sustainable,” and have a certification mark to prove it. It’s called the NSF General Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Services and Service Providers Protocol 391 (P391), and it applies to interior design and architectural firms, as well as a host of other service providers, including engineers, plumbers, contractors and consultants.

This new certification promises to help design professionals stand out in a crowded marketplace, and will be of particular benefit to firms seeking to work with government agencies and environmentally minded organizations.

why certify?
NSF developed the protocol in response to the President Obama’s October 2009 Executive Order (EO) 13514, which requires federal agencies to establish an integrated strategy towards sustainability in purchased goods and services for the federal government. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has supported the protocol, stating that it (and an eventual standard created from it) could be used to provide recognition of services that comply with EO 13514.

“The A&D services industry is just one of the many industries that could benefit from the NSF P391 protocol as a tool for compliance for Executive Order 13514,” says Brennan M. Conaway, procurement analyst for the Program Analysis Division of the GSA. “We intend to participate in the standards development process in transforming this protocol to an American National Standard.”

According to American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Senior Associate of Sustainable Design Lori Tugman, Allied ASID, LEED GA, “Incorporating business practices into the equation is the missing piece of the full-circle sustainability puzzle. Up until now, we were able to quantify green interiors and sustainable products, but not the design firm who created them or the service provider who installed them. P391 will help interior designers distinguish themselves in the marketplace and ultimately contribute to their company’s bottom line.”

Service providers certified to NSF P391 can differentiate their services and achieve preferred vendor status with government agencies and companies seeking more sustainable operating solutions. Designers and architects can choose to certify their own organizations, or use the protocol to identify and source sustainable services for their practices and projects.

Jeff Olsen of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection served as chair of the consensus committee that developed NSF P391. “Both manufacturers and service providers have been quick to recognize that subscribing to sustainable operations can provide a decided edge in the marketplace,” he says. “Adhering to third-party verified sustainability standards like NSF P391 levels the playing field by allowing contracting and procurement agents to specify sustainable goods and services fairly, and helps to assure vendors that their commitment to sustainability is recognized and rewarded.”

how is sustainability measured?
NSF P391 includes criteria that address environmental, economic, and social impacts of services and the practices of service providers. There are prerequisites as well as “optional” criteria that evaluate these practices. Certification to the protocol is based on three key areas:

  1. Environmental data prerequisites include areas such as management of hazardous substances, identification of environmental impacts, greenhouse energy source identification and waste reduction programs. A prerequisite for energy management requires organizations to establish an energy use inventory. For example, a service firm can track its energy consumption by collecting energy bills and meter readings for fuel and gas.

  2. Labor criteria address health and safety, labor practices, training and contractor management. Beyond regulation, this section promotes labor practices that enhance worker conditions. A point may be awarded to a service provider that allows for flexible working arrangements such as varied hours or working remotely.

  3. Social Responsibility is an important aspect that helps define this protocol as a sustainability assessment, as opposed to an environmental assessment. Included in criteria for this section are requirements for an ethics policy and policies against corruption. An optional criterion awards points to organizations that have a defined engagement program that actively seeks input from community stakeholders.

“This protocol gives structure to what we are all trying to do,” says Holly Baird, IIDA, LEED AP, ID&C, president of IIDA’s Tennessee Chapter and a registered interior designer for the State of Tennessee Department of General Services. “As designers, our first step was to become a LEED AP. Then we tried to find ways to affect bigger change by recycling and ‘greening’ our libraries. This new protocol is the next step, in that it gives us objectives that are specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-sensitive. It identifies those who are walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

where to begin?
The first step is to select a certification body such as NSF International Sustainability that reviews the data, reports, policies and other documentation showing the company meets the protocol. An organization must meet all of the prerequisite criteria to achieve conformant certification. Once the prerequisites are met, Silver, Gold and Platinum certification levels are determined by how many of the optional criteria have been achieved.

Christy Gray, chief marketing officer for BeeDance, believes the new protocol will help fuel programs such as BeeDance’s ZeroLandfill, which has been collecting expired product samples from A&D libraries and repurposing them since 2006. “We hope to achieve a million pounds in repurposed samples this year,” she says. “We collect in 18 markets and provide the materials for K-12 art curriculum and college-level interior design and art programs.”

“Most businesses want the sustainable piece of the puzzle to be part of their business story,” says Perkins+Will Interior Project Designer Ashley Barnett Griffith, RID, LEED AP, BD+C, IIDA, EDAC. She notes that the protocol should be easy to embrace for designers accustomed to working with product certifications, and that it provides a framework to document what interior design firms like Perkins+Will are already doing. “I’m part of a green team that’s involved in initiatives like creating competitions between the offices to see which can create the least amount of waste. I worked with ZeroLandfill and IIDA on events to collect interiors samples and upcycle them to classrooms in the community. At our last event, we took in 30,000 pounds of materials that would otherwise go to the landfill.”

what’s next?
NSF’s National Center for Sustainability Standards is soliciting stakeholders to help take the protocol to the next step: an American National Standard. Participants are needed from architecture and design firms, as well as from the consulting, engineering, plumbing, building contracting, maintenance and installation fields. Interested service providers or their trade associations may become involved in the process by contacting Organizations that have certified to the NSF P391 protocol and have a current, valid certification will have the option to transition to the ANSI standard once it is finalized.


For information on the NSF Sustainable Service Providers Protocol 391, go to, or contact NSF International at (734) 476-2543 or


Mindy Costello is a sustainability standards specialist for the National Center of Sustainability Standards at NSF International. In addition to helping develop NSF’s new service provider protocol, she has helped develop sustainability standards for resilient flooring, business furniture, dimension stone, carpet, water, wastewater and greener chemicals. She can be contacted at