Finding a truly sustainable product can be a confusing endeavor. Manufacturers’ claims about sustainable properties abound and it can be easy to get hoodwinked along the way. In fact, a recent online survey1 of more than 800 architects and designers found that less than 5 percent of architects and interior designers have a high level of confidence in manufacturers’ sustainable product claims.
At the same time, the practice of sustainable product use is on the rise. Of the survey participants, 70 percent of architects and 49 percent of interior designers used sustainable products in their projects quite often in 2012, and more than half of this group predicts they will increase their use in 2012.
The specification of sustainable materials does more than meet the desire to be environmentally responsible. According to Michael K. De Chiara, co-founder of the New York-based construction law firm Zetlin & De Chiara, it’s also crucial to protect oneself against litigation.
“In a world where 90 percent of the population spends 95 percent of its time indoors, the toxicity of materials can lead to tremendous liability,” says De Chiara. “Knowledge of your materials, especially in a greening environment, is essential when particular materials for interior space are used. You don’t want to be the victim of the rules of unintended consequences. Know your materials.”
Separating Wheat from Chaff
Given the growing desire to use sustainable materials, and the skepticism about what is and isn’t truly sustainable, architects and designers need to get informed. There’s no doubt that it’s a complicated issue. The demand for sustainable materials has risen, but it’s costly for a manufacturer to change processes that have been proven effective. Many have responded by adding a select number of green products to their lines—allowing
companies to market themselves as green manufacturers—but the rest of their processes remain unchanged. Another tactic is to focus in on one quality, such as recycled content, then purport that the product is sustainable because it meets this guideline. However, one or two green properties alone do not make a product sustainable.
In-depth information is needed to ensure compliance, and architects and designers must ask probing questions. For example, a product that contains recycled content as one component and is marketed as green may have many other material components that are not considered green at all. In addition, some recycled products may have adverse impacts on indoor air quality, such as recycled tires used in rubber flooring. The goal of recycling is to divert waste from the landfill, but when it takes more energy and resources to collect, transport, process and recycle products into their new forms, one must ask, what is the true value of a recycled-content product? Bamboo flooring is another prime example of a product that is considered “sustainable” because it is made of a rapidly renewable resource, but many bamboo products use formaldehyde or other binders that make them very unsustainable throughout their life-cycle.
Changes to the Materials and Resources (MR) section of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) 2012 are beginning to address these concerns, and provide prescriptive paths to understanding material implications that will likely prove to be an avenue for market transformation again.
Check Your Certifications
Third-party certifications are a great place to start when researching if a product lives up to its sustainable claims. Today there are more than 20 certifications in the market. While some are focused solely on specific product aspects, the information they offer is both reliable and actionable.
The need for claims verification is actually spurring new independent
reviewing bodies. For example, in January NSF International and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) teamed up to create NSF/UL 440, a health-based American National Standard that determines volatile organic emissions from building products and interior materials, furnishings and finishes.
Take the time to learn what each certifier offers. For example, some focus only on emissions, while others like Scientific Certification Systems takes into account product life-cycle and adds social accountability to the equation.
Keith Robinson, FCSC, RSW, LEED AP is an associate who handles specifications for the multi-disciplinary firm DIALOG, based in Edmonton. Robinson says that third-party laboratory testing is valuable but it’s worth delving to get the facts—especially with durability. “Look at the tests to see if they were conducted over a long term and if they mimicked actual site conditions,” cautions Robinson. “Were the products exposed to the levels of UV light, heat, cold and moisture that they could endure once they are installed on the project?”
Resources also exist to help architects and interior designers collect
information. BEES (Building for Environmental & Economic Sustainability) is a software tool that assists in rating products’ sustainable attributes (www.wbdg.org/tools/bees.php). The EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/tools/cpg/index.htm) is another excellent resource. Building Green includes the Environmental Building News newsletter and the GreenSpec directory (www.buildinggreen.com), while Pharos, a project of the Healthy Building Network and BuildingGreen, Inc., is an online database and analysis system that offers detailed material content listings (www.pharosproject.net).
Do Your Due Diligence
When a product isn’t certified or the “seal of approval” only applies to one aspect, there is an array of critical questions architects and designers need to ask the manufacturer. Consider preparing a checklist of sustainable considerations that are important to you and your client:
- Start by finding out about the product components. What is the
virgin material? Where was the material sourced and what are its transportation impacts? What does the material contain and are there carcinogens in it? Does it contain recycled content? If so, what type: post-consumer or pre-consumer? Are the materials rapidly renewable resources? What type of adhesives bind the product together and what chemicals were used in their production?
- Ask questions about the manufacturing process itself. What
emissions or toxic chemicals are involved in the manufacturing process? How much energy and water is consumed to make the product? What is happening ecologically and socially to satisfy demand for the product, e.g. are fair trade/fair labor practices being employed? If answers aren’t forthcoming, tools such as the ones suggested earlier can help to decipher these impacts.
- Don’t forget about the life-cycle of a product. How long will the
product and its components last? Were low-VOC materials used, and how long will the product off-gas? Is the product easy to disassemble at the end of its useful life, and what is the end-of-life recyclability of the material? Are parts of the product biodegradable or compostable, and can these parts be easily removed from those that aren’t?
This effort may take some time but it can be leveraged for future projects. Robinson says that DIALOG stores the information discovered on its intranet for easy access by everyone in the firm. The company builds research into their billable project time and project owners know that they will benefit from past research. They also utilize students to conduct research on predicted service life versus designed service life.
If the manufacturer does not have the information, ask them to consider getting their products and/or manufacturing processes third-party certified. If a manufacturer is not willing to support materials research, it may be telltale sign that the products are not as sustainable as the claims make them out to be.
Share Your Experience
The manufacturing industry is large, complicated and has access to influential lobbyists. It’s up to architects, designers and building owners to apply enough pressure to change the status quo. Be an active participant in the profession and keep an eye on what’s happening in your local and national legislative sessions. When public comment is open for a new LEED version, get a voice in the process. Talk about in-the-field experiences, both positive and negative. Push manufacturers to both change their materials’ attributes and to improve their production processes for sustainable manufacture, assembly and packaging.
Apply critical thinking. Residential interior design products are less regulated than commercial products and the result is that people are getting sick. Clearly, better products have far-reaching consequences. Design to protect the health and safety of those working, living and playing in all built environments. When building owners are making a long-term investment in a property, highlight how sustainable attributes are good for their bottom lines and tenant retention. Then incorporate truly sustainable materials and push the envelope for new products.
The A&D community has made significant headway toward a more sustainable future, but there’s still a long way to go. The plumbing, lighting and cleaning industries are proving that enormous improvements in materials and products are possible without breaking the bank. Manufacturers in other sectors will have no choice but to create more sustainable practices and products when architects, designers, contractors and building owners stand up and demand these materials and the substantiation of their claims.
Elaine Aye, IIDA, ASID, LEED AP O+M, BD+C, ID+C is a principal and director of professional services at Green Building Services, Inc. Alicia Snyder-Carlson, LEED AP ID+C, IIDA is a project consultant at the firm. Green Building Services helps organizations across the United States and throughout the world achieve their green building objectives and create healthier working
environments. Elaine and Alicia can be reached at (866) 743-4277, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
1Survey of AIA and ASID members conducted online by IMRE in conjunction with AIA and ASID between September 19 and 23, 2012. More information at http://sustainability.imre.com/.