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Building Product Manufacturers & Green Products

06/06/2011 by By Mark Kalin, FAIA, FCSI, LEED AP

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Claims by the product manufacturer that their products are environmentally friendly must be carefully evaluated. Several cases in point follow.


Claim 1: Sheet lead is a green product. When we requested information from product manufacturers, one of the first responses was from a trade organization from the lead industry. They maintained that lead was a green product because it was a natural material and had a successful history of long-term performance. They recommended we include lead in our list, but we didn’t. Is lead a green product? Do we accept the claims of the supplier, which include that there are very few, if any, EPA regulations against using lead in buildings? Or do we consider that lead content is regulated in commercial and residential paint products, as even small chips of lead paint are believed to cause brain damage in young children? Or that installers are required to regularly have their lead levels checked? Or that lead doesn’t migrate in the soil, and its use for hundreds of years verifies the manufacturer’s claims?


Our Opinion: Lead is not acceptable in an elementary school or any location where a young child can touch it. Lead is not acceptable as a roofing material where water runoff will enter a watershed or other environmentally sensitive areas. As major producers continue to eliminate lead from their product lines, the choice will be made for us, and alternative alloys with tin and zinc will replace lead.


Claim 2: Carpet pad manufactured from virgin urethane is greener than rebonded carpet cushion. Manufacturers of carpet cushion claim that less energy is required to manufacture carpet pad from virgin urethane than the energy and adhesives required to fabricate rebonded carpet pads. Should we only recommend the use of virgin urethane pads?


Our Opinion: Virgin urethane pads have more uniform density. Don’t feel obligated to use rebonded carpet pads. Depending on your perspective, both may be seen as green.


Claim 3: Latex paints are a greener choice than oil-based paints with higher volatile organic content (VOC) emissions. Water-based latex paints are considered greener than oil-based paints. However, manufacturers of oil-based paint claim longer service life and less repainting over the life cycle of the building. The cleanup of oil-based paints is controlled, while latex paint waste is frequently flushed down drains where the algaecides and fungicides in the paint kill the bacteria at the sewage treatment plant. Should we use oil-based paints?


Our Opinion: Zero-VOC and latex formulations have advanced paint technology significantly.Since most commercial repainting is done for new tenants or a new color scheme, longer service life isn’t necessarily the determining factor. The choice may be made for us, as state and regional limits on VOCs are established.


Claim 4: Linoleum is green because it is made of natural components.

The last linoleum plant in the U.S. closed in the 1930s (as vinyl asbestos tile pushed it from the marketplace), and now linoleum is manufactured primarily in Europe. Should we count the embodied energy in manufacturing as well as the fuel costs of transportation in our product selection? The manufacturing process for linoleum is energy-intensive; is the extra cost worth higher wear performance?


Our Opinion: Although an increase for the demand in linoleum has instigated manufacturing in the U.S. again, selection based on green criteria should include more than just the use of natural ingredients. It’s ultimately the designer’s choice.


Claim 5: PVC is a green choice for roofing and waterproofing. Use of PVC for roofing and waterproofing in Europe is considered a hazard, but high-performing PVC systems are readily available in the U.S. PVC didn’t exist 80 years ago, but now each of us has a measurable amount of PVC in our bodies. Do we know the answer?

Our Opinion: PVC roofing and waterproofing systems perform well and should be considered, as the intended purpose is to keep the building dry (to avoid all the material and health hazards of uncontrolled water in a building). But PVC contains dioxin which is a potent carcinogen, and associated with the manufacturing of PVC, as well as with disposal and accidental combustion in building fires or landfills. If your goal is to reduce the amount of PVC in your building, start on the inside rather than the outside with PVC-free flooring, wall base, casework, computers, pens, chairs, and furniture; yet without plastics, the planet could not sustain its current population.


Claim 6: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood is the green choice for your projects. There’s even a USGBC LEED point you can earn for using certified wood. However, certified wood in architectural species has thus far been available only at a premium price. Most of the certified forests are mid-sized, and not all species are readily available. The program is excellent, but critics, such as the Canadian government and others, believe they have been managing their forests for decades, and the wood they produce meets other sustainable wood programs without being FSC certified. On a recent LEED project, once it was determined that 50% of the wood would not be certified, the requirement was abandoned for the entire project. Note that the current LEED (version 2009 as of this printing) still requires a minimum of 50% FSC certified wood content for credit, but now includes prorated FSC Mixed Credit products within the calculation.


Our Opinion: Why should only one certification agency be included in LEED? The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), developed by members of the American Forest and Paper Association, is one of several with legitimate credentials. The difference between “green” and “LEED” becomes more apparent. Identifying green products, just like defining sustainability, is an exercise in subjectivity. There are many different definitions of green, such as being 100% recycled and recyclable; using less energy in manufacture; improving the building users’ health through reduction in toxic materials; or employing more energy-efficient methodologies for heating, cooling, and lighting. Green is all of the above and more. By our definition, green products are those with excellent performance that maintain or improve the human environment while diminishing the impact of their use on the natural environment—in other words, sustainable.


Adapted from Green Building: Project Planning & Cost Estimating, 3rd Edition, available through RSMeans.

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