Those who are new to green building may be surprised that material selection isn’t right at the top of my priority list. Many people assume that what makes a home green are things like the use of recycled-content or bio-based materials — decking made out of recycled milk jugs or foam insulation made from soybean oil, for example.
Selecting green materials is important, and our company focuses a lot of attention on providing guidance for product selection (especially through our GreenSpec Directory) but, in my opinion, material selection is well down the list of the most important green building priorities — sitting at #8. (Over the coming weeks, you’ll learn about the green building strategies that I consider to be higher priority.)What should we look for in green building products?
In our GreenSpec Directory, we have 26 different attributes that we use to define products as green. These are organized into five major categories:
- Products made with salvaged, recycled, or agricultural waste content;
- Products that conserve natural resources;
- Products that avoid toxic or other emissions;
- Products that save energy or water; and
- Products that contribute to a safe, healthy built environment.
Our full list of these green attributes can be found in our article Building Materials: What Makes a Product Green?, available on our website.
In GreenSpec, we employ a “life-cycle thinking” process in our product reviews. It’s not as robust as full “life-cycle assessment,” and we don’t have the budget to do actual product testing. But we synthesize information about products that we get from manufacturers, we dig into government and academic reports on chemical toxicity and product performance attributes, and we filter that through a common-sense perspective that we’ve developed over 20-plus years of looking at green building products.
One of the challenges in identifying green building products is separating claims from reality. “Greenwashing” is rampant in the building products industry, with many manufacturers exaggerating claims about the environmental performance of their products and some providing blatant misinformation.
“Third-party certification” provides a way to assess products and materials more objectively. We can be fairly confident that wood products carrying Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification come from well-managed forests, for example.
Many industries have green certification programs. The carpet industry created Green Label and Green Label Plus for carpeting with low emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Energy Star is a certification program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for recognizing appliances, lighting, office equipment, and other products that operate efficiently — aiming for the top 25% of products on the market. Similarly, EPA recently created the WaterSense Program for water-conserving toilets, showerheads, faucets, and other plumbing fixtures.
One of the challenges for architects and builders specifying products is the proliferation of labels that are used to identify green products. There are dozens of different certification systems and corresponding labels. Some refer to this as the “NASCAR effect,” with products carrying as many distinctive labels as racing cars. Designers, builders, and consumers are often left confused — especially because some certification systems are more rigorous than others.
To further confuse matters, some certifications are for single attributes (forest management, energy efficiency, or VOC emissions, for example), while others are more comprehensive — covering multiple attributes. EcoLogo is a multi-attribute certification system developed in Canada; this certification system was just acquired by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) to become part of the UL-Environment system (this may be the start of consolidation that is likely to occur in green certifications).
Product certification and green product selection can get pretty complicated. Our company works hard to understand all of the relevant product certifications, and we use that information in selecting products to list in our GreenSpec directory. Our goal is to make process of product selection easier. We want architects and builders to have more time to focus on design issues that are usually a lot more important.
Posted from San Francisco, where I am speaking at the West Coast Green conference this week.
In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex writes the weekly blog on BuildingGreen.com: Alex’s Cool Product of the Week, which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of those blogs by e-mail — enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any buildinggreen.com blog page.