The Green Evolution

Jeffrey M. Syken

May 1, 2004

As the terms "green concrete" (freshly cured), "green board" (moisture-resistant sheetrock) and "green lumber" (high-moisture content) attest, the prefix "green," when referring to a building material, has been commonly used in the construction industry for some time. In recent years, the term "green" itself – particularly when the topic of conversation is the built environment, has taken on a whole new meaning: environmentally sustainable/responsible building materials, methods and systems.

The phenomenal success of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating/certification program – along with governmental incentives (i.e. tax credits, fee waivers etc.) and building product manufacturers’ self-imposed initiatives – have made the built environment’s "green revolution" of the last decade possible.

Ironically, the built environment had been overlooked for many years, if you consider the start of the modern environmental movement to be the first Earth Day held in 1970. The natural environment was the main focus of environmental groups and government legislation. Only one environmental group – the Natural Resources Defense Council, was active in this area during the dormant years of the 1970s and ’80s. Not until the early ’90s did the built environment begin to get the attention it deserves. This is quite a paradox if you consider that residential and commercial buildings in the United States account for:

  • Twelve percent of potable water.

  • Thirty percent of waste output (136 million tons annually of construction and demolition waste, or 2.8 pounds per person per day).

  • Thirty percent of raw materials use.

  • Thirty percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Thirty percent of total energy usage.

  • Sixty-five percent of electricity consumption.

Major building product manufacturers are leading by example and have set positive role models for their peers and are drawing praise from interested observers. However, there still exists some confusion, conflict and gray areas as to just what makes a building product "green." In general, all of the green building movement’s movers and shakers tend to agree that one or more of the following factors play a significant part in that definition:

  • Recyclability

  • Life-cycle

  • Health impact

  • Energy efficiency

  • Eco-disruption level

For health-conscious, not-for-profit organizations such as the American Lung Association, health impact is the criterion used to determine whether or not to label a product "green." Their concern is most often the chemical "off-gassing" of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) inherent in many building materials such as paints, adhesives and laminates. To environmental groups, life-cycle impacts and eco-disruption are paramount. They are keen to suggest alternative "eco-friendly" materials and products to reduce the negative impact on the environment, and often provide guidelines to do so. For example, use of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content light-gauge metal framing in lieu of traditional "stick-built" wood framing helps preserve forests. Use of synthetic gypsum – made from power plant flue gas emissions – rather than mined gypsum, is another good example of how the Earth’s limited natural resources can be preserved. From the U.S. government’s perspective, its comprehensive procurement guidelines make recycled content the main determinant of a building product or material’s "greenness."

Like Herding Cats

There are a dozen or so directories that attempt to define green building products – some with better results than others. Like ladies’ shoes, green building products come in a wide variety of types and sizes; thus, it is not an easy task to provide a comprehensive directory. Standing head and shoulders above the rest is the GreenSpec Directory ( from BuildingGreen Inc., publisher of the well-respected built-environment newsletter Environmental Building News (EBN). Introduced in January 2000 as a bound volume, the directory is now also available through an online subscription. The online format allows for constant updating of its database. Like EBN, the GreenSpec Directory does not accept advertising and lists about 1,800 products by merit alone. The annual announcement of the directory’s "Top 10" green building products for the past year has now become a significant event, giving it the status of an Academy Awards of the green building industry. Making the list provides bragging rights to a manufacturer and recognition by the industry of a building product’s real-world green benefits – and it doesn’t hurt sales either.

The GreenSpec Directory follows the Construction Specification Institute format of 16 divisions. Each product listing includes:

  • Product description

  • Environmental characteristics

  • LEED credits

  • Contact information

LEED Taking Hold –
It’s Only a Matter of Time

LEED’s success and guidelines have been the driving force for motivating manufacturers to provide new and innovative green building products. Municipal governments, private corporations and universities have adapted the LEED criteria, forcing manufacturers to comply or be left behind. Standardization of criteria for defining a product as "green" is often based on certification by an accrediting agency/organization. For example, wood-based products such as plywood, OSB and dimensional lumber are recognized as "green" with certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a not-for-profit international environmental organization whose goal is the economically viable and beneficial management of the planet’s forests – a very important and fragile renewable resource. In 40 countries, 27 million hectacres have been certified pursuant to the FSC’s high standards. Louisiana-based Roy O. Martin Company, a wood products industry leader, made the "Top 10" list in 2002 by receiving FSC certification for responsible management of its forest resources and manufacturing processes.

For building products such as mechanical equipment, most often their inherent energy efficiency is the key component to their green rating, such as in the U.S. government’s Energy Star® program. Building products such as paints, coatings and adhesives are most objective in their green worthiness. Typically, their level of VOCs emissions is the benchmark. Where there are multiple factors to consider and the green value is more subjective ,the overall benefit-to-burden ratio generally serves as the deciding factor. The GreenSpec Directory uses six categories – each with several subcategories, as the basis by which it judges a product’s environmental benefits and inclusion in the directory. Here’s the breakdown:

1. Products manufactured with/from salvaged,
recycled and/or agricultural waste content:

  • Salvaged products
  • Products with post-consumer/industrial recycled content
  • Products made from agricultural waste material

2. Products that conserve natural resources:

  • Products that reduce material use
  • Products with exceptional durability
  • Products with low maintenance requirements
  • Certified wood products
  • Rapidly renewable products

3. Products that avoid toxic and/or other emissions:

  • Natural or minimally processed products
  • Alternatives to:
  • Conventional preservative/pressure treated wood
  • Ozone depleting substances
  • Products made from PVC
  • Other components considered hazardous
  • Products that:
  • Reduce/eliminate pesticide treatments
  • Reduce pollution/waste from operations

4. Products that save energy and/or water:

  • Building components that reduce heating and cooling loads
  • Energy conserving equipment
  • Renewable energy and fuel cell equipment
  • Fixtures/equipment that conserve water
    5. Products that reduce environmental impacts during:

  • Construction
  • Demolition
  • Renovation

6. Products that contribute to a safe and healthy indoor
environment – products that:

  • Do not release significant pollutants into the building
  • Block introduction, development and/or spread of indoor contaminants
  • Remove indoor pollutants
  • Warn occupants of health hazards in the building
  • Improve light quality

The host of green building products currently available on the market is a testament to the fact that the green building movement is not a passing fashion. "Building green" is the future, and the future is now.

In his famous June 1963 American University speech, President John F. Kennedy stated, "[F]or in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal." For the sake of our small planet, the air we breathe, our children’s future and our own well-being, building green makes a lot of sense.

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