Feature Article - March 2008
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Easy Being Green

By Dawn Klingensmith

Green in demand

Though the payoffs are worth it, opting to "go green" further complicates the process of choosing building materials, which can be vexing enough when just the conventional criteria of performance, cost and aesthetics are taken into consideration. What makes a product "green"? How can you gauge the relative "greenness" of the countless number of products that claim to be eco-friendly? Where can you buy green materials, and at what cost?

Perhaps the best starting point is understanding why green building materials are in such high demand to begin with. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), among other positive outcomes, green design protects the planet and reduces a facility's operating costs through energy-efficiency and water conservation, while promoting occupants' health and productivity through improved air quality. USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system is the nationally accepted benchmark for designing, constructing and operating green buildings, and meeting LEED standards involves the specification of eco-friendly materials.

Choosing green building materials has become easier of late thanks to certification programs and online product directories administered by unbiased organizations. Two of the most successful, high-profile certification programs include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which ensures wood products come from well-managed forests, and Energy Star, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and applies to more than 50 different product types, including heating and cooling equipment, lighting, and appliances.

To earn a "green" badge of honor from BuildingGreen.com, which compiles the online GreenSpec Directory of more than 2,000 products, a building material must fall into one of five categories: products made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste content; products that conserve natural resources; products that minimize toxic emissions in their manufacture, use and upkeep; products that save energy and water; and products that promote human health and safety.

A product can fall into more than one category; for example, recycled plastic lumber (RPL)—a wood-like product used for decking, outdoor furniture, recreation equipment and landscape borders—is made from recycled waste and is impervious to insects, thereby eliminating the need for toxic pesticides. (From a practical as well as an environmental standpoint, RPL is superior to wood in many parks and recreation applications because it is moisture- and graffiti-resistant and splinter-free, and it doesn't require sealants, preservatives or paint.)

Green product guides aren't intended for use as a shopping list applicable to every project. Priorities must be established and apples-and-oranges comparisons avoided. The low resource-extraction impacts of one manufactured product might earn it a "green" designation, while another product's indoor-air-quality impacts may in fact be greener and of greater importance to your patrons. And some products that are not intrinsically green can be used in an eco-friendly manner. For example, proper placement of a conventional window can make the most of winter sunlight and minimize the summer heat.

"There's no one-size-fits-all approach to green design," Shemwell said. And though certain materials and technologies have broader applications than commonly believed (for example, solar water heaters can perform well in places that aren't constantly blessed by sunbeams), a product that offers a perfect solution for one project may not be the best fit for another.

"Just because a composting toilet is a good idea here doesn't mean it's a good idea there," Shemwell said. "Sustainable design has to be site-specific."

Yet at the same time, "You don't look at your property line and assume your responsibility ends there," he added. "You draw a wider bubble and realize what you're doing has a broader impact."