Easy Being Green
By Dawn Klingensmith
"There were no vendors for this type of project," said architect Bob Shemwell, a principal at Overland Partners in San Antonio, Texas. "We had to design the components—the valves, the passive filters—ourselves."
Around the same time, the Madison Children's Museum in Madison, Wis., encountered similar problems in its quest for eco-friendly materials to build a play space for kids 5 and under. The limited availability of certain materials compelled the museum to make substitutions so as not to stall the project.
"We didn't realize that to get formaldehyde-free plywood, we needed to place our order six to eight months in advance," said Brenda Baker, director of exhibits, who investigated alternatives and found a special coating for conventional plywood that blocks the release of formaldehyde.
The green movement has since exploded, and the availability of green materials and technologies has increased alongside public awareness. (Formaldehyde-free plywood is now stocked at most home improvement stores.) In fact, green design has become so popular—and hence so potentially profitable—that manufacturers have begun labeling products as "green" or "sustainable" that, when scrutinized, don't live up to their billing.
"The challenge now isn't how and where to find green products, but how to determine whether they are what they claim to be," Baker said.
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."
Taking on such responsibility may seem overwhelming, so where do you begin? Hiring a LEED-accredited consultant and striving for the Silver, Gold or Platinum rating is about as green as you can get, but complying with the Materials & Resources section of the LEED criteria is a smaller step in the right direction.
California State University-Fullerton's (CSUF) new student recreation center is expected to qualify for a Gold Rating, but the learning curve leading up to that honor was steep. Like many other facility managers, Andrea Willer, the recreation center's director, expected green building materials to cost more and was concerned that certain energy-saving products would not perform as well as their conventional counterparts. She personally tested low-flow showerheads to ensure they met her standards.
"I was concerned about client comfort," she explained. "I didn't want people to feel like they were getting a dribble shower."
As for cost, Willer discovered there's a vast array of green products available that are no more expensive than standard products, and though some green products on the market do bear higher price tags, the upfront expenditure is offset over time by such factors as increased durability, reduced maintenance requirements and energy savings.
Because of the extensive analysis and documentation required, pursuing LEED certification is costly, but though official certification isn't feasible for all facilities, LEED standards can still be adhered to and eco-friendliness achieved for little or no extra cost by choosing building products made out of recycled or rapidly renewable materials, as well as regional products available within 500 miles of the site.
At its best, green design assesses a product's eco-friendliness over the span of its life cycle, from the raw materials and energy consumed in its production to its disposal or reuse, and a product that is green in one context becomes less so under different circumstances. For example, bamboo replenishes quickly after harvesting, but Baker said the Madison Children's Museum would not consider using it for flooring.
"It's a sustainable, organic, rapidly renewable material," she acknowledged, "but most of it comes from Asia, so you're shipping it halfway around the world," which contributes to fossil fuel depletion and pollution.
Salvaging, reusing or repurposing existing materials also has a gentler impact on the planet. Shemwell has used wood siding from barns for flooring, and when one building comes down to make way for another, he reuses the bricks. When construction gets under way in September on a new horticulture center at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum, as per Shemwell's specifications, the foundation from the old building will be ground up and used to make pervious pavement for the parking lot, which will ensure stormwater runoff doesn't upset the site's natural hydrology. And given the high clay content of the earth at Shiloh National Military Park in Mississippi, when digging began for the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, he had displaced clay sent to a nearby factory to be made into bricks.
Specifying green building materials isn't just about what's good for the planet, though. It's also about your bottom line. Green building materials and products can arrest expenses that drive overall operating costs through the roof. At the CSUF recreation center, the culprit was water consumption due to its pool and locker-room showers. After personally ensuring low-flow showerheads would provide ample output and pressure, Willer specified they be used, along with dual-flush toilets that "without going into graphic detail have a handle you flush up or down depending on how much water you need," as she put it. These and other water-saving features are expected to decrease the center's consumption of potable water by 50 percent.
Yet another way to approach green design is to allow your organization's mission to guide your specifications. The Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing, N.Y., is situated in a large metropolis where, as in all big cities, air quality is a concern. The garden is intended as an oasis for city dwellers, so it was important to Jennifer Ward Souder, director of capital projects, that air-quality issues be addressed. Interior products, such as fabrics, sealants, caulks and paints, used in the Visitor and Administration Building contain no or very low levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs—chemicals that evaporate easily, causing a decline in indoor air quality.
And though air quality was a concern locally, Souder drew a wider bubble when selecting endlessly recyclable carpeting with Cradle-to-Cradle certification (a designation conferred by the design firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), which takes into account corporate and social responsibility. So not only does Cradle-to-Cradle certification address end users' well-being but also the health of those involved in a product's manufacture—"what people are breathing when they make this stuff," Souder said.
Educating and entertaining children and promoting their development is the mission of the Madison Children's Museum, so their health and safety is of paramount importance. Planning a play space for children 5 and under, Baker felt that using all-natural materials would make for a healthier environment.
"Using rounded corners and the usual safety precautions seemed inadequate," she said. "We wanted the space to be intrinsically safe so the materials weren't poisoning kids."
That's because Baker's research in the mid-1990s, when the play space was in development, revealed that most materials used to construct standard museum exhibits emit VOCs and other toxins. Additionally, they contribute to environmental degradation and come from sources that are not rapidly renewable. These widely used materials include Plexiglas, laminates, fiberglass, plywood, paints, solvents, adhesives, stains, finishes, wood, metal primers, sealants, particleboard, drywall compound, fabrics, furniture finishes and carpeting.
"Long-term damage can result from kids' repeated exposure to these materials, especially during early childhood when their immune systems are still developing," Baker said.
"A lot of people think if you have kids crawling around on the floor you need carpeting," she added. "But children's respiratory rate is twice that of adults, so if you can imagine a child crawling on newly laid carpeting, so close to the ground and breathing in the harmful emissions twice as fast, it's a double whammy to their immune systems."
The play space features area rugs made from natural, non-emitting materials such as wool and jute. Banners throughout the museum are printed with soybean-based ink on fabrics made out of recycled soda bottles and old T-shirts.
Even though the museum's play space made its debut in 1999, well ahead of the green explosion and the concomitant steep reduction in price and scarcity of eco-friendly materials, the play space cost the museum $116 per square foot, including all materials, outside labor and staff time. The museum typically spent $100 to $160 per square foot for in-house-designed and -developed exhibits of similar magnitude.
Yet nearly a decade later, the misconception persists that green design is prohibitively expensive.
Asked what surprised new clients most about eco-friendly construction, Shemwell of Overland Partners said, "I'd say if they're taken aback by anything, it's by how green they can go without spending a whole lot of money."
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