The green building practices of sustainable design have gained tremendous acceptance throughout North America and other areas of the world. Many architects, designers and contractors are eager to promote the projects they develop as “green.” It is a differentiator that can bring top-dollar for building owners who lease the finished space.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “green building is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle, from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction.”1 While tenets of green building such as energy efficiency and concern for the environment are important, does this practice ensure the health and well-being of the building occupants? Not necessarily.
In fact, it is possible to attain the highest ranking designation in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building system without any points being awarded in the category intended to protect human health. To ensure that both green building and human health requirements are met, design professionals and building owners need to commit to more than selecting “green” products and ticking off boxes to accumulate points. To do this, it’s necessary to have detailed, accurate information about the makeup of the product, how it performs in the built environment, the effect these products can have on building occupants, and the impact of these products on the environment in the course of a full life-cycle. Independent third-party certification provides the information necessary to understand both the materials and long-term impacts of manufactured products.
Behind Closed Doors
Statistics show that Americans spend, on average, more than 90% of their time indoors. In some situations, concentrations of indoor pollutants can be two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.2 Unfortunately, with green building practices focused on reducing energy use and lowering the cost of operations, the building envelope for structures (including schools, offices, municipal buildings, retail establishments, hospitals, multi-family housing and single-family homes) has become tighter, limiting the exchange of indoor and outdoor air, often resulting in poor indoor air quality (IAQ), which can negatively affect human health.
On the upside, “better IAQ leads to more productive and happier occupants. In commercial real estate, satisfied occupants are tied directly to return on investment and bottom-line economics, while in schools and institutional buildings they are tied to learning outcomes and organizational missions.”3 Conversely, poor or compromised IAQ has been tied to symptoms ranging from headaches and fatigue, to irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is the first step to improving IAQ.
One of the best ways to control VOCs in a built environment is to choose low-emitting products at the point of design. If low-emitting flooring, furnishings and other products are chosen during the planning stages, are installed according to healthy standards, and have an ongoing plan to control any possible future emissions, IAQ can be improved immensely and managed for optimum occupant health over the life of a building.
With third-party certification, products can be identified that are produced from good materials with verifiable sources that are tested according to green standards established by the EPA and other internationally-recognized organizations. Third-party certification can ensure that emission levels for VOCs and other possible irritants are determined based on scientific methods.
In addition to the flooring itself, ongoing cleaning and maintenance must be considered. Low-maintenance products help to improve not only IAQ, but also can contribute to a healthy, pleasant indoor environment. In hospital facilities, low-maintenance flooring allows patients to rest and recover free from noise and chemicals. In malls, retail sales depend on clean, enjoyable, comfortable spaces that enhance the shopping experience.
When selecting flooring for indoor spaces, start by choosing flooring products that are third-party certified for the following:
- Low-VOC emissions and total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs).
- Durable and high-performance features for longevity, helping to minimize materials entering the waste stream.
- A healthy whole system – including installation and maintenance – such as the asthma & allergy friendly™ Certification Program.
For products that require adhesives for installation, such as flooring and wall coverings, select adhesives that are latex-based and meet standards for low VOC emissions (some adhesives have FloorScore certification).
Most third-party certification programs provide online product guides to facilitate informed choices for products used in construction and for building interiors. Whether replacing old materials, remodeling, or specifying materials for a new project, this information can help professionals and homeowners plan for a safer, healthier indoor environment.
In 2006, the asthma & allergy friendly Certification Program was created by top medical experts and the oldest and largest not-for-profit, asthma and allergy patient advocacy organization in the world. Their mission is to empower consumers, architects and building owners to make an informed purchase decision when choosing allergen-avoidance products. The certification program independently tests and identifies products that are more suitable for the more than 60 million people in the United States living with asthma and related allergies.
During the floor certification process, products are subjected to both physical and chemical tests in independent laboratories to ensure that they do not have properties that are likely to irritate both asthma and allergy symptoms in susceptible people—including low capacity for allergen retention, VOC off-gassing, whether or not the recommended cleaning procedures effectively reduce allergens, and other in-depth investigations. Certification categories include products such as paint, cleaning products, flooring, vacuum cleaners, air cleaning devices and filters for HVAC systems. For more information, visit www.asthmaandallergyfriendly.com/certified-products.html.
FloorScore IAQ certification is a third-party party program of Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). Hard surface flooring and flooring adhesives must meet rigorous indoor air quality emission requirements to achieve certification. Products with FloorScore certification meet the indoor air quality emissions criteria of the U.S. Green Building Council LEED v4 building program (www.usgbc.org), Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), and the Green Guide for Health Care (http://www.gghc.org). SCS provides a certified green product finder to identify FloorScore and other certified products at www.scsglobalservices.com/certified-green-products-database?scscertified=1.
GREENGUARD Certification requires that materials and products meet rigorous requirements for chemical emission levels for more than 360 VOCs. In addition to meeting the emissions levels for each VOC, total combined emissions for the product for all compounds also must fall under a specified threshold (TVOC). Materials with low chemical emissions can be easily identified by referring to the GREENGUARD Certification Product Guide: www.greenguard.org/en/QuickSearch.aspx.
Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) criteria was developed to facilitate the design, construction and operation of high-performance schools with the understanding that student performance is increased with better-designed and healthier facilities. CHPS is a benchmarking system that helps ensure that environments are not only energy and resource-efficient, but also healthy, comfortable, well lit, and contain amenities for a quality education. One of the goals of CHPS is to provide professionals with better tools to facilitate effective design, construction and maintenance of high-performance schools. The CHPS High Performance Products Database may be accessed at www.chps.net/dev/Drupal/node/445.
Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certified products must meet requirements in five quality categories relating to human and environmental health. Products must be manufactured with materials that are deemed safe and healthy for humans and the environment. Additionally, products must be designed so that all ingredients can be reused safely in nature or industry. There is also a renewable energy component to the certification that requires that all products be assembled or manufactured with renewable, non-polluting energy. To view a registry of certified products, visit http://c2ccertified.org.
Third-Party Certification and Protecting Human Health
Transparency tools that disclose product ingredients and third-party certification organizations that test products for safety and health concerns provide critical information to help design professionals and facilities managers integrate health-protective features and low VOC products into the built environment. This information gives building professionals the facts they need to specify products designed to protect human health while also respecting the environment – products that can, after use, be recycled to enter a manufacturing cycle (technical cycle) or that can be biodegradable to re-enter the biosphere (biological cycle).
Protecting human health and well-being and supporting sustainable design by maximizing the use of natural resources, including efficient use of energy, are not mutually exclusive goals. With the help of these tools, it is possible to follow sustainable building practices and ensure that the end result, an efficient, functioning space, also enhances human health and well-being.