Inside the Green Toolbox

When every manufacturer is touting its environmental story, how do you source genuinely sustainable products and materials?

There was a time in the not so distant past—maybe five or six years ago—when specifying green products and materials was an arduous and ultimately frustrating process. Choices were limited. The aesthetic was raw and clunky. (It wasn’t hard, for instance, to pick the sustainable wall-covering out of a lineup.) Worst of all, the best available options—the ones where beauty was part of the equation and the product’s good intentions weren’t so readily apparent—often came at a premium that produced the familiar lament: “This was our first choice, but … ” Fortunately, the need for green interiors, driven by the architecture-and-design community and the growth of LEED, has transformed the market. There are now a lot of sustainable products around. Today’s challenge? Every manufacturer touts an environmental story, so speccing is less about the initial search and more about weighing competing, and often conflicting, claims. With that in mind, we asked ten leading architects and interior designers about their approaches to green spaces. We think their collective responses highlight both real progress and the shortcomings of the marketplace.

What makes a product sustainable?

MARTINKUS: Number one on my list is classic design and quality construction. Something that is well designed, something that’s timeless and not trendy, is something you keep for decades. Or if you don’t keep it, it can be sold or donated so that some-one else can reuse it.

LEISEROWITZ: We look at the entire life cycle of the product. That means taking into account everything from extraction or harvesting to manufacture, transport, and installation. But it doesn’t stop there. We also consider the footprint associated with maintaining products and then deconstructing them at the end of their useful life.

CLARK JANSEN: Sustainability encompasses social as well as environmental factors. I avoid using products that may be made using questionable labor practices or in conditions that are hazardous to workers. If a product and its manufacture are contributing positively to a community, that’s ideal.

RUNNING: In very simple terms: product + application + intended lifespan = level of sustainability.

How do you find green products?

RAINEY: Staying informed of changes in the marketplace, reading a variety of trade magazines, and maintaining a dialogue with service and product vendors are all important. But we find some of the more valuable products through information picked up at conferences. I’m much more likely to research a new product if it’s recommended by a colleague or peer.

RUNNING: We work around the country and have to immerse ourselves in each region to better understand what are sustainable local options for a particular product. This is like a small research project about a location. What is manufactured there? What is mined there? Are there any forest products that come from there? Who are local artisans or fabricators who do great work in a particular material?

PETTIPAS: In addition to all the traditional forms of research—the Internet, trade publications, shows—we also rely on word of mouth, and in special cases, we’ve worked with manufacturers to develop green solutions when those options didn’t already exist.

What tools do you use?

JANSEN: The Pharos Lens, being developed by the Healthy Building Network and the Cascadia Green Building Council ( is a great tool for evaluating building materials. It’s still in development stages, but I’m excited about the potential. Pharos evaluates materials based on three categories: health and pollution, environment and resources, and social and community. It’s the most comprehensive framework that I’ve seen because it allows designers and consumers to weigh all of these attributes together, put manufacturers’ claims in context, and see the facts and data to back them up. In a few years, I’d love to see a Pharos label on every product in our library.

What are those tools’ shortcomings? What do you want them to do that they don’t do now?

GUENTHER: Product information is only as good as what manufacturers are willing to divulge, which may or may not be some of the dark and dirty “trade secrets” about toxic or high-hazard ingredients, the situa-tion around recyclability, or issues around the impacts to workers and fence-line communities located near manufacturing sites. Product evaluation systems like GreenBlue or BEES, where third parties deliver an aggre-gate score, are only somewhat helpful to specifiers, as they mask specifics of what environ-mental issues products face. Pharos is promising where product data is more transparent, but given that the data is self-reported, it’s not exactly clear how Pharos will ensure that it is verifiable and true. Unfortunately, MSDS sheets [Material Safety Data Sheets] are often inaccurate, and manufacturers are not required to disclose components that make up less than 1 percent (an issue for toxics!). I’d like objective, verifiable, comprehensive data on the environmental, human, and ecosystem health issues raised in the manufacture, use, and disposal of building materials.

LEISEROWITZ: In terms of things we’d like to see, a standardized, easy-to-understand life-cycle assessment tool that includes the carbon foot­print of a product would be really helpful.

RUNNING: Small and local is harder to find than big and international. If you’re not connected to local artisans in an area, it can be tough finding leads and contacts. The big international companies have fabulous Web sites where you can drill down to CAD drawings and detailed specifications, but small manufacturers are lucky to have a Web site with their phone number on it.

WILSON: There really isn’t any substitute for your own research. Sometimes we’re looking for a particular material, and during our re-search we see something else that is more interesting and we change direction. This is normal for a good design process. The process of dis-covery is important, and you don’t want to eliminate that with a search tool that does everything for you.

When it comes to independent certification, which do you trust most and why?

MARTINKUS: LEED, Green Seal, Greenguard, SCS, BIFMA, FSC, C2C (Cradle to Cradle), CRI Green Label, ASTM, ASHRAE, EPA, Energy Star, SCAQMD, BAAQMD, Green-e. These organizations have established industry-wide reputations.

LEISEROWITZ: We trust most of the independent, third-party-certification bodies as opposed to industry-backed certifica-tions. It’s important to know which are single-attribute certifications and which are multiple-attribute certifications. Each has its own short-comings. The single-attribute certification is limited. On the other hand, the multiple-attribute certification is nebulous when it comes to weighing a lot of factors and criteria. We’d like to see certification standardized à la food-nutrition labels. A category for overall carbon-footprint calculations would be ideal as well.

LYNCH: Trust, but verify. With some exceptions, in the world of green certification, the only requirement to certify any kind of product is to have paid for a green label from a myriad of recognized organizations. Even though there are new resources available for prod-ucts, it is still difficult to get scientific data on these prod-ucts, particularly testing information and certifications on recycled content. Many products come from small manufacturers with good intentions but limited ability to provide meaningful data. It brings into question if some of these manufacturers are actually providing a quality product, let alone a green one.

Are there companies you source because you trust their green-certification tools and analysis?

LEISEROWITZ: We look for third-party certifications before accepting anyone’s claims.

LYNCH: There are many well-established manufacturers that have spent many years developing durable, safe, cost-effective products. They provide installation instructions, full specifications, customer service, and full testing data from reliable and established agencies. These products have become the industry standard. There are many green-product manufacturers that provide little actual data on their products, and since they can point to few if any projects to show their successful use, there is an inherent risk in using these products. This is not to say that they’re destined to fail, but the risk is still there, and the lack of a structure to back up some of these product claims exacerbates this risk.

CLARK JANSEN: Interface FLOR and Herman Miller are great companies—sustainability is a way of life for them. They don’t stop at offering products with recycled content. They go further, analyzing their business practices and manu-facturing processes, and aim to sustain the environment, society, and the economy with everything they do.

How do you cut through all the greenwashing?

RAINEY: The same way you gro-cery shop. You have to read the label. You can’t always believe the cover and often have to read the fine print.

CLARK JANSEN: If the manufacturer’s product literature is transparent enough for me to see all the data, I feel confident that they’ve done their home-work. When very little infor-mation is provided about the product up front, that’s a good indicator that the manufacturer has something to hide.

LEISEROWITZ: There are myriad nuances and trade-offs. Something might come from the other side of the world, but it’s renewable. Something that’s manufactured down the street might be toxic. It’s not just about chasing LEED points. It’s about a thorough evaluation of multiple criteria. It’s also important to look out for certain buzzwords or phrases. Remember that “natural” doesn’t equal “green.” Nothing is “fully recyclable.” “Eco-friendly” is a nonsense word that means you don’t know what you are talking about. And anyone claiming his or her product is “LEED certi-fied” should be shown the door.

NORWOOD: We often find that companies have a “script to share,” but the reader does not know the details of the script they’re reciting.

WILSON: It can be difficult because things are not always what they seem. Recently, we were researching for a project and found a company that was selling reclaimed wood from the Northeastern U.S. When we dug a little further, we found out that the wood was being shipped to China for processing. The embodied energy in shipping the wood from the U.S. all the way to China and back did not make it a good choice. We were also looking at some cork flooring and thinking, OK, cork is rapidly renewable and comes from Portugal. It’s shipped over here on a boat—much better than a truck. But after digging, we found out that the cork is harvested in Portugal but then shipped to New Zealand for processing and then back to the East Coast. Not a great story.

What are the hardest products to source in a green space?

GUENTHER: In health care, resilient flooring remains a huge challenge—finding high-performance, sustainable alternatives that meet aesthetic and design goals. Formaldehyde-free-substrate supply seems unreliable and difficult to source at times. We still en-counter supply challenges with chain of custody on FSC-certified wood products in some regions of the country.

LEISEROWITZ: Even though we’re excited about progress with LED lighting, it’s still not cost competitive and its quality of light doesn’t yet measure up to daylight and fluorescents.

RUNNING: Inexpensive countertops. We do a lot of school work and unfortunately nothing beats the price and durability of plastic laminate. If there were only a bio-based version that was just as durable.

Is there one material that you can’t seem to avoid even though you know it’s not green?

CLARK JANSEN: Vinyl flooring is a big one—we try to avoid it, so we’ll often use products like linoleum or cork when we need a resilient floor. But some clients have standardized on vinyl and are reluctant to change to something new. It’s difficult to convince a client to try a new product when they have something that’s been working well for them for a long time. And if a material is not durable enough for an application, it will need to be quickly replaced, making it unsustainable. There’s no easy answer.

From a green standpoint, are bigger jobs easier to source
than small ones?

GUENTHER: Absolutely not. Often the budget on a smaller job
can withstand a minor price difference for a green substitute product, where when the scale of the job magnifies, so does the scrutiny on the price of the substitution. Clients are more willing to take chances n innovative products at a smaller scale—and we are more willing to ask them to. It’s hard to experiment with a 50,000-square-foot floor!

CLARK JANSEN: Sometimes we’re able to do more with a larger project because the economy of scale makes it possible for a manufacturer to do something custom for us within our budget. But if we’re dealing with reclaimed materials, like wood, there are often limited quantities available.

How does budget play into your green-speccing decisions?

NORWOOD: We use our own in-house cost estimators and often independent estimators that help us to strategize the best use of a project budget. There are always trade-offs.

GUENTHER: Budget—that is, first cost—tends to be thought of as
a major driver of decisions, but I really believe that cost is more often used as the first excuse to reject a product that team members are just uncomfortable with—either because it’s new, untested, is for some reason seemingly “inappropriate” for the application, or it’s not meeting an aesthetic goal. If we really challenge teams to rank the importance of cost of an individual product, it often emerges as less important than we first believe.

CLARK JANSEN: I always encourage clients to think about life-cycle costs versus the first cost. A product may cost a little more in the beginning, but greater savings can be realized over the life of a building. A great example is carpet tile.

LYNCH: Cost is always a factor.

Is a LEED Platinum project specced differently than one lower on the LEED scale?

WILSON: We approach the green-material selection aggressively in every project we do, regardless of the level of LEED certification sought (or even if the project is not seeking LEED). If you can find a green material that functionally and aesthetically does what you want it to do, why wouldn’t you use it? It just seems irresponsible not to. The truth is, the materials-and-resources LEED credits are the low-hanging fruit. Platinum certification is very challenging, and in order to get close to that level, you have to get all the materials credits and then focus on the site, energy, and water credits, which have much greater weighting in the new LEED- version-3.0 system.

Beauty used to be a problem with green products. Has that been resolved to your liking?

GUNETHER: I don’t believe that beauty has been the issue with green products. We need to separate beauty from fashion in interiors. When my mother laid wall-to-wall carpeting over natural hardwood floors in my home, it wasn’t about the wood floors being ugly—it was about fashion and convenience. (Yes, those early carpets were sold as a quick makeover and easy to maintain!) We have lost track of our regard for the inherent qualities of interior finishes as transcending layout or fashion, in an era when we change our interiors as quickly as our shoes. In an era of massive disposable consumption, we’ve lost our regard for wear.

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