How Do You Know If Green Building Products Really Are Green?

How should “green” values in building construction products be measured — should firms look at the carbon miles traveled by product components, or total GHG emissions? How should green be defined — is it about energy efficient manufacturing processes, or eliminating toxicity? How do we avoid green washing? These questions were asked in the National Building Museum’s latest For the Greener Good lecture on “Greening the Supply Chain.”

Kirsten Richie, Director of Sustainability, Gensler, Nadav Malin, President, BuildingGreen and Gwen Davidow, Director, Corporate Programs, World Environment Center, all provided their thoughts, while Ken Langer, President, Architectural Energy Corporation, moderated the event.

Kirsten Richie, Director of Sustainability, Gensler: Gensler, a major architecture and consulting firm, has 35 offices worldwide, and more than 900 LEED APs on staff. The firm is involved in buying decisions for 300 million square feet of space per year. Gensler has calculated the square foot environmental impact of conventional building space: 28 pounds of C02, 365 gallons of water, 85,000 BTUs of power. These spaces average 17 percent utilization, and employee satisfaction with workspaces is around 64 percent. “In school, this meant an F.”

Richie outlined five concepts for building greener: (1) less space and less stuff used more intensively, (2) continually innovate to get to C02 neutrality, (3) build at manufacturing plant and assemble on site (as an example, Richie cited a new Travelodge in the UK build entirely out of shipping containers that are slotted into place. “The system is modular, scalable, and uses materials efficiently.”), (4) sustainability doesn’t have to equal austerity, and (5) if you don’t ask, they won’t tell (ask product manufacturers what’s in their products).

Nadav Malin, President, BuildingGreen: Malin’s group runs GreenSpec, a leading vetted directory that doesn’t offer certification, but is “flexible,” and encourages “life-cycle” thinking. There are “hard threshholds where appropriate.” The group also produces Environmental Building News, and recently launched LEED User, a service to help firms through the LEED certification process.

Gwen Davidow, Director, Corporate Programs, World Environment Center (WEC): The WEC is a membership organization comprised of 40-50 major multinational corporations (MNCs), including Walmart and Coca-Cola, focused on advancing sustainable development through business operations and supply chains. While the organization acts globally, they are focused on assisting local small and medium enterprise (SMEs) in developing countries revamp their supply chains and business practices so they can meet the sustainability requirements of major MNCs. “It’s not just about environmental efficiencies, but also economic ones.”

How can you tell if a building product is really green?

Malin: There is no one particular answer. Products need to have different levels of information. It’s not binary: green or not green. If you are interested in carbon, there should be details. If you are interested in toxicity, there should also be information.

Richie: A single green attribute isn’t enough. We need to look across impact areas.

Davidow: The question is: Is it Green Enough for You (GEFY)? For some firms, having a green end-product is enough, they aren’t interested in that firm’s suppliers, or the supplier’s suppliers. We need to get further up the supply chain stream to avoid cherry picking against certain criteria.

We can eco-geek out on the manufacturing process, but another question to ask is: Does the end consumer really care?

Ritchie: There should be environmental product declarations. Good, bad, or ugly, firms should record their products’ environmental impact. This creates a base map from which we can do life-cycle assessments. These can be used to demonstrate continuous improvements.

How do you do the math as a consumer?

Richie: Our goal is to ensure every building product is green, so you won’t even need to examine the details. You’ll just know. However, this doesn’t exist yet.

A big building project can include 10,000 line items. We can’t check the environmental impact details on every product. We need shortcuts — products need to be certified against standards. You should be able to buy a certain brand and know you are getting a sustainable product.

Davidow: Green needs to be a part of the product. It can’t be a niche product offered among others. Green needs to be embedded into the product.

Richie: How did we get electrical safety standards? The great fire in Chicago led to their development. You can no longer buy an unsafe car. All cars must be safe to some extent. 

We need green standards for products. There are no rules saying manufacturers need to use recycled content. We don’t have gross toxicity standards. 

Davidow: Green base lines in products will need to be regulated and certified if we are going to reach green product ubiquity.

Malin: There should be green labeling in construction projects. 3rd party certification is needed. Labels equal regulation.

What about clustering eco-manufacturers to leverage efficiencies?

Davidow: This is not easily done. Shanghai’s Pudong area has an eco-neighborhood for manufacturing — manufacturing inputs are shared, and load balancing helps moderate energy consumption. The problem is that it’s been so successful that Shanghai can’t support the existing infrastructure. The city needed to open another manufacturing site across the city. There need to be government incentives for this to work.

Richie: Sonoma Mountain Village enables small firms to engage in this kind of “waste to feedstock” circular manufacturing process.

Malin: Local production really doesn’t have that big of an impact on the overall environmental profile of a product. Embedded energy is much, much bigger. Products do need some connection to a place, which can lead to direct engagement by communities in local manufacturing processes. For instance, living near a timber firm in New England, I can clearly see whether they are sustainably manufacturing wood products.

How can people get better engaged?

Richie: Help develop building product and construction standards through ASTM and NSF.

Can products both be the cheapest and greenest?

Richie: Many of the major building product firms stopped investing in R&D long ago. These are mature industries relying on high volume sales. Small firms are doing most of the innovating, but given their small size, need to charge more for their products — firm size better explains the cost difference between green and non-green products.

Davidow: The costs of environmental damage are high and haven’t been factored in. Prices of ordinary products are now artificially low; they don’t account for the damage they cause to the environment now. Carbon hasn’t been monetized. 

Major MNCs are creating sustainability requirements for suppliers. Walmart’s Sustainability Index is scary, and watched closely by suppliers.

Malin: Walmart seems to be committed to becoming more sustainable. However, in my experience with them, they haven’t been able to explain their location choices and the environmental impact of all those consumers driving to their locations.

The panelist also argued that LEED, “flawed as it is,” has helped expand awareness and provides enforcement through the certification process. Some of the flaws are caused by the balance these ratings systems need to strike between environmental commitment and usability. “These tools need to be manageable for designers.” A green product certification system, Cradle to Cradle (C2C), is a “black box,” (meaning their certification process is not fully transparent), but “some good intelligence” has gone into it.

There is no easy way to determine if replacing outdated, energy-sucking products with high energy-efficiency products actually results in energy savings. Energy efficient products still consume lots of energy in the manufacturing process. Retrofitting older spaces and reusing outdated products may be a “practical,” low-cost way to use materials wisely.

Germany’s green building standards are so high that many LEED Platinum spaces in the U.S. wouldn’t qualify. Germany requires every office worker have access to daylight. “In the U.S., it’s optional. Why?”

Image credit: ASLA 2007 General Design Honor Award. Washington Mutual Center Roof Garden, Seattle, Washington. Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, Vancouver British Columbia, Canada

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