Shades of Green Building
So, what does “green” mean to you? It’s a question that I’ve been asking around the office for a few months now. It sounds like an easy one, until you have to answer it. The problem is, there’s no easy answer. The term “green” has been tossed around for years, from consumers wanting to “do the right thing” to the product manufacturers who want to sell it to them. There are so many shades of green that it’s difficult to keep track of them.Is vinyl siding a “green” product? I’ve heard both sides of the argument. Those who advocate against it say that its manufacturing process contains harmful chemicals, and that it’s difficult to dispose of or reuse once it has served its purpose. When vinyl siding burns, it introduces harmful chemicals into the environment. Advocates for vinyl siding give an interesting rebuttal: It is manufactured at a lower energy cost than many other siding products, has typically less waste during manufacturing and installation, and is a “forever” product that’s virtually maintenance free. So, once it’s been applied, it never needs to be replaced (less material use) and doesn’t need to be painted (no more chemicals introduced into the environment). So what does “green” mean in building materials? This question has been asked many times in the building industry, often with interesting and not so cut-and-dried results. What we’ve discovered in our mission to make better buildings is that all too often, a particular product simply cannot be 100% green, due to inherent tradeoffs that occur with other aspects of its nature. What we should be asking ourselves is what aspects of green do we care most about? Is it durability or recyclability, embodied energy or life-cycle energy, off-gassing or chemical composition? Ideally, we wouldn’t have to choose one or two aspects of a product to consider it “green.” There are some in the industry who are trying to approach products more holistically when considering what it takes to earn a “green” designation. The most comprehensive undertaking that I’ve witnessed in the search for green building products is a part of the Living Building Challenge and the Living Product Challenge. Both of these are programs created by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Within the Living Building Challenge, there are categories, or petals, as they call them, to which a structure must comply in order to earn their stamp of approval. The Materials Petal is one of the most difficult to attain, requiring vetting, documentation, and verification in a number of seemingly disparate aspects. Everything from chemical composition to raw material harvesting locations to conservation and reuse strategies for each and every product in the building must be accounted for. Materials that do comply are often added to a list of approved, vetted materials on a website known as Declare, also started by the ILFI. Each product is labeled with a “nutrition label” of sorts, giving out specific, confirmed information about each product. This movement is still in its infancy, but it’s gaining traction every year. With time, hard work, and clients who are willing to join us on our quest to push the limits on what it means to be sustainable, hopefully we’ll be helping to push out the greenwashed products and be left with just the true green ones. So, what does it mean to be green? It turns out it’s not so easy to nail down. Instead, it’s a larger discussion that we’d love to delve into with you. One thing is for sure: with more and more people looking for green, it will become easier to make out the different shades.
By Brian Burkett