If you want to build a really green house, how much time should you spend looking for products that carry a green certification?
Not a lot, advised builders and architects known for their “greenness.” Though green attributes such as recycled content were very important and might lead them to consider a particular product, the presence or absence of a green certification rarely influenced their selections. For these professionals, durability, a good track record in the marketplace and familiarity with the product trumped other considerations.
“That a product is certified is not a guarantee it will perform,” said Michael Klement, generally regarded as a leading green residential architect in southeast Michigan. He said he learned this the hard way when paint bearing “a good green credential” failed in a real-world application that fortunately was his own house and not a client’s. The paint didn’t cure properly and 12 years later, it’s still “sticky,” he said. Chastened by this experience, he likes to give any new product five years on the market before he uses it. When a client waxes enthusiastically about a “hot new green product,” Klement explains the risks in using unproven materials. About half his clients opt for the tried and true, but surprisingly, the other half still wants to be more adventurous and cutting-edge, he said.
Peter Pfeiffer, a nationally recognized green architect who is based in Austin, characterized green building product certifications as “a wild and woolly world,” and said he’s found that many certifications raise as many questions as they’re supposedly answering. Though he uses many certified green products, he also factors in construction logistics, practicality, and durability, and this can lead him to select a non-certified product that in his estimation is the greener option.
For example, most homeowners want a paint that’s certified to be “no VOC” because it won’t emit harmful volatile organic compounds as it dries (that’s the source of the paint stink that gives many people headaches). But when a new house is not yet occupied, Pfeiffer says an interior VOC-emitting paint is the greener choice because it’s harder and more durable and owners can go for 15 years before having to repaint instead of five. Though some homeowners are resistant to this idea, he points out that by the time they move in, most of the offending emissions from the paint will be dissipated.
Several architects said that some certifications add to a product’s cost and the certification can be unnecessary. For example, Tom Shiner, an architect and a furniture maker based in Bethesda, said using wood with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) stamp to make his furniture adds a significant cost. Shiner acknowledged that the FSC stamp is important if you don’t know where the wood is from because it indicates that the wood was harvested using sustainable forestry practices, but in his case he uses locally harvested poplar and oak, and he knows the person who cut the trees.