Why green-certified products may not always be the best choice

April 30, 2012

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.

Similarly, Tedd Benson, who heads up Bensonwood Homes in Walpole, N.H., said his firm purchases wood from a local company that practices sustainable forestry but does not have an FSC stamp, and they also have a long history of reusing old timber frames, a very sound green building practice, but not one that is certified. In general, Benson added, his firm does not pay much attention to product certifications. When project managers encounter a product that is new and allegedly green, they do their own research and reach their own judgment.

Sante Fe, N.M., builder Faren Dancer, who described green certified building product certifications as “a confusing playing field,” said that product certifications can be helpful in the initial sorting out process, but for him, the only certifications that count are the ones that will be accepted by his local LEED provider, who offers advice on products that will help in gaining LEED certification. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a point-based rating system for evaluating new construction that was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The materials used in a project can affect its rating.)

But Dancer went on to say that LEED sanction does not ensure a product’s quality and durability, and offered cork flooring as an example. Because it’s a renewable material, it will get LEED points, but in Dancer’s observation, a cork flooring is not durable and often needs replacing in five or six years. He prefers stone flooring, whether he gets LEED points or not because, he said, “It’s there for the entire life of the house.”

In some situations, however, these green building experts said green building product certification can be important. For example, when the homeowner has chemical sensitivities or a general concern with healthy building products, Greenguard and Cradle to Cradle, known as C2C, can be helpful.

Greenguard scans emissions that come off building products, and certifies that these emissions are below levels that Greenguard has determined are safe. Greenguard’s determination of “safe” is based on a combination of state, national and international air quality standards. Greenguard’s Indoor Air Quality, its initial emission-testing program, scans building product emissions for about 400 chemicals. It’s newer and more stringent Children and Schools program scans products for about 10,000 chemicals and the allowable emissions levels are much lower. Its newest program, Greenguard Select, tests to the children and schools standard but also evaluates products for specific use including residential applications.

Cradle to Cradle, or C2C, takes a more holistic approach, examining the environmental impact of a product’s manufacture as well as the toxicity of all chemicals used to make the product in amounts greater than 1/1000th of a percent. C2C also tests for volatile organic compounds. Depending on the results of C2C’s analysis, products are certified at four different levels — basic, silver, gold and platinum.

For the homeowner who wants to pursue green product certifications beyond these two, an excellent primer is “Green Building Product Certifications” (BuildingGreen.com, 2011, $79), which offers tips and extensive explanations for more than 50 green building product certifications.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail at salanthousewatch@gmail.com or www.katherinesalant.com.

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