A&D Panel on Sustainability - Aug/Sep 2012

The design community has been one of the biggest drivers of sustainability in renovation and construction, and the title of LEED designer is one of the most important in the green movement. Floor Focus asked three accomplished architects and designers for their views on the sustainability movement and how they see the flooring industry through that prism. Below, Paula Vaughan of Perkins+Will, Mia Marshall of EHS Design, and Dean Harris of JPC Architects answer our questions.

Q: What are the biggest trends in sustainability from the perspective of designers?
Paula Vaughan: Designers increasingly have to prove the business case for sustainable design strategies. As we move beyond recycled content and indoor air quality (VOC levels) and toward lifecycle assessments and health product declarations, designers are becoming instrumental in working with manufacturers to produce and disclose product information. 

Mia Marshall: The level of expectation for green products in design is higher than ever. Manufacturers are analyzing sustainable practices from all angles. They have made it manageable to choose green products as part of everyday specifications without sacrificing durability, quality, or price. On the West Coast especially, sustainability is a mainstream concept that clients expect, but this expectation dwindles on the East Coast, and especially in the Midwest.

Dean Harris: All projects and products have to live up to some level of sustainability. Another big trend is locally sourcing products, as well as an ever increasing emphasis on indoor air quality, energy efficient lighting and lifecycle analysis, or cost/benefit analysis. People are becoming more interested in reusable materials like floating carpet tile applications that don’t require toxic adhesives.

Q: In which commercial sectors is sustainability most important and least important?
PV: We compile a variety of data for each of our projects, annually. As a large firm with thousands of projects annually, we noticed some eye-opening patterns. For example, our healthcare projects accounted for only about one-third of the total number of projects in 2011, but saved a huge two-thirds of energy for 2011. And we hardly see a K-12 school project that is not seeking LEED certification. 

DH: Sustainability is for the most part mandatory in any government project and interior tenant improvement projects where there is a long-term lease commitment. Sectors where it appears least important are in small renovations with limited lease commitments, due to the initial higher first cost of most green products. 

MM: It’s hard to say where it isn’t important. Every little bit counts. The public sector is the most important—healthcare facilities, public assembly spaces, airports, schools, and even large retail facilities. How much time the public spends in a space plus the size of the entity equals how large the environmental and public impact will be. For many businesses today sustainability is a critical part of their brand. We find clients expressing this branding in overt ways, like solar panels, rain water capture systems, or green walls. 

Q: Overall, is environmental sustainability a growing factor in today’s projects?
PV: Yes, but it may be a case of transforming the marketplace. When LEED and green building rating systems were new, simply finding materials with recycled content or VOC information wasn’t easy. Clients weren’t even thinking about LED lighting because the technologies were still developing. As the market has grown up, we take these types of design decisions as default. We incorporate LED lamps, controls and healthy building materials in every project. And building codes, such as the International Green Construction Code, have been developed to include these strategies. What that leaves is the space at the forefront of the sustainable design conversations, where clients, designers and manufacturers are working to push to the next step of sustainability. So I guess you could say that what we used to call sustainability is a growing factor because it’s now expected or codified. What we’re moving towards in sustainability is a new and exciting way of designing that may still be on the leading edge.

MM: In our region in particular, it is growing leaps and bounds. As designers, it’s our responsibility to be sensitive to every aspect of the built environment, and understand every choice we make has a direct impact on the physical environment. Our job at EHS is to advise clients on what can be done beyond code requirements to express a sincere interest in sustainability. 

DH: Yes, every project meets some level of sustainability on an ever increasing level.

Q: Are there significant differences between how designers and clients approach sustainability in projects?
DH: It varies based on the client, project type, designer/client relationship and the scope of a particular project type. Sometimes clients place a higher priority on sustainability than the designer might. However, more often than not, it’s the designer who is the advocate for pushing sustainability to the highest level. Our designers prefer to put a priority on including sustainable products wherever possible, whether or not it’s a selling point.

PV: It depends on the client, and the type of project. Sustainability means different things to different people. Our mission is to help our clients find what aspects of sustainability resonate with them and their project and set that as the focus. For some clients, such as K-12 schools and healthcare projects, the importance of designing healthy environments that contribute to improved learning and healing become core aspects. For others, such as developers or building owners, designing projects that will offset operational costs or increase leasing rates predominate. We’ve learned to not try and force feed a pre-packaged version of sustainability to our clients, but rather help them discover what is important to them and their mission and work as a team to fulfill that mission.

MM: Sure, there are differences, but clients are generally more knowledgeable about the subject than in the past. They know they want to pursue a sustainable design, but they may not know how to get there. It’s our job to keep up with the constantly evolving green marketplace and then educate our clients on the best practices and products to provide them with a truly sustainable solution.

Q: How do you discuss the economics of sustainability with your clients?
PV: Discussing the economics of sustainability seems like a straightforward notion, but is really a very layered process. There are, of course, the strategies for which we can fill in on spreadsheets and analyze lifecycle costs, such as the cost of a photovoltaic system compared to the estimated payback. When we get more involved in designing with a systems-wide approach, things become a bit less clear cut. And considering operational and maintenance costs rather than simple capital costs also impacts the economics but may be harder to quantify. Then we add the occupant factor and economics quickly moves from a spreadsheet to a very diverse conversation. For example, in a LEED certified elementary school that we recently completed, we were able to document that children and teachers missed fewer days of school due to health issues. Fewer children had allergy or asthma problems, resulting in fewer trips to the nurse’s office for medicine. That, in turn, reduced the amount of money parents had to spend on buying allergy and asthma medicine for their children. And that’s a number that would never show up on our spreadsheet.

DH: We discuss with our clients the long-term economic and environmental benefits in investing in an environmentally sustainable design. We discuss in depth the advantages of beneficial lifecycle costs over initial first costs. This discussion is integral with the initial overall design concept and visioning discussion.

MM: Understanding the client’s mission and vision is a key element. Our clients often know about sustainable solutions, and understand that it can potentially cost more. We also discuss the impact sustainable buildings have on customer perceptions, and the intangible value of aligning our client’s sustainable expression with their customers’ values. This doesn’t mean they pursue the gold standard every time, but our job is to be stewards of the environment while informing clients about small investments that can protect the environment and boost their image. 

Q: When it comes to assessing product sustainability, what sort of tools and certifications do you look for?
MM: Every type of product used in design has different certifications. There are quite a few third-party certifications out there for flooring and carpet, like the Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard, Greenguard, the CRI Green Label, etc. We often use material safety data sheets to go in-depth on a product’s content. We look for manufacturers who go beyond the basics, and who aim for the smallest footprint. Being educated with up-to-date information is the most important tool in our tool kit. 

PV: As many as we need to. It’s great having the product labels, such as EnergyStar and Greenguard, and those certainly have made our lives easier. But we need to push further. Instead of simply stating what is not in the products, we’d like manufacturers to state what is in them. With the Pharos Project, Health Product Declarations and the [Perkins+Will] Precautionary List, I think we’re seeing that manufacturers sense that this is an important and growing phenomenon and could help distinguish them from competitors. If you simply tell designers what is in a product, we’re much more likely to use it than if we have to go track down the patent and do the research ourselves.

DH: The tools for assessing and measuring product sustainability are ever increasing, and they include BIFMA, Green Leaf, FloorScore, Cradle to Cradle certification, Greenguard, Forest Stewardship Council, and assessing the overall lifecycle of a product from manufacturing to shipping waste. Many products can be certified, focusing only on one aspect, such as off-gassing or recycled content. While these are good, we focus on the process of minimizing the carbon footprint as a whole. 

Q: How does greenwashing today compare with a few years ago? 
PV: Can anyone get away with that these days? The amount and quality of information available today means that designers are more savvy about products they specify. They ask product representatives more questions and reps, in turn, are coming prepared with the answers. The growing commitment to developing more sustainable products and getting the information to designers, through a variety of channels, is one we applaud.

DH: My view is that greenwashing is less prevalent today than just a few years ago, as designers and clients are becoming more knowledgeable as to what products are truly sustainable from those that only look sustainable. The majority of our clients are very sophisticated in this regard. 

MM: Everyone wants to say they have a green product, but it can be very misleading because there are so many ways to be green. It’s difficult to know which products are truly green in the environmental responsibility sense of the word, and which manufacturers are just using that term to sell products to a more informed generation of clientele. In the end, it’s our responsibility to ensure the products we specify truly represent the promised sustainability.

Q: How do you view the flooring industry in terms of progress in environmental sustainability?
DH: In general the flooring industry has made great strides in the sustainability process. Carpet on the recycled content front, engineered reclaimed wood floors, locally sourced natural products, and recycled and repurposed stone flooring are becoming household words in this sustainability discussion. Areas with significant room for improvement include having a more competitive market for high quality sustainable products. The dyeing process in many carpets can be improved upon. Our designers are currently not happy with many LVT options. They are looking for floating LVT options that contain recycled content, are recyclable, durable and less adhesive dependent. 

PV: Flooring manufacturers have been at the forefront of the sustainable building movement. The “take-it-back” programs for reclaiming floorcoverings at the end of their useful lives and recycling them into new products is a giant step forward. I would like to see more manufacturers consider the whole lifecycle of their products, from extraction and manufacturing through reclaiming and disposal—including information about what happens in less than perfect circumstances like fire or flood. I know the product may be okay on the floor, but was it okay for everyone who did or will handle it?

MM: It’s great there are a lot more sustainable options to choose from, and often there is no cost premium. I’m mostly frustrated by greenwashing. We have a lot of due diligence as designers to research these companies and know which products are truly green and which ones are trying to ride the trend. Green isn’t just a trend, it’s not going to go away when people tire of it—it will become a way of life in the world of architecture and interior design.

Q: Which are the greenest and least green flooring categories, and why?
PV: I’d love to broaden the use of sustainably forested natural wood, rather than the synthetic composite materials so popular now, but there are cost implications. Carpets made with natural fibers or materials that can be recycled are good options. Mostly, I’d like to see all manufacturers develop hard surface materials that don’t contain toxicants or harmful substances, such as dioxins, phthalates or halogens. It’s not a matter of being inert in the best of installations—it’s about what happens the rest of the time.

MM: The choice beyond the base building structure would be carpet, as manufacturers make enormous efforts to be the greenest in the flooring industry. Most of the time, flooring solutions are carpet based, and with this large quantity of material comes a huge environmental impact. Carpet is the best cradle-to-cradle solution—you can take carpet and make it into more carpet. Rubber, vinyl, and epoxy-based flooring are the least sustainable. That really hasn’t changed over the years.

DH: The greenest flooring categories tend to be in high-quality recycled goods like Interface carpet tile. Others are reclaimed wood flooring projects and, again, repurposed stone flooring. Least green are low quality resilient flooring products and low quality adhesive and sealants, which compromise indoor air quality.

Q: In terms of sustainable flooring, what are the hot products?
PV: Armstrong’s BioBased Tile, Johnsonite’s iQ Natural tile and other resilient flooring that’s getting rid of the PVC and replacing it with natural polymers. Any flooring that can be reclaimed or recycled at the end of its life is a great leap forward.

MM: AlumaFloor is made from recycled materials, and can be recycled upon removal. The idea came from an architect, not a manufacturer, which shows that any one of us can influence the sustainable environment. Architects had an idea, but the product didn’t exist, so they made it happen with a little legwork and a few connections. That is what sustainability is about—innovation at the hands of anyone. It is asking the question “I wonder if they make flooring out of fill-in-the-blank.” And if they don’t, try to find someone who will. 

DH: Still at the front in popularity is recycled carpet, particularly modular tile systems; reclaimed wood floors from indigenous sources; high-quality rubber flooring products that offer resilience underfoot and acoustical properties not found in typical synthetic flooring with little to no emissions.

Q: What are the most important green elements in an interior space, and where does flooring rank?
MM: As far as finished materials are concerned, the most important green elements are those installed with the largest quantity. Flooring is near the top of that list because there is always a lot of it, just like paint, for instance. Quantity is the biggest factor in this because the sheer volume of product will create the most impact to the public’s health and the environment. 

DH: Ranking high on the charts are mechanical environmental systems such as HVAC and energy efficient lighting. A close second would be flooring due to its extent and influence on the built space.

Q: Looking ahead, what developments in sustainability would you most like to see?
DH: More aggressive development in sustainable products with lower first costs, making them more available to small projects with tight budgets.

MM: Stringent green requirements are being adopted in the country and the world right now as more and more jurisdictions require LEED certification on new public buildings. I would like to see our federal government adopt the International Green Construction Code. This would require architects, designers, and manufacturers to come up with more creative solutions to work around banned products. I want to see more from the Living Building Challenge. They analyze and scrutinize every little part of the design, down to the screws and fasteners. If something is manufactured or coated with an item on the “red list,” it can’t be used. This type of rigorous attention in the manufacturing process is where green building is going. 

Q: How do you sort through it all and make sure you are rewarding the right companies and reinforcing the right type of activity?
MM: Sort is the operative word. Right now we have to do a lot of digging to unearth this information, and so that’s what we do. I want to see a more transparent information delivery system for companies who sell “green” products. That information should be up front, and quick and easy to analyze. In terms of overall sustainability, we need to analyze product sourcing with a mind toward resource protection, and understand manufacturing processes that reduce energy consumption and protect the quality of life for employees, and the public as a whole.

DH: We give material suppliers with an overall low carbon footprint the greater opportunity to have their product specified and specially showcased in our projects. 

Q: Where does “made in the USA” fit into the whole sustainability equation?
DH: It fits into the sustainability equation, by addressing the importance of a product’s overall carbon footprint. For example, sustainable flooring products harvested and produced in Asia, which at their local source are sustainable, do not have a low carbon footprint after being imported due to the significantly increased fossil fuel emission required to transport the product over a long distance. Therefore it’s about sourcing locally, allowing the product’s carbon footprint to remain low. 

MM: It is an important piece of the sustainability puzzle. We are supporting our own economy, for one, and the U.S. has more rigorous labor, manufacturing and quality control standards. This means the product is likely built to last, which will keep it out of a landfill longer. But even more important is to source regionally. For EHS, a lot of our work is in the Northwest, and that includes Canada. It makes more sense to source products as close to the project as possible, and use “made in the USA” as a baseline. I hope this becomes more front-of-mind for designers and architects in the future. 

Copyright 2012 Floor Focus