A&DPanel on Sustainability - Aug/Sep 2011

Manufacturers are regularly introducing new green products in the flooring market: recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, low VOC. They are making proclamations, seeking certifications and dumping loads of cash into R&D to innovate the next iteration of sustainable flooring. But what do those individuals who actually make the design decisions, the specifiers, value? And what do they want from the flooring industry?

To add a new dimension to our sustainability research, we interviewed a panel of A&D sustainability specialists to get their perspective on current trends, the economics of sustainability, flooring’s role in the overall design of a sustainable space, greenwashing and more. Olivia Millar of Mancini Duffy, Peter Syrett of Perkins+Will, and John Cantrell of HOK offered their expertise. 

Millar is managing director of interiors at Mancini Duffy and heads up sustainability efforts for the firm. Syrett, associate principal at Perkins+Will, co-authored his firm’s Precautionary List (substances found in building products that are harmful to humans and the environment); he is currently working on an expanded list, which will be released at Greenbuild this fall. And John Cantrell is an interior designer, and formerly the sustainable design manager, at HOK.

Q: What are the biggest trends in sustainability from the perspective of designers?
Syrett: Many designers are talking about the spectrum of green building: from business as usual; to green buildings, which do less harm; to Living Buildings, which do no harm; to regenerative buildings, those that have a positive impact—for example, a building that absorbs greenhouse gases rather than emits them.  

Millar: The industry is now looking beyond the work that LEED covers, either stepping back to look at supply chain or looking forward to consider lifecycle costs, carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. More and more companies are working to meet corporate-wide reporting requirements related to sustainability and looking at sustainability beyond the built environment. Many now consider energy use across the board, rather than just on a LEED construction project, which then causes them to look at their supply chain, their real estate decisions, their operations, and more. People are getting more sophisticated in their analysis of sustainability.

Cantrell: One of the biggest things we’re seeing is laser focus on efficiency of space, materials, cost, operations—a focus on what is necessary. 

Q: How has the economic slowdown impacted sustainability?
Cantrell: The slowdown has turned attention to the core of what is sustainable, instead of taking it at face value. More focus is now placed on the justification for or purpose of building, of square footage, and how that parallels what’s needed and necessary. This keeps the process efficient and honest and, ultimately, more sustainable because of its viability at the outset. Because of that, people want to keep real estate longer—extending building terms and leases—which means something different in terms of materials we specify because we won’t be ripping them out again in three years. 

Syrett: In the building industry as a whole, sustainability has felt the sting of economy but not like people might expect. We have just as many clients wanting to build green as we did before, but they are more targeted and careful about what they want to achieve. So the design team has to be more diligent in their work.

Millar: People are still talking about sustainability, which is a testament to its significance and the great job that the USGBC and others have done in bringing the issue to the forefront. Today, people always choose the no-cost sustainable options; however, they are very focused on cost, and, therefore, they are less inclined to do things with no obvious return on investment. 

Q: In terms of sustainable flooring, what are the hot products?
Syrett: There is a move toward bio-based products. These are hot right now. People are trying to seek alternatives that are better and greener. Bio is often shorthand for it being a better product, which is not always the case, but that is what people look for when they look for sustainable flooring products. 

The other thing, of course, is recycled content. This is very important to people’s considerations, as are health indicators on flooring, from emissions released by the product during installation to heavy metal content to other considerations like that.

Cantrell: We always seem to be going back to the same things that meet the same criteria. We always strive to find products that are durable alternatives to vinyl and PVC. Even options for not using flooring at all that address acoustics and cushion underfoot. 

How can you do more with less? 

In terms of what that means for flooring and how you’re covering the ground plane, anything that is 100% recyclable, recycled and durable is the mother lode of flooring products. Another key is finding appropriate reclaimed sources, when we can use those. 

Millar: Cork is hot. Bamboo has lost some steam since the product has such variations in quality and durability that people have developed a hesitation toward using it as a flooring material. People are more comfortable with cork’s durability, and there are many more cork options than there were just a few years ago. 

Q: Is sustainability a concern with every project you work on? 
Cantrell: Yes, definitely. It is something that we have been addressing on almost all projects for a few years. I don’t think we’ve had a project in Atlanta in the last three years that doesn’t register with LEED or use LEED as a baseline. 

We used to market the idea of sustainable building to the customer, but now it is written into their plans when they come through the door. In Atlanta, we do a lot of work with corporate clients and science and technology groups. The way we answer questions of sustainability with these clients can be very different. In corporate projects, our conversation is usually about meeting corporate sustainability standards or creating visible sustainability. In science, it is more about the return on investment because of the size and scope of projects, or about retention of researchers or students, depending on building type. 

Millar: Sustainability is a part of every project in the sense that we discuss it with every client. Clients are always willing to take the no cost, more sustainable option. On maybe 90% of projects, we will implement sustainable measures that don’t cost anything. Probably 50% of clients will make sustainable choices beyond the minimum low cost measures.

Syrett: Yes, we have internal baseline standards within the firm, and we try to achieve sustainable benchmarks for every project that we work on. We like to think that sustainability is part of our DNA. To achieve sustainability, you are going to jump through hoops. The question is how high you want to jump. But you are going to jump regardless.

Q: When you are considering a sustainable interior space, how important is flooring?
Syrett: The interior of the building is immensely important because, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, we spend 90% of our time indoors, and buildings do have an impact on our health and wellbeing; so it is critical that we select flooring products well.  

Millar: The focus for us is usually on energy use. Flooring, though, can be a key component of the materials credits when it comes to LEED. One of the things that makes flooring worthy of a lot of consideration is that it has so many variables. You want to find something locally sourced, with recycled content, with low emitting adhesives, that’s durable, that you don’t have to replace in five years, that supports healthy indoor air quality, etc. All those considerations have to be viewed through the lens of the goals for the entire product.

Cantrell: Flooring is important because it is so much square footage, such a large quantity of something, so it has a big impact. 

Q: On what materials are your clients most willing to spend extra dollars for a sustainable option? 
Syrett: This is a loaded question because it presupposes that sustainable products cost more money. Sometimes they do but not always. Every client is different; some clients choose a flooring product with a higher upfront cost and lower lifecycle cost. For example, as you might know, the health and environmental implications of VCT are often debated, and the ongoing waxing and sealing of VCT over the years can be a significant operating cost, as opposed to linoleum, which has a higher upfront cost but has lower operating costs. 

Sometimes our clients choose a flooring product that promotes occupant well-being, which is another important sustainable consideration.  For example, asthma is an epidemic in our nation that manifests in our children. Eleven people in the world die every day from asthma. We don’t want to put flooring products that contain asthmagens or asthma triggers in our schools.

Cantrell: Usually, we don’t have much trouble finding sustainable solutions that don’t break our budgets. There are levels of sustainability, so a client might have it in their mind that they want a top of the line product to be able to say that it’s top of the line or to count towards corporate standards or LEED Platinum. We don’t have to value engineer our sustainable options for the most part. 

Millar: Most people are willing to spend money on energy related systems because there is a return on investment in the form of lower energy bills, and generally we’ve been able to find flooring with strong sustainability elements without having to spend those extra dollars.

Q: How do you discuss the economics of sustainability with your clients?
Syrett: There is a lot of misinformation about the economics of sustainability. Most of the studies build off of each other rather than comparing apples to apples. David Langdon said that what really dictates the cost of the project is the experience of the design team and when sustainability comes into the process. If sustainability is an up-front tenet in a project, unless you are shooting for LEED Platinum you aren’t going to see a green premium. It is important to have this discussion with clients early in a project to remove the cloud of misinformation around this topic.

Rather than making sustainability an onerous test that everything needs to pass through, just make it part of the rigor of the job. Look at it in a full spectrum of what’s available. Give clients the best and fullest picture, so they can choose wisely.

Millar: We talk first about LEED and sustainability in the framework of the LEED system, where their project places them, and what it will take to make the next step. If they are interested, we then talk on a broader scale, outside of LEED, about greenhouse gases and carbon footprinting, etc. With regard to LEED, I find that many manufacturers are at the forefront of sustainability, so there is not much of an additional cost for materials with sustainable attributes.

Q: How well do certifications and standards function in measuring the true sustainability of the final product/job?
Cantrell: Third party certifications can be a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, they do great things to bring accountability and measurability to those products. On the other hand, the definition of sustainability depends on the context (use and application), but certifications define purpose first, before researching comparable products. 

But, for almost all products, we look for third party certification. We want something that is certifiably green and has technical performance criteria. As designers, we are responsible to choose true, tested, long lasting products. 

Millar: We do a lot of corporate interiors, and the LEED system is great at rating how a project is conceived and constructed, but the real measure of sustainability comes over the life of a project. LEED has begun to address this with its LEED for Existing Buildings—which looks at operations and maintenance. But this is only available for whole buildings, not for existing tenants. There are some programs that certify the sustainability of a business’ ongoing operations, but these are more local operations, not national. We look for materials that will last for a long time, wear well, those that require little maintenance and water use—not just materials that will earn LEED points, but those that will support health for the full lease term and beyond. 

Syrett: They measure certain things very well, and they don’t measure other things that well. For example, we are becoming better at understanding energy in our buildings, but we are less sophisticated at understanding health aspects. LEED touches on air quality, but we have a long way to go. I think it’s important to have rating systems because they allow the best means for comparing performance. Otherwise, it’s too subjective. Also, for both products and buildings, the most valid certifications are third party certifications. First or second party should be looked at critically.

Q: How does sustainability impact design? Is there a tendency to make green products look green?
Millar: There was that perception, when the dialogue began, that green materials looked like natural materials. I think we’ve come a long way toward overcoming that perception, with so many high-end sustainable spaces constructed and published. The more range of aesthetics that manufacturers can achieve with green products, the more opportunity designers have to use green products. 

Cantrell: Sometimes our clients are asking for spaces that have a fundamental quality that they associate with what a “green space” is. Something light, crisp, something that is visually representative of green style. Others don’t want that, maybe because they have other brand characteristics that they want to highlight. In both cases, whether apparent or not, we focus on educating the client about the products they are getting, so that the space can become a story for them to tell. Bamboo is obvious, but they can choose something else and say, “These woods come from sustainable sources.” They can embed the story into their company culture and message. 

Q: Is it easier to specify a green product that really seems green, like linoleum or cork, compared to products that are not as obviously sustainable?
Millar: One of the reasons that flooring and other finish materials receive scrutiny is because, if something is obviously green, it is easier for a client to talk about the sustainability of the space, instead of, for example, talking about the 99% recycled content in drywall. It just doesn’t have the same cachet. For groups that like to tell their sustainable story, visually or with tours, obviously green materials help tell that story and get people excited about sustainability. USGBC’s strong brand identity has managed to tell the story with its plaques, which puts less pressure on the materials to tell it. 

Syrett: Often, there are many aspects of a product that you are looking at. Sometimes one is particularly good in one area but not in another. It may have high recycled content but be imported from Asia—how do you balance that? Or something made locally but with high VOC emissions—how do you balance that? You have to make tough choices. Nothing is 100% green.

Cantrell: Probably the opposite—sometimes the naturally green products might be a harder sell because of perceived issues with performance and durability. They associate those with things that are going to wear out, biodegrade, more than their synthetic counterparts. 

Q: Is the “bio vs. petro” conversation prevalent in your design community? Do you think people dumb down this issue and choose “bio” based on assumptions rather than facts?
Cantrell: The chemical makeup of product is important, but embodied energy is equally talked about with respect to products. What is the product made of, and what type of energy will be used to make it, to ship it and to maintain it over its lifecycle? That is a really tricky question that everyone is trying to find an answer to. You can’t get a calculator that figures everything just yet, but that is what everyone is trying to get to. Bio versus petro all comes down to application and what it takes to make, transport and dispose of it at the end of its life.

Syrett: Bio has become shorthand for green, and I don’t think everyone fully considers the implications of that. Look at corn-based products as an example. Sometimes corn cultivation can cause eutrophication; impacts like this should be considered when specifying a product. Approximately 4% of a barrel of crude oil is diverted into plastics and other uses (from pharmaceuticals to building materials), which is a relatively small, but still significant, piece of the petrochemical industry. 

Q: How is greenwashing today compared to two years ago? 
Cantrell: Everyone hates greenwashing, but almost everyone has gone through it; everyone has been the sucker. It gets progressively harder to evaluate, so choosing the most relevant third party certifier is key. 

Millar: I don’t think it’s gotten worse. As the public and A&D community are more educated and ask better questions, they are able to fend it off. Greenwashing has the connotation that is actively deceiving, but it is more of an education hurdle than active misleading. 

Syrett: I can’t index the impact of greenwashing, but it is a real danger that people are seduced by a message or one facet of a message. People should put the product in a broader context.

Q: With regard to sustainability, is the flooring industry more advanced than other industries that serve the built environment? 
Syrett: I think it is for several reasons, including the fact that regulatory agencies have forced it, based on indoor air quality. These regulations have really changed the industry for the better. Also, it is an industry that has a lot of innovation—it has to, for manufacturers to survive, so this has led to a lot of sustainable innovation too. 

Millar: The flooring industry is certainly one of the most forward-thinking industries in terms of evaluating its entire process—not just the material it produces, but how it derives material, delivers this material, and maintains this material. It has a long history of thorough sustainable procedures and policies. 

Cantrell: Yes, but is it “good design is good business” or good marketing in an industry that needs to keep itself relevant, new and fresh? 

Copyright 2011 Floor Focus