A&D Panel on Sustainability - Aug/Sep 2013

As the A&D community is a great driver in the greening of the built environment, the responses always challenge the flooring industry to improve on its path towards sustainability and transparency. This year, Collin Burry of Gensler, Patricia Malick of Array Architects and Jennifer Ramski of Ramski & Company offer their perspectives. 

Q: What aspects of sustainability are most important in your work? 
Collin Burry:
 Gensler approaches sustainability holistically, so it’s hard to say one aspect is more important than another. We look at design through the lenses of energy, water, materials, health, community and ecology, and we try to balance the synergies and trade-offs of different strategies.

Patricia Malick: With applied finishes, our priorities are thinking about sustainability in terms of longevity, durability, and the ability to clean with non-toxic agents. We advocate for green cleaning programs. We’d love to see our clients give up stripping and waxing, as it is disruptive from both a noise and odor perspective. Indoor air quality is at the top of our priority list. We are interested in bio-based and locally sourced products, but performance can sometimes trump those aspects.

Jennifer Ramski: For the past decade or so, I have become enamored of win-win scenarios. Sustainability in the form of good building practices is one of those, and, as such, all of these aspects are important. The good news is that sustainability is becoming commonsensical. Designers can access more quantitative, evidence-based data to assist in gaining user buy-in and increased participation. It is not a hard sell to design for good indoor air quality and energy efficiency, as every facility owner knows these pay over time, and it is exciting to see innovations in materials and manufacturing. And who doesn’t love seeing the resurgence of made-in-America and its resulting increased job creation?

Q: How much of your work would you consider to be green projects? In what percentage of your work do you pursue LEED certification?
 We apply green principles and strategies to 100% of our projects. We do quite a bit of renovation work in the healthcare environment, which makes the LEED certification process daunting. Maybe 40% of our total projects are on a LEED track; for new construction, the figure is closer to 85%.

Burry: We design all projects with a basic level of green practices, and many of our projects reach a highly innovative level of sustainability. Approximately a third of our projects are pursuing LEED certification, most at the Gold level and several at the Platinum level. We also have projects exploring the Living Building Challenge.

Ramski: While we employ active green conscious design, I would say approximately 40% of our project work is LEED or Green Globes. Our LEED projects are usually our larger government projects like the Florida Citrus Bowl renovation for the city of Orlando or the new Gainesville Regional Utilities campus in Gainesville, Florida. Many educational facilities are going to Green Globes, as this system requires sustainable design practices but is not as intensive or costly to administer in design and/or commissioning.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in designing green projects?
 The biggest challenge is convincing the users that there is a value in doing so. To achieve this, designers need to learn from their clients, their teams and their manufacturers, often the best source of current and quantitative data. Post-occupancy evaluations should be more commonplace. Fortunately, public exposure over the last ten to 12 years is finally affecting user buy-in.

Burry: One of the biggest challenges in sustainable design is being able to access comprehensive and accurate information on products easily and efficiently. We need proven industry metrics on the return on investment (ROI) for using sustainable strategies.

Malick: Most of our clients are looking for a green approach; however, they are not always open to the certification process, especially if they do not have an institutional champion. With renovation work, our biggest challenge is tying into existing infrastructure.

Q: In what ways will LEED v4 impact the way you put together green projects?
 LEED v4 will provide an effective framework for taking our projects to the next level. It includes many important concepts that are not emphasized in the current version of LEED, like acoustics and lifecycle impacts. It will also encourage the market to provide healthier materials and greater transparency of product ingredients.

Q: In which commercial sectors is sustainable design currently gaining traction the fastest? And in which sectors is it having trouble gaining traction?
 We see sustainable design most significantly developed in educational environments and healthcare projects. Happily, education seems to have embraced the importance of teaching the sustainability story by example, putting sustainable practices to work along with teaching the reasons for doing so and making learners active advocates with lessons learned from a young age.

Malick: We only do healthcare work, which happens to be one of most challenging, since the facilities are, by necessity, functional 24/7 and huge utility resource consumers. We are starting to see stronger leadership in the waste management area.

Burry: We are seeing sustainable design gain traction in all sectors. 

Q: In your opinion, what are the most significant sustainability trends?
 From a finish perspective, renewable/bio-based products are the most significant. I’d love to see more attention given to adhesives, especially for flooring.

Burry: The most significant sustainability trends we’re seeing focus on health—such as the impact of building materials on health—as well as things like active lifestyle, healthful food and happiness. There is also an emphasis on technology, which helps us to provide smart buildings that respond to their climate, exchange information with their occupants and ultimately consume fewer resources. 

Ramski: I think made-in-America and regionally made are significant because they work in concert with the local movement so prevalent in our communities currently and speak to employment, ingenuity and opportunities for our work force and entrepreneurs. 

Q: What kinds of green flooring products do you tend to specify?
 We love specifying terrazzo, rubber flooring, linoleum and carpet tiles. Not every project has the budget to support terrazzo, but we have expertise in developing unique terrazzos and enjoy the challenge of getting them just right in design and application. It’s a classic flooring with lots of creative possibilities and great appearance retention, which converts to ROI. Not every project has the budget for rubber or linoleum, but, particularly in our healthcare and child development projects, waterjet cutting offers so many avenues for theming. Also, these products are inherently antimicrobial. Of course, carpet tile systems are constantly evolving. Each new pattern release is its own kit of parts, full of design possibilities for customization, which makes this product cost effective.

Burry: Many aspects of sustainability relate to flooring. For example, we may reuse an existing material or use a polished concrete slab in lieu of any flooring at all. When selecting new flooring products, we consider many things. What is it made of? What is the embodied energy of the product? Where was it manufactured? What are the health aspects? How is it attached to the floor? Does the manufacturer have a take-back program? Does the color or texture affect daylighting or acoustics? We consider the LEED criteria to be a basic requirement, and we are beginning to explore Living Building Challenge requirements as well. 

Malick: We specify many no-wax products, specifically rubber and luxury vinyl tile.

Q: How is the flooring industry doing when it comes to sustainability? 
 Pretty well, I think, given the many constraints and criteria for institutional flooring.

Burry: Many products are beginning to address the ideas mentioned above, and meeting LEED criteria has become fairly common. However, I think there’s still a long way to go. We would like to see all flooring options meet the LEED criteria as a basic requirement, and I believe the leaders in the flooring industry will start to participate in the Living Building Challenge and organizations like Declare and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative.

Ramski: The products produced by the flooring industry are amazing, and this industry is definitely setting the pace for product sustainability. The challenges are collection for recycled products post-consumer and a collapse between trendy design innovations and timeless quality. Things evolve and change so quickly that some market sectors may not be able to fully realize the full value of a product before they are tempted to change it for design inspiration or customer satisfaction. Perhaps we will all be manufacturing new flooring on a 3D printer locally in the next decade!

Q: When it comes to green flooring products, what are you looking for that you can’t find?
 Products that meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

Malick: A great resilient floor that has a strong guarantee, requires no wax and looks great without wax. Furthermore, we are looking for a product that will not lift, even if a client uses a lot of water to clean it. Moisture in concrete and crack chasing continue to cause headaches and add expense.

Q: Overall, is environmental sustainability a growing factor in today’s projects? What are the biggest barriers?
 Yes, it is growing, and internal client champions willing to advocate for new programs will help it grow further.

Ramski: Since we truly are functioning as a global economy, we experience the negatives of social and geographical unrest and shifting global economic conditions. I think this will drive the U.S. to produce more within its borders. Resources will continue to be more precious and sustainability in an even broader sense will emerge through innovation.

Burry: Yes, environmental sustainability is absolutely a growing factor in projects today. One significant barrier is that, in our economic context, the negative impacts of unsustainable practices are externalized so that their true costs are not visible. 

Q: How do you discuss the economics of sustainability with your clients?
 Early and often.

Ramski: We don’t always. However, when we do, we present what makes sustainable sense, and it is often the best solution. 

Burry: The economics of sustainability depend on a client’s point of view and what their role is in the project. The economic factors relate to whether they are an owner-occupier, developer or tenant, and whether they are invested in the project for the short or long term. Some key concepts related to the economics of sustainability are the payback period of sustainable strategies, financial incentives, mitigation of risk, associated productivity gains, brand and marketing, and attraction and retention. 

Q: Are you satisfied with current sustainability standards and certifications? What certifications do you look for? 
 No, I feel that the strictly quantifiable standard currently in place does not reward the innovation. Some of the most interesting and compelling sustainable stories, especially some that deal with social impact, are not always quantifiable and don’t convert to points. Current standards and certifications are not always the most effective delivery method for all sustainable projects. Often I am more attracted to successful innovations, and I like to hear these stories.

Burry: There are many standards and certifications that provide designers with valuable information. As mentioned above, we would like to see all flooring products meet the LEED criteria at a minimum, and more products participating in Declare and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative.

Q: Which is more important, recycled content or recyclability?
 They’re both important.

Malick: We typically look for recycled content of some percentage with all products. As designers, we are drawn to products that have an after-use recyclability program. 

However, at least with our large institutional healthcare clients, it’s not realistic that the owners will think to reach out to the original manufacturer to reclaim the product for recycling. We are starting to see more advocacy from our construction management partners to work with the design team to make those arrangements. Without that collaboration, it is difficult for the design team to set the process in motion on behalf of our clients.

Q: What is the most critical thing that A&D knows, but clients don’t, about creating green buildings and interiors?
 That the added cost does not need to be a disincentive.

Burry: We work collaboratively with our clients to first understand their goals for a project. As architects and designers, we have a unique ability to connect those goals to three-dimensional ideas for the built environment. In this process, we are often able to help our clients to evaluate many criteria, including the economic factors mentioned above, and guide them to a solution.

Ramski: You should look for the “value adds” in your built environment team, your design concept and your green building systems. The details of your design should reflect your goals for your facility, both exterior and interior, and equip your business with increased functionality and the quality environment to reach your long-term business goals. This is true sustainability.

Copyright 2013 Floor Focus

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