LEED for Floors - February 2009

By Brian Hamilton

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program continues to evolve as interest in sustainable commercial building and renovation shows no signs of abating, even as the economy slows. Some major design firms, such as Perkins+Will, say the percentage of their projects seeking LEED certification is closing in on 50%, although nearly every client is showing more interest in sustainability as it becomes a best practice, and some simply want to build green without going through the more expensive and time consuming LEED certification process. According to the USGBC, the additional construction cost is about 1% to 2%. However, a 2006 estimate by the Green Building Finance Consortium, a group of companies and trade groups formed to conduct independent research on green investment, pegs the additional cost at between 0.8% to 11.5%, depending on the level of certification. LEED offers four levels of certification, from “certified” at the low end, to “platinum” at the high end.

“Right now, K-12 in our market is almost 100% LEED projects, both public and private sector, and a lot of our labs, probably over 75% are LEED,” says designer Kim Chamness of the Chicago office of Perkins+Will. LEED certification functions much like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Companies can tangibly show they are interested in sustainability, which often has side benefits, such as the ability to charge higher rents. According to commercial real estate information company CoStar Group, LEED certified buildings can charge higher rents and have a 4.1% higher occupancy rate. “If you’re building today without LEED, you’re building in obsolescence,” a CoStar study reported. In addition, many governmental organizations are now requiring LEED certification.

Despite its growing popularity, however, LEED is still very much a work in progress and doesn’t address some of the most difficult sustainability issues. The USGBC is about to implement LEED 2009 at the end of March. The new revisions, among other things, call for a regular two-year revision process.

Perhaps the biggest change allows for greater regional consideration of issues. For example, a project that’s located next to a mass transit line can earn more points because the project will help keep employees out of their cars and limit further damage to the environment.

Only one change directly pertains to flooring. The most recent Environmental Quality Section 4.3 “Low Emitting Materials: Carpet Systems” has been replaced by “Low Emitting Materials: Flooring Systems.” The updated section, like its predecessor, specifies that carpet must meet the standards of the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus program and maintain the same level of emissions for carpet adhesives. New, however, is that hard surface flooring, including resilient, laminate, wood, and ceramic, as well as wall base, must be certified by the FloorScore standard, developed by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute in conjunction with Scientific Certification Systems. Also, concrete, wood, bamboo and cork finishes and sealers, as well as tile setting adhesives and grout, have to meet California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District standards for those materials. However, an alternative allows the flooring products to meet the testing and product requirements of the California Department of Public Health Standard Practice for the Testing of Volatile Organic Emissions from Various Sources Using Small-Scale Environmental Chambers. This LEED section can earn a project one point toward certification.

USGBC is also in the process of finalizing acceptance of Greenguard certification for indoor air quality. Nevertheless, some designers say major environmental issues aren’t addressed. “LEED quantifies and organizes green building, which is great, but it’s one dimensional,” says Susan Kaplan, director of specifications and sustainability for New York design firm HLW International. “It doesn’t take care of lifecycle assessment or social justice issues.” These are concerns that affect floorcovering, especially products that are imported and have less oversight along the supply chain.

Flooring products can only make a small contribution toward LEED certification, but they can make the defining difference in some projects. In new construction, flooring can contribute in Materials and Resources and Indoor Environmental Quality, and perhaps in Innovation and Design. Flooring with a minimum of 10% recycled content, flooring that is made with rapidly renewing materials, such as bamboo or cork, and flooring that is produced with materials that originate within 500 miles of the project or that has little off-gassing can help secure points. In addition, flooring manufacturers with recycling and reuse programs can help attain points. There are other ways flooring can contribute indirectly. For example, raised access flooring makes it easier to install efficient mechanical systems, and some large mass hard surface floors can store energy from passive solar systems.

Increasingly, designers are looking at every project with a green eye, whether the project will seek LEED certification or not. They are finding that using green elements correctly doesn’t add much initial cost to a project, and in the long run can save operational money. So they are developing their own criteria for what sustainability means, which in some cases are stricter than what LEED requires.

When designers approach LEED projects, they first have to look for flooring that meets the right sustainability and design criteria for the project, then pick the right level of durability. A leased space that could change occupants in five to ten years won’t necessarily get the same kind of flooring as space that has a long term owner-occupant.

Generally designers say they can usually find a suitable floorcovering for LEED projects, but in some cases their options are somewhat limited and it’s still not always easy to get accurate information about the sustainability of floorcovering. Designers rely on third party certifications, whenever possible, such as the Forest Stewardship Council certification for wood flooring and the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label program. A couple of designers told us that they also use information from the website BuildingGreen.com, and they all depend on information from manufacturers, even though they know there’s a lot of greenwashing going on. 

Sometimes the greenwashing takes a subtle form. For example, some manufacturers will tout the recycled content of their products, as certification points can be earned for overall recycled content. However, they often neglect to mention whether it’s post consumer content, which is most valuable in the formula, or post industrial, which is often just reusing leftovers from the manufacturing process and is easiier to obtain. This can make a significant difference.

There are other problems as well. For instance, it’s not necessarily easy to tell where stone comes from, which could make a difference when a project is seeking points for the use of regional materials. The same is true about the origin of some bamboo, a product many designers like because it’s rapidly renewable, which helps earn points. However, if it was grown on a plantation, how was the plantation created? This kind of information can be hard to obtain from overseas sources.

Some sustainability issues seem to be debatable. Chamness said that “carpet on a whole is becoming fairly green but its biggest drawback is indoor air quality because it traps dust.” CRI believes that trapping dust is a good quality, and its research shows there’s no link between carpet use and asthma or other breathing problems. Despite the disagreement, trapping dust doesn’t make a difference in LEED certification, but it might make a difference as to whether carpet gets specified in certain situations.

Nevertheless, Chamness says, “It’s about using the appropriate material for each place. I’m not sure I want to be on hard surfaces all day.”

Chamness says his firm avoids PVC, from resilient flooring to carpet backing, and it uses linoleum wherever possible, when the budget will allow it. “We as a firm feel that the downside of vinyl outweighs its positive attributes,” he says, noting its use of plasticizers and oil in the products. “We’ve had a lot of projects convert from vinyl.”

Kaplan also says that finding the right resilient can be a challenge. “We have a terrible time with non-PVC flooring, finding something at a price point below linoleum.” She also avoids PVC, partly because of the “toxic process” it requires in manufacturing. She notes that under LEED, it’s entirely possible to use a toxic material as long as it has no VOCs. She’d like to see a non-PVC economical alterative to VCT.

Anne Galmore, director of sustainability for contract dealer Intertech Flooring of San Antonio, has a little different take. “It would be really nice to see a VCT with really high recycled content because in that area there’s not a lot that can be put in a LEED project.”

Carpet tile has a huge marketshare in LEED projects compared to broadloom, partly because individual tiles can be easily replaced and the carpet is very durable. It also works well with raised flooring systems, which are popular in data centers and office buildings, and can help get an innovation and design credit. Carpet tile for the most part also has a good green story and the major manufacturers have plenty of products to offer. Of all floorcoverings, carpet tile has perhaps the highest post consumer content. “About 99% of our projects are carpet tile,” says designer Tom Palucci of design firm HOK in Chicago.

Cork, which has one of the greenest profiles of any flooring, is also gaining traction. It’s long lasting and has good acoustical properties. However, while it’s perhaps the ultimate in recycled flooring, with the material coming from the byproducts of cork stopper manufacturing, none is grown in this country, so there’s no regional materials credit.

“We’re getting a lot of requests for cork,” Galmore says. “But we haven’t seen it used in a large space. Most of what we’ve done is conference rooms and areas that don’t have high traffic.”

Polished concrete is also becoming more popular because it’s highly durable and doesn’t require the installation of flooring on top of it. In some cases it could help earn LEED points for recycled content, as well as regional materials, energy conservation and indoor air quality.

Then there are niche products. Designers like reclaimed wood and other repurposed materials. “We’ve had some fun with recycled aluminum tile floors,” Palucci says. 


Copyright 2009 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Carpet and Rug Institute, Intertech, Coverings