As worries over building component ingredients are on the rise, programs like the Living Building Challenge promote product transparency. Look for safer materials in all building typologies soon, including affordable housing—they’re not just for über-green commercial and academic structures anymore.
The building and design community has fallen in love with shiny concrete floors. We see them everywhere, from multi-million-dollar high-rise condominiums to Wal-mart stores, Harley-Davidson showrooms and elementary schools.
Some, not all, of those floors are green in two ways. One is that polished concrete surfaces eliminate the use of carpets, tiles, laminates, linoleum, hardwood, and glues— materials that end up in landfills when it’s time to replace the floor in 10 years. Second is an innovation in chemicals—lithium silicate, which reacts with concrete to harden the substrate, repel moisture, reduce dusting and resist scratching from everyday spills and traffic—makes these lustrous floors LEED v4—and LBC-ready, and compliant with architectural coating VOC content regulations across North America. Maintenance is much easier and cleaner as well.
If this proprietary concrete floors finish system (called Consolideck) continues its build in popularity, many more buildings will sport this cool look, sometimes with custom designs dyed into the concrete.
The Problem Goes Beyond Floors
But while floors catch our attention, there are an awful lot of things going on behind walls and ceilings, unseen and yet critically important. Building envelopes are getting tighter to maximize energy efficiency. As air exchange is reduced in homes and workplaces, worries mount over VOCs and other off-gassing that might adversely affect human health.
Researchers are working to solve this problem. The company that created the Consolideck concrete flooring products, PROSOCO, Inc. of Lawrence, Kansas, might seem an unlikely entry into the green building materials supply chain. But the firm illustrates an encouraging sign of manufacturer transformation beyond floors.
“We are an 80-year-old chemical company,” says David W. Boyer, president and CEO of PROSOCO. “We took on the challenge of developing greener products because we see buildings constructed with harmful materials every day, and we believe that we as an industry can do better for the environment and human health.”
The challenge Boyer references involved not just the development of a new product, but one that pushed its technical staff to check up and down the supply chain for worrisome Red List ingredients in its products. This approach has changed the way PROSOCO designs both new products and products that have been on the market for decades. It reformulated its core R-Guard line of air and water barrier products and is optimizing its Consolideck line of concrete flooring finishing products. And perhaps most important, many of its products qualify for a Declare label from the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the organization that runs the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and maintains the Red List.
Relatively new in the buildings industry, Declare is aptly described as the “nutrition label” for building materials. It requires ingredient transparency and focuses on the elimination of worst-in-class chemicals of concern, enabling designers and builders to achieve green certifications (LEED2009, LEED v4, LBC, and others) with greater ease. When a product gets a Declare label, it streamlines both the selection and certification processes.
“Declare has stimulated transformation of the construction product ecosystem,” says Dwayne Fuhlhage, the sustainability and environment director at PROSOCO who has also served on the LEED Technical Committee and Indoor Environmental Quality Technical Advisory Group with the USGBC. He says the upstream supply chain has had to root out chemicals and polymers that are known to be detrimental to human health and to come up with safer substitutes. “Project teams, users and building occupants benefit from broader availability of high-performance, low-emitting products formulated with better ingredients.”
The industry’s discovery and wider-spread adoption of healthier building products is one of the good things that came out of the recession that began in 2008, CEO Boyer says. “Only green buildings were being built at the time,” he says. Boyer anticipates building codes will increasingly require elimination of Red List materials.
Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the ILFI, firmly believes the Declare label will broadly affect the industry. “Designers and builders are thankful to have an easy to use, simple way to understand toxic ingredients in building materials,” she says. “The range of materials is now extensive enough to be a go-to source for product selection. Even if a project is not seeking Living Building Challenge certification, selecting Red List-free materials is a logical choice whenever they do not cost the client any more. Why select toxic materials when you don’t need to?”
Projects Built to Be More
Two projects in particular illustrate the application of the Red List and Declare. Seattle’s Bullitt Center, the first U.S. commercial structure certified as an LBC, was able to use PROSOCO’s R-Guard system because phthalates were removed from the formulations. The R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, was also built to LBC standards, and used R-Guard as well as Consolideck products on the multipurpose facility, opened in 2016.
According to Jason Jewhurst, principal architect (firm: Bruner/Cott & Associates) on the Kern Center, the design team experienced challenges related to material sourcing. “Much like other LBC projects, sourcing complex components and products for intricate building systems demanded a prolonged focus, attention and at times real pressures,” he says. “Architects, engineers, owners, and builders need to continue to embrace manufacturers and suppliers in the process. We all have a vested interest in transforming the building industry into a greener, healthier economy.”
Which is fine in rarified institutions. But are net-zero, shiny-floor, clean-air environments something that ordinary Americans will experience in homes, workplaces, and elsewhere? Architect Tim McDonald at the Philadelphia design-build firm Onion Flats absolutely believes that to be possible. In 2015 he successfully lobbied the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, with the support of like-minded affordable housing developers, to provide housing tax credits to builders of projects that meet the rigorous Passive House standard. The result is encouraging no matter how you look at it—it’s driving the market for making extremely energy-efficient Passive House structures within reach regardless of occupants’ economic status. McDonald estimates that within one year, more than 900 new affordable housing units will be net-zero energy-capable dwellings made with select Declare-labeled materials.
It’s the shiny floors that we notice first. But when housing authorities reduce energy consumption and honor occupant health as much as they do commercial and institutional buildings, it’s a step in the right direction indeed for greener buildings.
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