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Getting the Goods

Close collaboration between designers and contractors can help solve green product conflicts from the get-go.


By Nadav Malin

Left high and dry when Armstrong temporarily discontinued production of its biobased composition tile, the project team for the National Grid’s headquarters tenant improvement was faced with two tough options—settle for conventional vinyl composition tiles (VCTs) or upgrade to the more expensive linoleum. “It was the eleventh hour; we were well into construction when we got the news,” says Eric Lambiaso, Sasaki Associates’ project architect. Fortunately, Armstrong chose to solve the problem by providing its linoleum at a steep discount, matching the price it had previously quoted for the biobased tile.

Getting  the Goods
Image © David Plunkert
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This story had a happy ending; not all of them do. As with any entirely new product line, Armstrong faced some glitches that led to a hiatus in production (in this case, inconsistent saturation in certain deep colors, according to Lambiaso). When product lines disappear, prices fluctuate wildly, or when durability is lacking, designers, contractors, and owners can be left scrambling. Many challenges can stand in the way of getting good green products on a project, from budget issues, to performance problems, to manufacturing troubles, as with the National Grid project.

LEED and its green product criteria—such as recycled, regional, rapidly renewable, and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) levels—are often at the heart of specification and acquisition issues. While LEED can create headaches, some designers find that it can also help resolve them by putting some teeth behind requirements that might otherwise be considered dispensable. When a contractor is looking to substitute a less expensive product for the one specified, “unless we could show that a substitution was jeopardizing a LEED point, it was a hard sell,” says Lambiaso.

At Sasaki, they’ve found it works well if the contractor is managing a budget for each LEED materials credit, just as they would a cost budget. They begin by providing a materials plan showing which products will contribute to each credit, and how much. Then the contractor can take that plan and optimize it, based on cost and availability. If they can save a lot of money by dropping the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification on the doors, that’s okay, as long as they make it up with FSC millwork or flooring so that the required level of 50 percent of wood products by cost is still reached.

“Sometimes a contractor can really help by suggesting options that we didn’t know about,” says Lambiaso. They might find a panel that is both locally sourced and made with recycled content, for example. Sam Lantona, manager of preconstruction services in Texas for Turner Construction, couldn’t agree more. “In the Texas market, we have had very little issue in obtaining any materials that we need with recycled content, or produced in a 500-mile radius, or low VOCs. They’re all readily available, and at the same cost, or sometimes lower cost than non-green products,” he says. The problems arise, according to Lantona, when the designers want to “flat spec” a certain product rather than giving the contractor leeway.

The poor economy has not only made projects more cost-conservative; it has also made them more risk-averse with materials in general, says Deborah Fuller, Sustainable Knowledge Leader for HOK’s Dallas office. Fuller notes that she is focused more than ever on long-term durability and reliability, in response to owner’s concerns.

New products without a proven track record are a durability concern—but so are commodity products in a poorly regulated industry. Many projects have had problems with bamboo flooring that doesn’t hold up to the force of women’s high heels, for example. “You don’t always get the same hardness factor,” notes Fuller, who tries to stick to bamboo suppliers she knows by experience or reputation.

Designers at Sasaki have taken to running their own informal tests of product samples. They tested eight different solid-surface materials for staining with common foods like red wine and coffee, for example, and found that many of them failed miserably. “If it’s not a material that holds up from a durability or maintenance standpoint, it’s not sustainable,” notes Lambiaso.

For a comprehensive approach to sustainability in product choices going beyond LEED, there are an increasing number of certification programs that cover not just a single attribute, such as indoor emissions, but the entire range of factors. Getting a product certified against such a comprehensive standard is not quick or cheap, however, so many of these programs have only a handful of certified products, making it difficult to allow for possible equivalents as substitutions.

Designers and builders seeking a more robust list of products that have been screened based on multiple attributes can look to independent resources like the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project or BuildingGreen’s GreenSpec Directory (disclosure: the author works for BuildingGreen). These product libraries are not supported by manufacturer fees, but instead by user memberships.

This article appeared in the March 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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