Green building products and materials
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Selection of environmentally preferable products and materials is an important step in sustainable building. Finishes and materials should have low toxicity to protect indoor air quality. Energy-efficient products are key to meeting green building objectives and balancing integrated systems. Recycled products should be used whenever possible to conserve natural resources. Sustainably harvested products help protect natural ecosystems.
The federal government defines environmentally preferable products as goods that have a lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared to competing products that serve the same purpose. Environmentally preferable attributes include reduced toxicity, the use of recycled materials, and increased energy efficiency.
Minnesota Building Materials Database: A Tool for Selecting Sustainable Materials
This online database is a vehicle to document, evaluate, and disseminate information on sustainable materials, products, systems, and services for the commercial and residential building construction industry in Minnesota. The database uses lifecycle thinking to analyze sourcing, health, end of use, LCA tools, properties, and costs. Products that reflect the industy standard are compared with those that exhibit improvement over this standard ("good") or reflect significant advancements in environmental, economic and social performance ("better").
Where to find green building products
Where to find products for building green 2011 (w-hhw1-26.pdf)
Green building looks at the whole house and how systems interrelate, including impacts on the health and comfort of occupants. Choosing products is an important part of the process.
Some green building products have measurable benefits for homeowners, such as using less electricity or not off-gassing formaldehyde. Others have attributes that likely reduce their impact on the environment, such as recycled content or local manufacture. Selecting products with multiple benefits and attributes is the best approach.
Last updates Fall 2011
Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide
The Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Guide (EPPG) is a reference tool for Minnesota government and school purchasers who want to make wiser purchasing choices. It will help you find ways to reduce workplace hazards, consume less energy, and protect natural resources by identifying environmentally preferable alternatives in 16 green building product areas and building services. Information on cost and performance is included, as well as identifying places where you can find these products.
Product standards and certifications
A number of organizations have developed standards or criteria for evaluating environmentally preferable products. Many of these organizations test or certify the products.
ASTM International: Sustainability in the Buildings Industry: How ASTM Standards are Addressing the Trend
This August 2001 Standardization News article includes contains links to ASTM International's Subcommittee on Sustainability and two new sustainability standards.
Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines (U.S. EPA)
The federal Environmental Protection Agency uses the CPG to designate items that must contain recycled materials when purchased by federal, state and local agencies, or government contractors, using appropriated federal funds. The CPG include 8 product categories and are updated every two years. The EPA also issues guidelines recommending levels of recycled content for these items.
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network
The U.S. Department of Energy site provides detailed information about building topics including the building envelope, space heating and cooling, water heating, lighting, appliances, office equipment, and building electrical equipment.
In 1992, Energy Star was introduced by the U.S. EPA as a voluntary labeling program identifying and promoting energy-efficient products. It has expanded to cover new homes, most of the buildings sector, residential heating and cooling equipment, major appliances, office equipment, water coolers, lighting and more.
To facilitate access to FSC-certified wood products, the Rainforest Alliance offers the 50-page SmartGuide to Green Building Wood Sources (4.5Mb). Product categories include cabinets & casework, decking, doors & windows, engineered wood, exterior applications, flooring, framing lumber, millwork, office furniture, and plywood. Information is compiled from a number of sources, including FSC, SmartWood, and Metafore databases, individual source interviews, and company Web sites.
The Forest Certification Resource Center has information about the various North American forest certification systems, a tool to confirm the certification status of specific companies, and a product database searchable on a variety of criteria (certification program, product, species, supply chain position, supplier locations, and supplier name).
GREENGUARD™ Product Guide
Products listed by Greenguard have been tested according to stringent environmental chamber testing protocols, and meet current requirements of the U.S. EPA, the state of Washington, U.S. Green Building Council, and Germany's Blue Angel ecolabel. A new standard for Children & Schools sets emissions criteria for building materials, furnishings, finishes, and cleaning products to be used in school and daycare facilities, including a "body burden" correction factor and a limit on phthalate emissions.
Green Label Plus (Carpet and Rug Institute)
CRI has created an independent testing program to certify products that meet or exceed the standards of California 01350 and Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) for indoor air quality for low-emitting materials in commercial settings. Carpets undergo a 14-day testing process to measure emission levels of 13 chemicals. The site contains a list of Green Label Plus approved carpet products and a fact sheet about the program.
Green Seal is an independent, nonprofit organization that sets environmental standards. Companies pay to have their products tested, and a "Green Seal of Approval" certification is given to products that cause less harm to the environment.
Master Painters Institute Green Performance Standard
MPI's Green Performance Standard (GPS 1-05) contains a list of banned ingredients and sets a maximum allowable level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for each paint category. In most cases, the VOC thresholds match the strictest of the guidelines in widespread use. Conformance with GPS 1-05 requires a paint to meet MPI’s performance standard for its category and conform to the green requirements. MPI relies on manufacturer data for its green certification. The American Institute of Architect's MasterSpec references MPI as its primary performance specification for paint. The website includes a Green Approved Product List.
Scientific Certification Systems (SCS)
The SCS environmental division certifies a wide variety of claims related to environmental achievement in the product manufacturing and natural resource extraction sectors. Specific product attributes, such as recycled content and biodegradability, are certified under the Environmental Claims Certification program. SCS also certifies broader claims of environmentally preferability, considering the full product life-cycle.
Life-cycle assessment tools
Life-cycle analysis (LCA) helps decisionmakers realistically assess the cost of a product by taking into account the environmental impacts of extraction, transportation, manufacture, lifespan, maintenance and disposal. LCA is controversial because it is so difficult to quantify these issues accurately and compare them across product categories. The following links offer important assessment tools, but purchasing decisions should not be based solely on the analysis of any one model or source of information.
The Athena Institute offers the only tools in North America for the life cycle assessment of whole buildings and assemblies:
- The ATHENA® Impact Estimator for Buildings allows users to evaluate whole buildings and assemblies based on internationally recognized LCA methodology. Using Athena's widely-acclaimed databases, the Estimator simulates over 1,000 different assembly combinations and is capable of modeling 95% of the building stock in North America.
- The ATHENA® EcoCalculator for Assemblies provides instant LCA results for more than 400 common building assemblies. Developed in association with the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Building Research, the tool was commissioned by the Green Building Initiative™ (GBI) for use with the Green Globes™ environmental assessment and rating system. Because of its value as an indicator of climate change impacts, GBI supported creation of a generic version for use by the entire sustainable design community. Free download, but registration is required.
Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) software: v4.0 now available!
BEES is a powerful technique for selecting cost-effective, environmentally preferable building products using the internationally standardized and science-based life-cycle assessment approach specified in ISO 14040 standards. Version 4.0 of the Windows-based decision support software, aimed at designers, builders, and product manufacturers, includes actual environmental and economic performance data for 230 building products. The new version has been adapted for application to biobased products. Free download, but registration is required.
BEES was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Building and Fire Research Laboratory with support from the U.S. EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program.
Find products with recycled content
The Recycling Association of Minnesota has two free Recycled Products Guides listing recycled products and where to purchase them. The Business Edition lists sustainable building products under Construction and Remodeling, Furniture, Janitorial, and Property Services. In the Consumer Edition, sustainable building products are listed under categories like Building Products, Decorating/Painting, Flooring, Furniture, Household, Landscape, Lawn & Garden, and Web & Mail Ordering. The RAM web site also has a Home and Garden page with more ideas and resources for sustainable building.
The Minnesota Recycled Products Directory includes building products made with recycled materials in Minnesota and lists vendors that carry these products. Look under "Construction Products," "Landscaping" and "Signage" to start using this searchable online database.
California's Recycled-Content Product Database is searchable by product, manufacturer, and CSI specifications. This is an extensive database of recycled-content building products manufactured in the U.S. and abroad.
Recycled building product examples
- Recycled Glass Tiles and Pavers
- Recycled Latex Paint
- Plastic Lumber and Outdoor Furnishings
- Build-It-Recycled-Trailer (BIRT) Demonstration Project
Additional web sites and resources
- Environmental Building News
An excellent source of information about green building products.
- The Green Architect
McGraw Hill Construction's Architectural Record includes current and past articles on green building. Click on "Products" for the Green Product Guide, an easy-to-use product list organized by CSI categories.
- Green Building Materials Virtual Sample Room
- Guide to Materials & Supplies (University of Wisconsin Extension) | 200Kb
This listing includes green structural and interior building materials and many of the Wisconsin retailers that carry them. Compiled by the Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center (April 2002).
- Healthy Building Network
An excellent resource for health-related product information. Extensive information on PVC/vinyl and arsenic. The Healthcare Specifications page includes Key Questions for Environmentally Preferable Flooring Selection.
- OIKOS Green Building Gallery
- Sustainable Design Resource Guide
Although this product directory, organized by CSI categories, is intended to be Colorado-specific, it lists companies located throughout the U.S. that manufacture environmentally preferable building products.
- Sustainable Products Standards
Contains links to a diverse array of products standards and economic benefits criteria compiled by the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability.
- Wood for Building Green: A Practical Guide
Metafore, a non-profit member of the Sustainable Forest Products Global Alliance (which includes the World Wildlife Fund), has developed this 32-page guide for architects, designers, developers, and builders. Topics covered include salvaged wood, recycled-content wood products, certified wood, strategies for specifying products, and resources for achieving wood-related green building program credits. The guide also identifies additional opportunities for specifying and sourcing wood products in innovative ways that support healthy communities and forest ecosystems throughout the world.