Volume 16, Issue 6 - August/September 2015


It’s Not Easy Building Green …
Can We Simplify Sustainable Construction Without Sacrificing Quality?
by Dean Lewis

Many in the industry think the green movement has peaked. Despite the large market share numbers and predictions batted about, some green building programs still have a fairly small impact on our building stock.

Former Green Building Initiative president Jerry Yudelson said just this past February that green building activity in the U.S. has topped out at about 4,500-5,000 projects per year. If one assumes that the U.S. adds about one percent to the building stock (by number) each year, it’s clear we are falling behind.

The reason? Possibly simple confusion. And, well, “green fatigue.”

Code Overload

Builders can’t track all the documents, and the many programs have “done an amazing job at creating demand for a label that many people don’t even know the meaning of,” as one commentator put it.

There is a plethora of codes, standards and rating systems: IECC, ICC-700, ASHRAE 189.1, LEED, GBI Green Globes and Energy Star standards and programs have been joined by Enterprise Green Communities, UL Environment, Earthcraft, Earth Advantage and GreenPoint. There is an increasingly tortuous road to green recognition, involving such concepts and exercises as carbon footprints, Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), Product Category Rules (PCR) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

The resulting mix of requirements is not always straightforward or intuitive, and most builders struggle to do them right.

And then there is the term itself. Sensing that the conversation has grown tired, some green building pioneers have shifted their language to talk of “sustainability,” “regeneration” or “resilience.” Others speak of “ecological” or “conservationist” or “environmental.”

In addition, there has been increasing concern over the practice of “greenwashing,” i.e., over-zealous selling techniques and unsubstantiated claims of “greenness.” In 1992, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its first “Green Guides” (the most recent came out in 2012), some 200 “green” trademark applications were on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. As of September 2014, that number had risen to 10,000 active applications.

Finally, we still see evidence that biased activism is calling some of the tune, which further adds to the haze of confusion. For example, despite “material-agnostic” claims, Under-writers Laboratories Environment offers an Environmental Claim Validation process that includes a “PVC Free” criterion to validate that plastic products do not contain even detectable levels of PVC.

Keep it Simple

Basically, there’s a need to clear up the intimidating fog by simplifying, streamlining and harmonizing the process.

To be sure, this has more to do with the rating or certification process than the basic science of construction techniques. Replacing wasteful old methods is still a valid goal, but the new solutions have to be not only effective but reliable— in other words, they must pay attention to quality.

Too many “green” programs have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the product. For fenestration, performance beyond “greenness” must look at factors such as structural adequacy to withstand windloads, resistance to water leakage, air infiltration and forced entry, and in some cases, resistance to the impact of hurricane-propelled debris and blast.

Since 1947, AAMA has maintained standards for product quality based on exactly these types of parameters. Since 1962, AAMA has maintained a product-certification program that has brought meaningful transparency through product labeling—and verification through plant inspections for everyone in the distribution chain, right down to the end customer.

And should a manufacturer’s product include additional features not formatted into the official certification label, the AAMA 203 Window Inspection and Notification System (WINS) is available to provide third-party-verified notification of such features.

Architect Lance Hosey recently noted in a Green Building Advisor article: “We conserve only what we love. We don’t love something because it’s nontoxic or biodegradable—we love it because it moves the head and heart.” Attractive design and environmental good citizenship move the heart. Practicality, quality and reliability—in addition to saving money on utility bills—should certainly move the head.

Dean Lewis is educational and technical information manager for the American Architectural Manufacturers Association.


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