It's not easy building green

Look beyond labels to gauge sustainability.

Posted: September 23, 2007

That "being green" thing? Turns out it's still easier said than done, according to those who monitor the ever-widening world of home-improvement and construction products that claim to have positive effects on the environment.

Many sustainably produced goods are not readily available, these observers say, and any number of items trumpeted as being "green" are not. Even some materials that are environmentally friendly don't quite measure up.

Take cork and bamboo flooring, heralded as greener options than petroleum-based vinyl or slower-growing hardwoods. Tests by ShopSmart magazine, published by Consumer Reports, showed that these floors may not wear or retain their colors well. That could mean replacing a floor more often, resulting in more waste in a landfill. Not to mention more energy used in manufacturing and transporting the replacement flooring.

"For a natural, resilient and least-pricey green-flooring option, choose sunlight- and dent-resistant linoleum, which starts around $4 per square foot," said ShopSmart editor Lisa Lee Freeman.

Carpets have similar issues. Most are made from petroleum-based materials like nylon, so those using natural fibers or recycled synthetic materials are touted as "eco-friendlier," Freeman said. But when natural-fiber rugs are used in entryways and other high-traffic areas, dirt and moisture make them susceptible to deterioration.

Low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints are both environmentally friendly and readily available at paint stores and home centers. But some of these paints aren't as durable as paints containing organic compounds, volatile or otherwise, Freeman said.

Deborah Zimmer, paint and color expert with Rohm & Haas' Paint Quality Institute in Spring House, Montgomery County, said a typical paint can contain 10 to 20 different organic or inorganic ingredients.

"Some of the ingredients containing VOCs . . . have historically improved performance both in the can and on the wall," Zimmer acknowledged. But she added that low-VOC paints are being "reformulated to provide a long-lasting and durable finish," and that developing technology has led to these improvements.

"Raw-material manufacturers, along with paint formulators, have been working on improving VOC-compliant products for more than a decade," Zimmer said. Low-VOC paints that meet certain standards receive a label sticker from the Green Seal organization, she said; those standards are reviewed and changed over time, based on industry collaboration.

A poll of more than 1,200 U.S. homeowners conducted by the market-research firm Ipsos Reid on behalf of Icynene, an insulation manufacturer, found that 70 percent of those interviewed believe that when "companies call a home-building product 'green,' it is usually just a marketing tactic," said Sofie Hondrogiannis, a spokeswoman for the research company.

The term most often applied to such cases is green-washing. That's "claiming to be 'green' without delivering significant green benefits," said Sara Lamia, who writes books on sustainable building and is president of Building Coach Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo.

The same poll found, however, that more than one-third of the homeowners surveyed didn't clearly understand the benefit of products advertised as being green or environmentally friendly, and almost half the men surveyed said they wouldn't pay for it anyway.

And even when they did know what "green" meant, 58 percent still thought it was a marketing tactic, Hondrogiannis said.

Yet as environmental impacts and utility prices are more and more scrutinized, "homeowners are demanding more energy-efficient products and sustainable designs," said Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects.

"Structural insulation panels, geothermal heating and cooling systems, tankless water heaters, and green flooring products such as bamboo and cork are all in high consumer demand," Baker said.

Kent R. Pipes, a South Jersey developer of affordable housing, said the way he looks at sustainable building changes with growing knowledge of how systems work and the industry's evolution.

When he built his first high-efficiency house in Mount Holly in 2006, Pipes said, he used 40-foot-long panels made of polystyrene reinforced with galvanized 18-gauge steel tubes that were manufactured and had to be transported from Cleveland.

Transportation costs have a way of canceling out some of the benefits such building products offer the environment, Pipes said, adding that increased demand should eventually boost production of materials like these and result in better-located production facilities.

He suggested, for example, that Pennsylvania's recent commitment to solar energy would likely attract solar-panel producers to the state, which would help reduce costs to consumers.

When the folks planning Penn State's "solar house" entry in next month's U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon on the Mall in Washington, D.C., needed photovoltaic panels for the roof, they were able to find them in Frederick, Md., said communications project manager Gretchen Miller. (BP Solar's Frederick plant, already the largest fully integrated solar plant in North America, is being doubled in size at a cost of $97 million.)

But solar roof slates for the project had to be shipped by regular ground freight from Atlantis Energy Systems in Sacramento, Calif., she said.

Sustainability experts consider a 500-mile radius from the building site an acceptable distance, Pipes said, so his Cleveland-made panels and his high-efficiency furnace made in Canada were OK; his solar electrical-generating system, made in Michigan, was not.

"There are shades of green," Pipes said, "something that the U.S. Green Building Council recognizes by giving silver, gold and platinum awards to projects. You can say definitely that if someone wants a granite countertop and it has to travel 5,000 miles to the building site, it's not green."

Building-performance criteria that lead to council recognition include energy efficiency and comfort, achieved through a tight thermal envelope (the parts of a structure that separate the outside environment from the inside environment, such as walls and windows); smart solar design; and tight ductwork that remains within a conditioned (heated or cooled) space, Lamia said.

Pipes said he was "past being humored" by products or processes that market themselves as green and producers who are still marketing the same old stuff.

"I was at a builders show in North Carolina, and manufacturers are still pushing asphalt shingles, carpeting, and vinyl siding," he said. "There's a better way of building, but they are still handing the public the same old thing."

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or

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