Flooring Decisions Involve Issues of Sustainable Content, Chemical Exposure

By Karen Kroll

From: Flooring: Flooring Decisions Involve Issues of Sustainable Content, Chemical Exposure, FacilitiesNet Re-posted with permission

Karen M. Kroll, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate and facility issues.


One primary goal in assessing the “green-ness” of building products is determining their impact on occupant health, as well as the health of the people who manufacture, install, and maintain the products. Another is evaluating the environmental impact from the moment the materials are sourced or developed, through manufacturing, distribution, and application, until the product reaches the end of its current life. The flooring industry has been a leader in improving the sustainability of its product offerings, creating ways to reclaim and reuse materials at end of life, and also in adopting more transparent product declarations. As a result, facility managers are left with a vast assortment of possibilities in the realm of flooring that are good for the environment as well as facility occupants. People and planet alike can benefit from carefully selected floors. To find the flooring product that best suits a project’s needs while also reducing impact on human health and the environment, facility managers can focus their research on several areas, such as materials use, sustainable content, chemical exposure, and third-party certifications. 

STEP 1: MATERIALS USE

One way to reduce a building’s impact on the environment is to follow the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra and use fewer materials, says Cindy Davis, director of research and information center and LEED certification with Callison Architecture. In some locations, that may mean opting for, say, polished concrete rather than a flooring system, she says. 

Along those lines, durability should be a key consideration when a flooring system is installed. “It’s equal to any other green strategy,” because it also minimizes the amount of materials used over time, Davis says. 

Similarly, carpet tile can minimize the use of materials by enabling easy replacement of just the areas that receive the greatest use, says Anica Landreneau, director of sustainable consulting with HOK. 

What a facility will do with a flooring product once it has reached end of useful life also enters into the materials-use considerations. Ideally, any materials will find a second life after they’ve been used once. For instance, a number of carpet manufacturers will take carpet that’s reached the end of its life, separate the carpet fibers from their backing, and recycle each component into carpet or other materials, Landreneau says. Some carpet materials can be recycled multiple times. More than 500 million pounds of carpet, or 14 percent of the 3.7 billion pounds of total discarded carpet, were diverted from landfills in 2013, according to the non-profit organization Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE).

Additional areas that facility managers can focus on in making a careful decision about flooring products include sustainable content and chemical exposure.

STEP 2: SUSTAINABLE CONTENT

Thinking about how materials can be disposed or reused at end of life naturally leads to considering material content in the first place. A common designation facility managers will come across is a listing of the recycled content in a product.

Flooring systems made from recycled or reclaimed material, whether old wood beams, discarded carpets, or empty soda bottles, reduce the impact on the environment that results from extracting, processing, and transporting virgin materials.

An added bonus: Some systems “are steeped in cultural history, and that can resonate with clients,” says Anthony Brower, LEED AP BD+C, sustainable design director with Gensler. For instance, wood beams reclaimed from a local landmark and incorporated within the floor of a new office building can lend it cachet, and even be a selling point with prospective tenants.

Besides recycled content, high degrees of biobased products can be desirable. Biobased products are derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They can minimize the use of materials that contain substances, such as carcinogens, shown to have harmful effects on health, Davis says. In addition, they can reduce the need for products made from petroleum, which often need to be transported from great distances.

One example is an old standby: linoleum. Its main ingredient is linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant. “It’s the most commonly used sustainable hard surface,” says Ruth Jansson, director of interiors with Leo A Daly.

Closely related to biobased content considerations is the product’s “rapidly renewable” content. LEED considers materials rapidly renewable if they’re derived from plants with a harvesting cycle of no longer than 10 years. Among the flooring products that tend to fall within this definition are cork, bamboo, and linoleum. Cork, for instance, comes from the bark of the cork oak tree. After the bark is harvested, it grows back, maintaining the health of the tree.

However, any calculation of the environmental impact of these materials needs to account for transportation, Brower points out. For instance, many of the largest concentrations of cork trees are in countries around the Mediterranean. Shipping rapidly renewable products long distances can make “the environmental calculation good for the product, bad on transportation,” he says.

STEP 3: CHEMICAL EXPOSURE

The content of flooring material also potentially has a direct, and long-term, impact on indoor environmental quality and human health exposures. When it comes to evaluating the sustainability of flooring and other building materials, “we think human health should be top of mind,” says Maria Rutland, senior marketing manager for the environment with UL Environment Inc. “It’s how the people in the space where the product is used will be impacted.”

Using low-emitting products is one of the easiest ways to contribute to a healthier indoor environment, Rutland adds. This not only benefits tenants, but can reduce the number of complaints facility managers receive.

In addition to limiting exposure through the chemistry of a flooring product, care should also be taken to avoid creating VOC exposure through the cleaning methods used. “The idea of sustainable flooring and maintenance go hand in hand,” says Juli Schroeder, senior associate and senior interior designer with Gensler. This includes the methods used to clean a floor and how frequently cleaning is required.

Some manufacturers warn that the use of harsh cleaning products may not only bring unwanted chemicals into a building, but also negatively affect how their flooring materials perform, Davis says.

A final area that facility managers can focus on in making a careful decision about “green” flooring products is third-party certifications. Following are some of them, including FSC, Cradle to Cradle, and Greenguard.

STEP 4: THIRD-PARTY CERTIFICATION

Facility managers can be forgiven if their heads spin a bit from all the facets that could be used to deem a flooring product “green.” But thankfully they don’t have to do all the homework from scratch. One way to distinguish legitimate claims of “greenness” from more questionable ones is by checking for any certifications a flooring product has earned. Certification shows that “the claim the product is making can be trusted, and the product has undergone a third-party, scientific evaluation,” Rutland says. 

Among the certifications facility managers might come across are these:

FSC Certified: The Forest Stewardship Council says its mission is to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial, and economically prosperous management of the world’s forests.” To that end, FSC has developed 10 principles for FSC-certified forests, including one on the environmental impact: “Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and, by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and the integrity of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute the forest.” 

Cradle to Cradle: The nonprofit administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard, which “covers the environmental impact of a product over its lifecycle,” Landreneau says. 

It looks at products from five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A product earns an achievement level in each category — Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum. The lowest achievement level represents the product’s overall mark. 

Product assessments are performed by qualified, independent organizations trained by the institute. “It’s a third-party certification that’s pretty rigorous,” Davis says. 

Greenguard UL Environment: One focus is certification for low-emitting products, Rutland says. This certification requires samples of products to be placed in test chambers for about seven days. During that time, the air is tested for the presence of chemicals every 24 hours. Because the chambers are operated using purified air, any off-gassing from the test products is readily apparent. The evaluators also use modeling to understand the impact a product will have in a typical building — that is, how long it will continue to off-gas after it is installed. “To achieve certification, products have to meet our strict requirements for low-levels emissions quickly,” Rutland says. 

Greenguard also conducts manufacturing reviews to document the raw material procurement process, review the manufacturing process, and gather information on what the emission sources may be, Rutland says.

Following are additional third-party certifications, including Green Seal, ANSI, and Floorscore, that can help facility managers make a careful decision about “green” flooring products.

Green Seal: Although Green Seal doesn’t certify flooring products themselves, it does certify adhesives and floor cleaning products, as well as paints, coats, and sealers, says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing. Its certification process focuses on a product’s lifecycle impact on human health due to, for instance, the presence of carcinogenic chemicals or reproductive toxins, or its corrosiveness.

The process also considers a product’s effect on environmental health by analyzing, for instance, how a product affects water quality when it goes through the drainage system, and whether the packaging is made of recycled or recyclable material.

Performance matters as well, Chipperfield says. “You can’t sell to this industry and have it not work.”

NSF International/American National Standards (ANSI): Two standards, NSF/ANSI 140, Sustainability Assessment for Carpet and NSF/ANSI 332, Sustainability Assessment for Resilient Floor Coverings, are relevant when assessing the sustainability of flooring. Both are multi-attribute standards that cover a number of green characteristics, including recycled content, the use of bio-based materials, and low VOCs, says Jenny Oorbeck, general manager, sustainability, with NSF International. They also consider the manufacturing process, and will look for, for instance, reductions in water and energy use. 

Certification to these standards “assures consumers that the environmental impacts of the flooring product were quantified and minimized at each stage of the product’s lifecycle,” including design, manufacturing, and end of life, Oorbeck says.

Floorscore. The Floorscore certification program was developed jointly by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute and Scientific Certification Systems, which is the exclusive certification body for the program. Certification shows that a product meets the VOC emissions requirements of the California Section 01350 Program. According to the CA.gov website, “Section 01350 received wide acceptance from building materials manufacturers due to its flexibility, relative low cost, and because it is the only health-based building material specification.”

Although it’s not a certification program, LEED v4, which is scheduled to become mandatory for new LEED projects in October 2016, contains several significant changes from the previous version, LEED 2009, changes that can help facility managers evaluate the environmental impact of flooring and other products. These include the Environmental Product Declaration, or EPD, and the Health Product Declaration, or HPD. With both, the first goal is greater transparency, Landreneau says. Greater transparency should lead to materials optimization, she adds.

The Environmental Product Declaration needs to include information on the environmental impact of the acquisition of raw materials, energy use and efficiency, and the materials content, among other data. The Health Product Declaration provides a standardized way of reporting the material used in building products, and the health effects associated with them, according to information from LEED.

Landreneau acknowledges that some manufacturers are leery of publicizing the ingredients that go into their products. In lieu of disclosing this information, manufacturers can obtain a Cradle to Cradle certification. This shows that the manufacturer not only disclosed the ingredients, but had them evaluated by experts. 

Facility managers looking for green flooring products have a range of options. Many perform as well as their less-green competitors, and often are available at similar prices. “Flooring is an area where we’ve seen great improvement in environmental performance,” Landreneau says. 

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