Environmental Impacts: Leave No Trace Behind

May 1, 2008

The next generation of green purchasing tools can help the A&D industry reduce its carbon footprint.

By Ellen Hall

The circle of life is, by nature, a cradle-to-grave process. All elements are harmoniously designed to nourish and replenish the Earth and its inhabitants. Yet, we human inhabitants are upsetting this ecological balance through our modern habits and lifestyles. Now, faced with depleting natural resources and global warming, we are asking ourselves: What can we do to reduce our carbon footprints personally and professionally?

As an interior design professional, you can have a profound impact on carbon footprinting by ensuring the eco-balance of buildings and interiors. Your product recommendations can have environmental and health benefits that last for decades. The most favorable time to impact a building's carbon footprint is during the initial design stage, but "green" can also be achieved during remodeling. Fortunately, designers can now refer to valid third-party resources and certification programs to assist them with eco-friendly product selection for any stage of a project.

These independent verifications are highly advantageous as manufacturers of residential and contract furnishings tend to tout the eco-friendly nature of their various lines. As a design professional, you must be able to discern "truly green" from "greenwashing." Moreover, you must integrate the understanding that just because something is recycled doesn't make it environmentally benign; rather, it is just one facet of green. To truly make sound environmental decisions and create sustainable interiors, designers must probe deeper into the impact of manufacturing, distribution and disposal-essentially taking a holistic account of a product's full life-cycle, from cradle-to-grave ... ideally from cradle-to-cradle.

Architects and designers need to understand sustainable terms, certifications, and processes so they can specify products and educate their clients with integrity. Beyond relying upon information provided by manufacturers or attempting to calculate eco-impacts yourself, you can study and come to rely upon numerous third-party verified certification programs such as Sustainable Product Standards, and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). The most scientifically robust systems rely on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) as a means of measuring environmental impacts, and the systematic, quantitative methodology of LCA is used in many sustainable product standards to measure improvements in a product's footprint over a five-year period.

Every stage of the life-cycle includes emissions and consumption of resources. A product's life-cycle starts when raw materials are extracted from the Earth-followed by manufacturing, transport, installation and use-and ends with recycling or disposal. The products interior designers select are replaced 10 times over the 50-year lifetime of most buildings in our country, so using life-cycle based tools to assess interior products can significantly influence the environment, human health and productivity.

Interior designers have a particularly strong need for efficient product evaluation and selection tools, as they specify many more products than core and shell designers. A resource such as The Green Guide to NeoCon® synthesizes product evaluation tools and certifications, facilitating the purchase of green materials and products. Rather than replacing EcoLabels and product standards, the Green Guide integrates them into one resource and helps put all environmentally friendly products on equal footing so that you can make well-informed decisions.

Enhancements and upgrades are continually being developed for LCAs to assist designers in the decision making process, notes Annette Stelmack, proprietor of INSPIRIT and former design director of Associates III. "LCA is only one tool that measures a product in guiding the decision, but should not be the end-all in the process," she states. "It is vital that we take responsibility for understanding the pros and cons around the materials that we specify, making value judgments that ultimately support the health and well-being of our clients and the planet."

To help in that understanding, the Green Guide features two important resources for design professionals: the "EcoList" of products with third-party certification of their environmental impacts; and the "EcoLibrary," a compendium of introductory and second level articles to help educate architects and designers in understanding next generation product selection tools. The primary purpose of the Green Guide is to provide designers and architects with transparent, third-party product evaluation tools that note what each does and how best to use it.

"The most important feature in product evaluation tools is transparency; that is, being able to see the process used to analyze product information," notes Ken Wilson of Envision Design. "These tools also help determine the level of ‘green-ness' a brand product has achieved relative to what is average for that industry."

Designers have a great opportunity to diminish the industry's carbon footprint by recognizing the life-cycle impacts of every project, including climate change, and by utilizing next generation product evaluation tools. By asking for third-party certification of a product's environmental performance, you'll be able to make holistic, wise purchasing decisions. In this way, you'll be influencing manufacturers positively and bringing added value to your clients. Furthermore, by taking these steps, we will begin to harmonize our professional work with building a sustainable world.

As Bill Reed of Integrative Design wisely notes, "We need to see our work with buildings and products as important opportunities to connect people deeply with the places where they work and live."

Ellen Hall is director of communications for The Green Standard. She previously spent 10 years with the San Francisco Mart, managing educational programs for interior designers, including the LIVE GREEN, LIVE WELL Expo, and editing all publications, including DESIGN LINES.

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