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Materials and Products

Interior Design and Global Impacts


Materials and Products Interior Design and Global Impacts 2006 ONE OF FIVE PAPERS ON TOPICS IN


Other papers in the series

Indoor Air Quality Selling Green Beyond Interior Design Reference Guide

Research/Writing Team

Kirsten Childs, ASID, LEED AP Cris Argeles, 7 group Holley Henderson, H2 Ecodesign, LLC Scot Horst, 7 group Nadav Malin, BuildingGreen, Inc.


Tristan Roberts and Allyson Wendt, BuildingGreen, Inc.

Design and Layout

Julia Jandrisits, BuildingGreen, Inc.

Graciously sponsored by

Lightolier® Steelcase® TOTO® Tricycle VISTA® Wilsonart® Laminate

© 2006 American Society of Interior Designers 608 Massachusetts Ave., NE Washington, DC 20002-6006

All rights reserved. This publication, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the American Society of Interior Designers.

Printed in the United States of America.

Table of Contents





Using Life-cycle Assessment


Holistic Strategies


Attributes of Materials


Selection of Materials


Finding Reliable Information


Creating a Green Library












  • 1 Introduction and Overview of Key Concepts

We depend on building materials to create and condition the spaces in which

we live, work and do business. From structures of wood, steel and concrete, to surface finishes and furniture, a complete list of materials used in any building would go on for many pages, yet most people give those materials very little thought. Even when selecting materials, designers and consumers both usually are more aware of aesthetic and cost considerations than what a material con- tains or where it came from.

What if that same list of materials could be laid out in raw physical form before us—piles of Portland cement for concrete, silica for windows, timber for wood products, and so on? And what if we could add to that pile of building materials essential material inputs, such as barrels of oil or mountains of coal used for energy in manufacturing and transportation, and chemicals used in the factory? What if we also included the mountains of byproducts, such as mine tailings from iron ore production, that are discarded during production? What if we could see before us, in addition to this mammoth pile, the entire physical impact of materials extraction, such as massive open copper mine pits or clear- cut forests?

Building materials choices take on more significance when we consider all of those factors that we don’t normally see while sitting at our desks or dining room tables. The gigantic scale of this exercise also takes on more meaning for human health and the life of the planet if we consider, in addition, the actual environmental and human health effects of pro- duction, installation and use of these building materials.

While many have researched and written about these poten- tially mind-boggling considerations, the goal of this paper is to make the most common environmental and human health considerations about building materials accessible for the designer who wants to make informed choices that meet project goals for sustainability.

INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW OF KEY CONCEPTS 3 1 Introduction and Overview of Key Concepts We depend

Economic growth over the past century led to dramatic growth in materials consumption in the United States, punctuated by economic downturns and world wars. Note that “construction materials” refers to stone, sand and gravel—other materials used in construction are included within the other categories.

Source: “Consumption of Materials in the United States, 1900-1995” by Grecia Matos and Lorie Wagner, U.S. Geological Survey; Annual Reviews of Energy and the Environment, 23, 107-122, 1998.

A practical, sustainable approach to materials choices can improve the environ- mental performance of each and every project, from a kids playroom to a major office tower, no matter what the chosen aesthetic or style. Through a better understanding of the use of environmentally sustainable materials, all interior designers can bring added value and long-term benefits to their projects, while enhancing their own professional practice.

Consumers are often asked to make decisions based on a vague or incomplete understanding of a product’s features and how they compare with those of other products. The interior designer who “shops” for materials based on environmen- tal and human health concerns is in this same situation. While there is a ten- dency in sustainable design to view materials as “green” or not green, this kind of view is usually limited. Should a manufacturer’s claims always be taken at face value? Should a product that uses renewable resources be used if it has to be shipped over a long distance, thereby increasing air pollution?

As with many other complex topics, a set of common assumptions or preferences has arisen to make the environmental aspects of certain materials, products and



Whether it is explicit or implicit, every approach that considers materials from an environmental perspective uses some form of life-cycle analysis or life-cycle assessment (LCA). 1

processes more accessible. For example, because waste is a tangible concern, specifying products with recycled content has become a common environmen- tal choice. While making such single-issue choices is often better than ignoring environmental concerns, incorporating a variety of attributes when comparing products can result in a much more nuanced understanding of choices and a much more robust environmental benefit.

Life-cycle Assessment is an analytic method that incorporates a wide range of considerations into the decision-making process, making it much more compre- hensive than simple single-issue assessment. Discussed in greater detail below, LCA has been used for many years and offers an exciting tool for designers. It is a young field, however, so both the science itself and the tools available to design- ers for applying this science are evolving quickly.

In addition to selection of materials using LCA, the designer can employ a variety of strategies for mitigating the environmental and health effects of building, including choosing appropriate materials for the specific needs of a space, using various strategies to reduce the amount of materials required, pursuing a design strategy that accounts for the changing needs of occupants, and choosing materials based on their environmental performance at the end of their useful lives.

This paper will consider all of these strategies in greater detail, and will also ex- amine various specific environmental and health attributes that a designer may want to consider when selecting materials, including recycled content, salvaged or refurbished content, use of rapidly renewable materials, location of extraction and manufacture, green certification of materials, and toxic content and expo- sure risk.

From there, we will look at how designers can choose materials, from setting project goals to researching various alternatives to finding reliable information from manufacturers and other sources.

  • 2 Materials/Products and Sustainable Design

LCA is defined by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) as “a compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle.” 2

Using Life-cycle Assessment

Life-cycle assessment is a holistic method for assessing the performance of prod- ucts and processes across a broad spectrum of environmental considerations, and for establishing and understanding trade-offs among different environmental impacts. Although interpretation of LCA results can be highly dependent on the goals of a project, LCA itself is a scientific methodology with established interna- tional standards and growing use worldwide.




LCA depends on the accurate collection of data about a material throughout its lifecycle, from its unprocessed or virgin state to its potential disposal or reuse at the end of its useful life. This tracking process is known as life cycle inventory (LCI). LCI data quantifi es the energy and material inputs and outputs associated with a specifi c material or process.

The life cycle of building materials is typically segmented into four stages.

  • 1. Cradle to gate. This stage includes all of the impacts of the harvesting or ex-

traction of raw materials, such as iron ore for steel, bauxite for aluminum, timber for wood products, or recycled or recovered materials from other production processes up to the point when the fi nished material or product leaves a manufac- turing facility. Assessment analysis considers a wide variety of impacts, includ- ing energy use from harvesting, extraction, transportation and manufacturing; contamination of air, water and soil; use of deleterious chemicals and processes that aff ect human health and well-being; and disruptions to the earth, such as strip-mining or clear-cutting.

  • 2. Construction. This stage covers the material from when it leaves its manu-

facturing facility to when it is installed in a building, ready for the occupant to

enjoy. Potential impacts include transportation, installation costs of the material, emissions from the material during construction, and emissions or other impacts of construction processes used to install the material.

  • 3. Use. Impacts that occur during the use of the material or product itself are

monitored in this stage. Impacts can include off -gassing or other emissions from

the material, and energy expended and emissions generated by cleaners and systems used to maintain the material or product.

  • 4. End of life. This stage tracks the impacts that occur when the material or

product reaches the end of its usable life, whether it is recycled for remanufac- turing, salvaged for reuse, or disposed of in a landfi ll or through incineration. Through each life-cycle stage, the impact of a material or product is character- ized using a set of impact categories, such as those identifi ed by the U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency in its Tools for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemi- cal and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI).

» Ozone depletion » Global warming » Acidifi cation » Eutrophication

» Photochemical smog » Human Health – Cancer » Human Health – Noncancer » Ecotoxicity » Fossil fuel use

» Land use » Water use


The process by which bodies of water are choked and starved of oxygen and light by algae and other plants, due to excessive concentra- tions of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. Typical sources include fertilizer runoff and poorly managed wastewater treatment systems, frequently including home septic systems.


Generally, harmful eff ects produced in the environment by chemical residues, leachate or volatile gases during production or degradation of manufactured materials. Specifi cally, the measured levels at which toxins cause harm to organisms.



LCA analysis tools, such as TRACI, typically crunch numbers to arrive at their conclusions. With some data, such as fossil fuel use, this approach can be straightforward and transparent. But some information, such as land use, is not so easily quantifiable for several reasons. Data may be incomplete, it may not accurately reflect the complexities of the impact or it may assign somewhat arbi- trary numerical values in order to compare two distinct impacts. Therefore, LCA tools can be used successfully to represent complexities of material impacts in relationship to the environment, but they should not provide final answers.

LCA in Practice

Different LCA tools emphasize different aspects of the design process. Manufac- turers use sophisticated LCA software, such as GaBi and SimaPro, to improve their products. Potential changes to a product or process, such as substituting a different raw material, can be modeled so that a manufacturer can identify po- tential environmental costs or benefits of a change in design. Interior designers are not likely to use this software but they benefit from its use by manufacturers.

A second type of LCA tool, found in two software programs with embedded LCI data, can be used by designers to select building materials. These two tools are the Athena Environmental Impact Estimator (EIE) and Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES).

For more information about EIE, visit the Athena Institute’s Web site:

Athena Environmental Impact Estimator

The Environmental Impact Estimator, developed by the Athena Institute, is designed primarily to evaluate the impacts of structural and envelope build- ing materials and is unlikely to be used by interior designers except when the client is interested in understanding the life-cycle impacts of the whole building. EIE allows an engineer to model and alter aspects of the building design and to evaluate the environmental impacts of different materials.


Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability, developed by the Na- tional Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is an LCA tool for evaluating and comparing common products, including those used by interior designers. Product categories covered in BEES include floor coverings, partitions, and inte- rior and exterior finishes. The impact categories and methodologies used in BEES are based on those used by TRACI, as shown on page 5, and BEES also incorpo- rates an economic component.

BEES allows a designer to set parameters for comparing product attributes and to choose weights for each impact category. The model then provides a score for a product and chosen alternatives. Scores can be viewed in a number of ways, including by impact category and by flow, with a lower score signifying better environmental performance.

In the following example, two types of carpet are compared: a nylon broadloom carpet with low-VOC adhesive and a wool broadloom carpet with low-VOC adhe- sive. All impact categories are given equal weight.

With all the impact categories equally weighted, the wool carpet shows a lower overall environmental impact compared to the nylon carpet. Differences between the two products in specific impact categories may be greater or smaller. In this example the difference in eutrophication is especially large, while the band for



MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 7 You can download a free copy of BEES at oae/software/bees.html.

You can download a free copy of BEES at oae/software/bees.html.

global warming shows higher impacts for the wool carpet in that one category. This example illustrates the trade-offs in material decisions that go beyond mere number crunching. If instead of giving all categories equal weight, global warm- ing was considered on its own, then nylon carpet becomes the better choice.

In the figure below, the scores are broken down by life cycle stage rather than impact category. As for many materials, for both of these carpet types, the raw materials acquisition portion of the lifecycle has the greatest environmental impact. By using BEES in this way, a designer has more information to make an informed product choice.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 7 You can download a free copy of BEES at oae/software/bees.html.

Limitations of LCA

There remain a number of limitations of using LCA to make materials decisions, including limitations within the science itself, as well as limitations on the avail- ability of data in usable forms for the design community. As the examples demon- strate, LCA tools can be extremely valuable in some cases. In others, the process does not yet incorporate enough true measurements of real environmental im- pacts to be useful. However, any interior designer can take from LCA the concept of life-cycle thinking, a critically important approach to selecting materials for an environmentally informed project.

Holistic Strategies

The innovative designer can incorporate life-cycle thinking into material selection in a number of ways that go beyond the use of LCA tools. All of these concepts ap-



8 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS Specifying a polished concrete floor, like

Specifying a polished concrete floor, like this one at the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Kirkland, Wash., helps reduce the use of materials.

Photo: RetroPlate

ply to a small home design project, as well as to a large commercial interior.

Many sustainable design considerations are simply common sense. For example, many families move every few years, or even more often, and a new resident is likely to replace the carpet or paint the walls. No matter how new or little worn a carpet may be, it is often replaced prior to the end of its useful life. Especially for buildings with frequent changes of owner or tenant, increasing the use of more permanent flooring materials, such as hardwood or quarry tile that only need to be refinished from time to time, may be a more sustainable choice, reducing unnecessary waste.

The designer may also consider how materials are matched to the way a space actually is used. For instance, a harder, more cleanable surface makes sense in an entryway area that is subject to heavy foot traffic and mud, water and detritus from the outdoors. In some cases, a designer may consider combining surfaces

for increased sustainability and durability. For example, ceramic tile may have a greater environmental impact than an alternative surface, such as linoleum, and yet tile may be a more durable and cleanable surface for a certain space, such as around a kitchen sink. The designer may consider using the tile only in the specific area where it is needed, and surrounding it with linoleum or another low-impact material. In this way, sustainable thinking can provide a greater vocabulary in terms of both design and materials for the designer or client who wants to lessen their environmental impact.

Material Use Reduction

To paraphrase an adage from the sustainable buildings field, the greenest material is the one that is never installed, and designers can greatly reduce the environmental impact of an installation by simply using fewer materials.

At the level of the whole building, material use reduction can be accomplished by “recycling” existing structures rather than undertaking new construction—an approach that may create exciting opportunities for the innovative designer. In general, when modifying an existing interior, the designer can attempt to save portions of the existing interior installation, such as walls, ceilings and hard floor- ing materials, minimize the use of finishing materials, and simply reuse materials, including furniture and furnishings.

Reducing the use of materials

» Reduce layers in flooring – consider using polished concrete where acoustics are not of concern, or refinishing a residential wood floor rather than covering or replacing it.

» In commercial projects, consider leaving ceilings unfinished in non-critical spaces, rather than installing drywall or acoustical ceiling tile. This strategy can be successfully paired with building design approaches, such as using daylight and access floors.

» Consider incorporating visible portions of the building’s structure into the interior space as design elements, rather than covering them with additional materials.

» Sheet materials, such as drywall and plywood, come in standard sizes, usually 4 x 8 feet or 5 x 10 feet. Design the project dimensions to take advantage of product sizes to reduce material waste.

» Maximize materials conservation through partial reuse of the existing instal-



lation during renovation projects. In addition, encourage owners to reuse furniture and flooring, or purchase reused or refurbished furniture.

» Modular carpeting allows for worn or damaged areas to be changed out with- out replacing the entire installation.

Long Life/Loose Fit Approach

Designing buildings to be effective over longer periods of time means that new or additional spaces may not be needed as occupant needs change. In this way, sustainable design can mean more than conserving materials; it can mean avoid- ing the replacement of entire buildings. Effective design and division of interior space becomes a key consideration for sustainable design.

Designing interiors to accommodate future uses

» Design multipurpose spaces that allow for adaptability, both for future uses and for several uses by the same occupants.

» Use modular design to foster adaptability.

» Open space is inherently adaptable; therefore, limit the use of permanent partitions. However, in situations where noise or privacy may be a factor, open space can make a space less usable and increase other costs, so always consider the needs of the client.

» If partitions are used, utilize non-load bearing, modular and semi-permanent partitions so the space can be reconfigured without major construction.

» Use modular or systems furniture, which allows for ongoing reconfigura- tion of space without major disruption to the permanent interior layout and electrical/mechanical distribution systems. Modular furniture also addresses changing office needs, or “churn,” which can affect as much as 60 percent of a typical corporate staff on an annualized basis. This kind of system can be even more efficient when used together with an access floor system.

» Employ a “universal design” approach, in which designing for handicapped ac- cessibility in a residential or corporate space takes the potential future needs of an aging population into account. 3

End of Life Considerations

Considering the eventual end of the building or interior’s useful life during the design process and during the selection of materials can result in significant ben- efits economically and environmentally. Potential environmental benefits include reducing the impacts of resource depletion, manufacture of new materials and disposal in landfills. Since all these impacts have economic costs, these benefits also can save money, as well as suggest new design possibilities for the innovative interior designer.

How can the designer incorporate these considerations?

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Carrying capacity of 1,500 employees

23%–30% of offices are recon- figured annually

n Standard building with conventional design and construction

Cost to move:


1,500 employees

x.25 employees


x $2,500 =


n High-performance alternative with access flooring (power and data in floor, individual adjustable HVAC, no demoli- tion or construction)

Cost to move:


High performance

1,500 employees

x.25 employees


x $250 =


Savings of $843,750

(exceeds annual energy cost for building)

» Design assemblies, such as walls and millwork, so that they do not need adhe- sives and joint compounds and can be disassembled with a screwdriver rather than a wrecking ball.

» Utilize products, such as carpet and ceiling tile, that have manufacturer take- back programs.




Steel scrap is fed into an electric arc furnace using an overhead hopper during the recycling process.

Photo: Steel Recycling Institute

» Select products that can be salvaged or reconfigured in the future, such as component-based furniture systems and moveable partitions.

» Select products made with materials that can recycled again and again, such as steel, aluminum and certain types of carpet fibers.

» Select biodegradable products, such as certain agrifiber boards and natural or vegetable oil-based fibers.

» Select furniture and other interior components that owners can reuse in a dif- ferent interior.

» Select systems furniture that can be refurbished and repurchased.

Attributes of Materials

Comprehensive and specific environmental information about materials and products should always be a consideration when selecting materials. Some attributes, such as recycled content, apply to many different materials and can provide an accessible window into their relative environmental qualities.

Recycled Content

Often the most commonly used indicator of an environmentally preferable char- acteristic in materials selection, recycled materials are those that, after their useful life, are reprocessed or remanufactured and either used again in their original capacity or in a different product.


The EPA’s Comprehensive Procure- ment Guidelines may also be use- ful in providing target recycled content.

In principle, the most sustainable form of recycling is “closed-loop recycling,” or maintaining the quality of the material at its highest and best use, as opposed to “down cycling,” or using a material to make a product of decreased value, or mixing it with other materials so that it cannot be separated again. The benefit of using materials with recycled content is that fewer “virgin,” or raw materials, are extracted and fewer used materials are landfilled. However, recycling carries its own environmental impacts that must be considered.

There are two primary types of recycled content: post-consumer and pre-consum- er. Post-consumer generally refers to materials diverted from the waste stream after consumer use, and pre-consumer, or post-industrial, refers to waste gener- ated during a manufacturing process before the material is used by a consumer. A designer may want to or be asked to establish recycled content guidelines for a project, and the LEED ® Rating System, which credits certain levels of recycled content, provides one such set of guidelines.

Many manufacturers publish recycled content information for their products, but the reliability of such information varies. ISO Standards and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines detail how recycled content must be defined and determined, but not all manufacturers or manufacturers’ representatives may be using those guidelines. The designer should use only published or printed data from the manufacturer. If this data is not available, request a letter of affidavit from the manufacturer, signed by a senior officer of the company, stating the amount of each type of recycled content contained in the product in question. The designer can also rely on recycled content information that is certified by a third party, such as Scientific Certification Systems.

In some instances, the terms recyclable and recycled content are confused. The FTC defines a product as recyclable if it can be recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program. Not all manufacturers use this



definition, so there may not be programs in place to recycle products that are termed recyclable. Furthermore, recyclable products do not necessarily contain recycled content.

What are examples of common interior products that may contain recycled content?

» Drywall » Ceiling tile » Insulation » Carpet and carpet tile » Resilient flooring » Metal components » Furniture » Fabrics » Tile » Wallcovering

» Composite wood-based products. Many are made from sawmill waste, a pre-consumer recycled material.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 11 definition, so there may not be programs in place to recycle

One way to reduce material usage is to specify products with recycled content, such as the resin-impregnated fiber panels used here in a countertop.

Photo: Stelle Danes

The following questions may be useful to designers seeking information from manufacturers:

» What is the percentage of post-consumer and pre-consumer recycled content of the product?

» How was the recycled content determined?

» Is there documentation from a third-party certification organization that veri- fies the recycled content percentages?

» Would you be willing to provide a letter of affidavit confirming the amounts of recycled content?

» Can the product be recycled at the end of its useful life through established channels?

Salvaged and Refurbished Materials

Utilizing materials that have been salvaged during building deconstruction or renovation is another way to reduce the amount of materials going to landfill and to avoid the use of virgin materials. Salvaged materials also reduce the energy costs and other environmental impacts of recycling and remanufacturing. Sal- vageable materials can be reused with little or no modification and often can be reused in a number of ways, including being refurbished for the same application or being reworked for use in a different application. Salvaged materials can also be used as memorabilia or in a creative/decorative manner. LEED gives credit for achieving a threshold of salvaged material use.

Common examples of salvaged material for interior applications include

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 11 definition, so there may not be programs in place to recycle

Salvaged materials can often be used in place of new ones, as with these salvaged slate countertops.

Photo: Scot Horst



12 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS Products made from salvaged mate- rials,

Products made from salvaged mate- rials, like this staircase constructed with reclaimed douglas fir, help reduce both the use of new materials and the creation of waste.

Photo: Solid Wood Products

» Wood-salvaged timber is often reprocessed into flooring and structural timbers. » Brick. » Furniture and built-in casework.

» Plumbing and lighting fixtures. Older fixtures may need to be upgraded for energy and water efficiency, however.

» Architectural details, such as millwork, mantles, woodwork, hardware and staircases.

Rapidly Renewable Materials

Rapidly renewable materials, such as bamboo and wool, can replace themselves within a 10-year growing cycle through agriculture or forestry. Products made from rapidly renewable sources are becoming more widely available for many interior applications, offering the environmental benefit of decreasing demands on non-renewable materials.

Reduction of agricultural waste is a further benefit of some renewable materials. Materials, such as wheatstraw that might commonly be burned or used as ani- mal bedding, are being used for interior products, saving energy and reducing pollution. LEED awards credit for meeting a threshold of rapidly renewable material use.

12 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS Products made from salvaged mate- rials,

Bamboo, like that shown here grow- ing in China’s Zhejiang province, grows quickly and is considered a rapidly renewable resource.

Photo: Teragren, LLC

Examples of rapidly renewable resources include

» Wheatstraw

» Corn stalks » Polylactide (PLA) (made from corn starch) » Cork » Bamboo » Sunflower seed hulls » Soybeans » Wool » Linen » Silk » Ramie » Linseed oil » Quick-release vegetable oils

These materials are being used in many ways, including

» Flooring — cork, bamboo, and linoleum made from linseed oil. » Fabrics and carpets made from wool or PLA.

» Particleboards and medium-density fiberboards (MDFs) made with wheat- straw are used in cabinetry, furniture, millwork, case goods and flooring




» Biocomposite panels made with soybeans and sunflower seed hulls can be used for interior finish applications, such as paneling, counters and cabinets.

Material Manufacture and Extraction Location

Using materials that are extracted or harvested and manufactured close to the project site reduces the energy use and pollution caused by transportation, and provides economic support to the local community. For example, rather than using wood species and stone products that are imported, consider using locally harvested or extracted products. As with other sustainable design practices, the creative designer can find inspiration in working with a more local palette of ma- terials. The use of materials that are both manufactured and extracted within 500 miles of a project site can earn points in the LEED Rating System.

Certified Wood

Specification of wood or wood products that originate from sustainably managed forests minimizes the environmental impact of the use of wood and protects forest resources. Wood that comes from sustainably managed forests is referred to as “certified wood” when it has been certified by an independent third-party organization. While there are several certification systems in use in the United States and Canada, the only program currently recognized by the LEED Rating System is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC has established rigor- ous, international guidelines that support not only sustainable environmental practices, but also rights of indigenous peoples and labor rights. The FSC ac- credits independent certifiers, including SmartWood and Scientific Certification Systems, to certify forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products.

Chain-of-custody certification is also necessary to ensure that wood products being specified are FSC-certified. Manufacturers of FSC-certified wood products, including furniture makers, must obtain chain-of-custody certification to show that they have procedures in place to track wood from certified forests and avoid mixing it with non-certified wood. Useful Web sites for locating certified wood products are and FSC-certified wood is commonly available at retailers, including Home Depot.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 13 underlayment. » Biocomposite panels made with soybeans and sunflower seed hulls

Manufacturers of FSC-certified wood furniture, like the modular office system shown here, must show that they are able to track the wood through its chain of custody.

Photo: Knoll, Inc.

As better forestry practices and wider acceptance of FSC and other certifica- tion programs improve the availability of certified wood products, the interior designer has growing options for the integration of certified wood into projects of all types.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

An important consideration for indoor air quality is the chemical content of materials and their associated installation products. This topic is discussed more fully in the ASID Indoor Air Quality white paper. The designer’s goal should be to reduce the use of harmful chemicals that can affect air quality in interior spaces.

The most common concern for interior materials is the presence of volatile organic compounds. VOCs are found in many interior materials, including adhesives and sealants, paints and coatings, carpet, resilient flooring materials, furniture, wallcoverings and textiles. VOC and other chemical content informa- tion can be determined using manufacturers’ technical data sheets, material safety data sheets (MSDS) or from manufacturers’ printed data. The LEED Rating System references a number of national standards that limit the acceptable VOC




volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Compounds that turn into vapors at room temperature, contributing to human health risks, smog and atmospheric ozone depletion.

content and list banned or restricted chemicals that are recognized as having a potentially negative eff ect on human health for many common interiors materials such as paints and coatings.

How can VOCs be minimized?

» Obtain all relevant manufacturers’ data and review for harmful chemicals.

» Use recognized standards as VOC guidelines for choosing materials. These guidelines include Green Seal standards for paints, The Carpet and Rug Insti- tute (CRI) standards for carpets and carpet adhesives, Greenguard Environ- mental Institute (GEI) allowable emission levels for furniture, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District rules, including those for adhesives and sealants.

» Pay special attention to minimizing VOC content in the largest areas of impact:

walls, including paints, coatings and wall coverings; fl oors, including coatings, sealers and fi nish materials; and ceilings, including acoustical ceiling tiles.

» Use products within a material class that have the lowest VOC levels. For example, use low- or no-VOC paint products.

» Consider installation strategies that minimize the use of adhesives. » Use composite wood products that do not contain urea-formaldehyde binders.

» Minimize use of furnishings, drapery and upholstery that have been exposed to formaldehyde fi nishing or other chemical treatments that release VOCs.

Several types of VOCs, including toluene, benzene and xylene—all toxic solvents in fi nishes and sealants—and urea formaldehyde, are particularly hazardous and are treated in more detail below.

Toxicants and Hazardous Ingredients

The following list of chemicals and substances are associated with signifi cant human health and environmental problems and should be avoided. Scrutinize potential alternatives carefully, as there may also be environmental or health is- sues associated with those products. Trade-off s may be necessary at times.

Brominated fl ame retardants

Flame retardants are widely used to reduce the fl ammability of plastics, includ- ing hard plastics, such as computer casings, and soft or fl exible plastics, such as foam cushioning. While there are health concerns with many of these com- pounds, it should be noted that using the same materials without fl ame retar- dants would result in an increase in injuries and fatalities from fi res.

Brominated fl ame retardants contain the element bromine in their molecular structure and come in several types, each with diff erent applications and diff er- ent potential health eff ects. Some of the most toxic forms have been eliminated over the years, including, since 2000, two types of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. Other PBDEs remain on the market, however, and may cause a range of negative health eff ects, such as endocrine system disruption and developmental abnormalities. When burned, they can release highly toxic dioxins and/or furans, both of which are carcinogenic.

Brominated fl ame retardants are likely to occur in polyurethane foam cushioning, synthetic draperies, polyester fabrics, polyethylene casing on wires, and in hard equipment casings. While it is not yet possible to totally avoid use of these mate-



rials, the designer has several options for reducing potential exposure, including selecting office seating with mesh seats and backs rather than foam cushions, and researching which companies are using alternative fire retardants in their foam products.

Halogenated plastics

The term “halogenated” refers to the inclusion of one of the chemical elements known as halogens, including chlorine, fluorine and bromine, in the molecules of a polymer. By far the most common halogenated plastic is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is known commonly as “vinyl,” although there are also other com- pounds that are technically vinyls but that are not halogenated. PVC is used in siding for houses, resilient flooring, carpet tile backing, wallcoverings, furniture, pipes, windows, wiring and many other applications.

Concerns have been raised about many aspects of PVC, including the potential for dioxin releases during its manufacture and disposal, the generation of toxic hydrogen gas during fires, and the potential health effects from plasticizers added to PVC to make it flexible, such as phthalates and stabilizers like lead. It is important to keep in mind, however, that every material has potentially adverse environmental impacts in its life cycle, so when considering substitutes for PVC the alternatives should be screened carefully as well.

Fluoropolymers are widely used as sheathing on electrical wire and data cables, especially those rated for unprotected use in plenums, rather than in metal con- duits. While inherently flame retardant, these chemicals can release toxic fumes

during a building fire.

An additional concern is the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the manufac- ture of fluoropolymers. PFOA is a persistent synthetic chemical that has recently been found to be widely dispersed in the environment and in human tissue, and EPA has called it a likely human carcinogen. Although building occupants are not likely to be exposed to PFOA, manufacture, and therefore consumption, of fluoropolymers releases PFOA into the environment, leading to long-term environ- mental concerns.

Bisphenol A

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 15 rials, the designer has several options for reducing potential exposure, including

Specifying chairs with mesh seats and backs reduces the use of foam cushions, thus reducing potential exposure to brominated flame retardants.

Photo: Knoll, Inc.

One of the key ingredients used to make polycarbonate, a clear plastic used in furnishings and consumer products, is bisphenol A. Bisphenol A is one of a num- ber of chemicals suspected of being an endocrine disrupter, or a chemical that interferes with the function of the endocrine system, the system of glands that produce hormones regulating development, growth and reproduction in humans and animals. Bisphenol A has been shown to leach out of polycarbonate over time at a rate that increases with repeated use.

Heavy metals

Mercury and the associated chemical compound methylmercury are bioaccumula- tive toxins that affect the nervous and endocrine systems in human beings. Toxic loads of both mercury and methylmercury are commonly found in both ocean and freshwater fish, and ingestion causes birth defects and neurological damage.

Mercury was until recently widely used in thermostats and electronic switches, although most of those applications have been phased out, and alternative products are readily available in the marketplace. Mercury continues to be used in fluorescent lamps, high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps and mercury vapor lamps. While the amount of mercury in fluorescent lamps has been reduced dra- matically (from more than 30 milligrams per lamp in the mid 1990s to less than



16 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS While compact fluorescent lamps, such as

While compact fluorescent lamps, such as these, can contain mercury, inefficient incandescent lamps cause mercury to be released into the environment through their use of coal-fueled electricity.

6 milligrams today), all mercury lamps should be handled carefully and recycled at an appropriate facility licensed to handle this hazardous material.

Mercury is also released into the environment from the burning of coal to make electricity. Therefore, even though energy-efficient fluorescent lamps contain mercury and can release mercury if improperly disposed of, inefficient incandes- cent lamps ultimately lead to more mercury pollution.

Lead is a neurotoxin that causes dementia, intelligence deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing and hyperactivity, and causes brain dam- age in children who commonly ingest it as chips and dust from old paint. It was used extensively as a paint additive until 1977, when it was banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Lead was also used as a solder to join metal plumbing pipes, as well as for water pipes themselves—in fact, “plumbing” is derived from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum.”

Lead continues to be used as an alloy with other metals in roofing and cladding materials, although most of these uses are being phased out. However, lead- based paint remains widespread in homes and buildings built before 1978, and children and adults are still exposed to peeling paint and dust, often resulting in irreversible brain damage and other health problems. Use of basic maintenance procedures and taking precautions during remodeling can prevent most of this exposure, and any contractor or designer working on a building built prior to 1978 should be aware of these techniques, as well as the state and federal safety regulations that affect public buildings and apartments built before 1978.

Lead is still used in features of everyday life, such as brass keys and brass plumb- ing fixtures. According to federal regulations, up to eight percent of the alloy in a brass fixture can consist of lead while the fixture can still be labeled “lead-free,” and tests used to determine how much lead might leach from those fixtures are unreliable. 4 Lead is also used as a stabilizer in some plastics, including PVC.

Cadmium pigments were once a staple in paints, but most of those applications have been phased out in architectural coatings. Cadmium may still be found in architectural alloys and in certain specialty products, such as plating on screws, however, and should be avoided if possible due to known health effects, such as lung disease, brittle bones, kidney failure and, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, possibly cancer.

Toxic solvents in finishes and sealants

A number of solvents used in coatings and finishes are harmful to humans and other animals. Among the most problematic are toluene, benzene and xylene, all of which are carcinogenic and irritating. These have been phased out of use in many products but continue to be used in others. The Paint Standard from Green Seal (GS-11) includes a list of chemicals that should be avoided in coatings.


Formaldehyde was classified in 2005 by the World Health Organization as a known human carcinogen. It occurs naturally in the ambient air, but its concen- tration in many buildings is unnaturally high because it is used in many build- ing materials and furnishings and is released, or “off-gassed,” at ambient air temperatures. There is no known safe exposure level for formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde’s most prevalent use is as a bonding agent in panel products that are widely used in casework, furniture and flooring underlayment, as well as a biocide or preservative in insulation, fabrics, ceiling tile, foams and other plas- tics. Urea formaldehyde is used primarily in interior applications, while phenol-



formaldehyde is used most often in exterior-grade materials and products.

Interior designers need to be particularly aware of urea formaldehyde, a common binder found in interior plywood, particleboard, chipboard and medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Through research, interior designers can find urea-formalde- hyde-free composite woods, and specify furniture that complies with the accept- able formaldehyde emissions levels for furniture as established by Greenguard. The LEED Rating System provides a point for the total avoidance of added urea formaldehyde in composite wood products and laminates.

Selection of Materials

The interior designer can face a daunting task simply in developing a pleasing and functional palette of materials for a project, even without adding environ- mental considerations. The designer may be faced with conflicting choices and may feel challenged to make informed selections.

A good starting place is to establish the core values and goals for the project with the client’s input and the assistance of the full, integrated design team (see the ASID Beyond Interior Design white paper for more on this process). These stated goals can then be used as a filter in developing the design and evaluating trade-offs of different materials. Determining the nature of this filter early on will make subsequent decision making easier and keep sustainable goals in focus.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 17 formaldehyde is used most often in exterior-grade materials and products. Interior

Formaldehyde-free plywood reduces the chances of exposure to urea formaldehyde and can be used in many applications, including the cabinets shown here.

Photo: Columbia Forest Products

Possible goals could include reducing all environmental impacts, or focusing on one aspect of the environment, such as creating a space with the best indoor air quality (IAQ) possible within project time constraints and budget. Some goals will involve implicit trade-offs, such as making IAQ more important than other environmental considerations. Even if the goal is to reduce all environmental impacts over the life cycle, trade-offs are necessary because many material alter- natives have similar total impacts while having higher or lower impacts within individual categories.

From choosing a project goal, the designer can move to choosing strategies and attributes to achieve that goal. If premium IAQ is the primary goal, the focus of material selection will be environmental performance while the material is in use. Several approaches could help achieve the goal of premium IAQ. Finding a low-VOC adhesive or sealant to substitute for a conventional product is one option, and so is reducing the use of adhesives by substituting materials that don’t require them. Reducing the sheer amount of materials used may lead to a reduction in potential IAQ contamination, so long as those materials are care- fully selected.

An additional consideration is use of the “long-life-loose-fit” model, which has several IAQ benefits. A flexible, long-lived design means that frequent renova- tions, which can contaminate a space with a high level of particulates, become unnecessary. Using materials with long useful lives also means that new materi- als containing potential contaminants will not be needed. Also, many materials, such as carpets, emit VOCs at a higher rate early in their useful life, so extending that useful life improves IAQ.

Where possible, LCA tools can be used to help make decisions based on project goals. A software tool like BEES is useful because it allows a designer to com- pare product options based on a single part of the life cycle or a specific impact category, such as IAQ, while also allowing the designer to monitor and consider other environmental impacts.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 17 formaldehyde is used most often in exterior-grade materials and products. Interior

Moveable walls, such as those shown here, are one way to design for “long life, loose fit.”

Photo: Haworth

Recognized sustainable criteria and accepted national standards are useful tools



in establishing a baseline for individual projects. These standards include green building rating systems such as LEED, the LCA tools such as BEES, as well as stan- dards, rules and guidelines established by organizations such as Green Seal, The Carpet and Rug Institute, Greenguard Environmental Institute, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines and the Forestry Stewardship Council. Designers should reference these stan- dards to ensure that the materials selected for the project meet or exceed them.

For example, meeting VOC content limits will help ensure that the materials that are used don’t compromise indoor air quality. Standard organizations covering these materials include SCAQMD Rule 1168 for adhesives and sealants, GEI for furniture, CRI for carpet and Green Seal for paints and coatings.

Finding Reliable Information

When using information about the environmental benefits of materials to make decisions, the interior designer wants to be sure that the information is reliable and accurate. Manufacturers’ environmental claims about products can be inac- curate or misleading. Such misinformation is not typically presented in a deliber- ate attempt to mislead, but is more often based on a lack of understanding about the attribute or the process to determine the information. In other cases, vague claims that enhance a product’s “green” image are made in lieu of actual hard data that would not stand up to scrutiny.

Nothing can substitute for making a practice of being well informed and keeping up to date on new developments in the field of sustainable design. Even if a de- signer can’t keep up on the details, he or she can know what to look for and what questions to ask by understanding the more general concepts and attributes we have discussed. Certification systems that investigate and confirm the reliability of environmental claims provide valuable information that can supplement a designer’s general knowledge. However, the designer who relies on certification needs to understand where that information is coming from.

Generally, the three available types of certification—first party, second party and third party—become more independent and more reliable as they are distanced from the product manufacturer.

18 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS in establishing a baseline for individual
18 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS in establishing a baseline for individual

» First-party certification occurs when a manufacturer indicates that its product meets specific criteria. Without independent review, the claim is only as good as that manufacturer’s word.

» In second-party certification, industry groups or trade associations develop standards that are certified by the developing body or an independent certifier. This type of certification may be useful as a preliminary review process, but the interior designer should be wary of accepting unsubstantiated results from such a review.

» Third-party certification is a process by which products, processes or services are reviewed, tested and labeled by an independent third party, certified to verify that criteria, claims or standards are being met.

Below are some organizations that offer well-respected third-party certifica- tion systems, many of which are recognized by LEED for use during selection of materials.

» The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit organiza- tion that establishes standards and accredits independent certifiers to certify



forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products. Independent certifiers using the FSC system include SmartWood and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS).

» Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI) is a non-profit organization that has developed laboratory test protocols for the measurement of targeted emissions, including particulates, VOCs and formaldehyde. Manufacturers submit their products for Greenguard certification, through tests by an affiliated laboratory.

Certified products include adhesives and paints, as well as assemblies, such as furniture, furniture systems and carpet assemblies. The program calls for retest- ing on a regular basis to ensure that compliant products continue to meet the established emissions levels.

» Green Seal, Inc., is a non-profit corporation that develops standards that indicate maximum allowable VOC content levels and also lists banned and/or restricted chemicals. Green Seal certifies products that meet these standards. Green Seal’s standards for paints and cleaning products are referenced in LEED Rating Systems.

» Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) has certification programs, including indoor air emission and a Material Content Environmental Certification Pro- gram, for numerous industries. This program certifies percentage-based claims for materials that have post-consumer, pre-consumer, salvaged, agricultural

waste, organic fiber, bio-based or rapidly renewable content, among others.

Other Testing Systems

» The Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), the national trade association representing the carpet and rug industry, has developed “Green Label” and “Green Label Plus” IAQ testing and labeling programs for carpet, carpet adhesives and cush- ion materials emissions. Although not technically a third-party certification program, all testing is done by an independent laboratory.

» The FloorScore program was developed by the Resilient Floor Covering In- stitute (RFCI) in conjunction with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS). The program provides third-party certification of flooring products, including vinyl, linoleum, laminate flooring, wood flooring, ceramic flooring and rubber floor- ing, for compliance with IAQ emission requirements adopted in California.

Creating a Green Library

In order to support sustainable design goals in project after project, interior designers may want to develop a catalog of green products to aid in the material selection process.

MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 19 forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products.
MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 19 forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products.
MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 19 forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products.
MATERIALS/PRODUCTS AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN 19 forest operations and chain-of-custody tracking for wood and other forest products.

For designers who have an existing product catalog system, green product infor- mation can be integrated within the existing catalog, or separately as a “green library.” The visibility of a separate green library may encourage and challenge users to think in a new way, but it also raises questions about how to determine what is green, when, as we have seen, that determination may vary between projects. Integrating the product information into the entire library may encour-



20 MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS — INTERIOR DESIGN AND GLOBAL IMPACTS The GreenSpec Directory lists environmentally prefera-

The GreenSpec ® Directory lists environmentally prefera- ble products that have passed its selection criteria.

age users to integrate these products into many projects, even those not focused on sustainable design, but it may also be less accessible for those specifically working on sustainable design projects. The best approach may be to develop a method for flagging green products (or those with specific green attributes) within a general product library.

Once a green library is established, a designer needs to decide what to include. Some designers have developed manufacturer questionnaires to obtain detailed information about environmental characteristics for specific lines of products. This is a challenge for both the designer and the manufacturer: The designers may find it difficult to keep updated and the manufacturers may not have the manpower to respond to multiple questionnaire inquiries.

One alternative is to rely on comprehensive product directories of environmen- tally preferable products. GreenSpec ® Directory, from BuildingGreen, Inc., is one such directory that is widely relied upon to locate green building products. GreenSpec does not perform tests like the organizations listed above, but it compiles product information from many different sources and includes products that fit its selection criteria. GreenSpec is updated often, in print and online, minimizing the design firm’s burden. The selection criteria used to develop the directory are available so the designer can evaluate how specific products could fit his or her project goals, and the online version allows users to filter products by environmental attribute.

  • 3 Integrated Opportunities and Design Process

The goals of a sustainable building project can be achieved most readily using an integrated design approach. Integrated design involves the early and active participation of a full team, including the interior designer, enabling the team to develop coordinated solutions resulting in less duplication of effort and a more universal understanding of overall project goals. The interior designer benefits from being involved early in the design process by developing a deeper appre- ciation for the goals of the whole project, and the interior designer also has the opportunity to communicate with other team members about how their choices affect the goals of the interior design.

The interior designer can be influential in material selection for the entire project. For example, the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineer may be focused on selecting highly efficient equipment with refrigerants that limit contributions to global warming potential and ozone depletion. With these decisions on the forefront, the engineer may not have considered the use of low- VOC adhesives, sealants and paints in relation to the equipment and systems he or she is specifying. By being involved in the process, the interior designer has the opportunity to suggest such products and provide resources to help in their specification. For a more detailed discussion of integrated design, please refer to the ASID Beyond Interior Design white paper.

  • 4 Materials/Products and Green Building Rating Systems

The LEED Rating System and the NAHB/Green Home Building Guidelines are discussed below. Information about other rating systems and programs can be found in the ASID sustainability white papers Reference Guide.



USGBC/LEED Rating System

Within LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI), the system most likely to be used by commercial interior designers, approximately one-third of the 57 points are directly related to design topics and materials selection issues discussed in this paper. The “Materials & Resources” section includes points relating to » Building reuse – maintaining interior non-structural components » Resource reuse – using salvaged, refurbished or reused construction materials and furniture » Recycled content – using materials with recycled content » Regional materials – using materials that are manufactured and extracted regionally » Rapidly renewable materials – using materials that contain rapidly renewable content » Certifi ed wood – using wood products that are FSC-certifi ed

Additionally, the “Indoor Environmental Quality” section includes fi ve points for using low-emitting adhesives, sealants, paints, carpet systems, composite wood and laminate adhesives, furniture and seating.


For additional details, visit the USGBC Web site at


For additional details,

visit the NAHB Web site at

The related LEED for New Construction (LEED-NC) credits are very similar to those in LEED-CI, although furniture considerations are not usually included in LEED-NC projects. LEED for Homes (LEED-H) credits contain many of the same concepts related to materials selection, such as using local sources and environ- mentally preferable products, as well as additional credits related to home size, material-effi cient framing and a durability plan.

NAHB/Green Home Building Guidelines

Home designers are more likely to encounter a system such as the National As- sociation of Home Builders (NAHB) Model Green Home Building Guidelines. Within the “Resource Effi ciency” section of these guidelines, there are 31 available initiatives that can be implemented, each with an assigned point value. The main categories of “Resource Effi ciency” include

» Reduce quantity of materials and waste » Enhance durability and reduce maintenance » Reuse materials » Use recycled content materials » Use renewable materials » Use resource effi cient materials

» Employ innovative options (this includes the use of LCA tools)


  • 1 “Material Selection: Tools, Resources, and Techniques for Choosing Green,” Environmental Building News, January,

  • 2 International Organization of Stan- dardization, Standard ISO 14040, Reference Number 14040:1997 (E). 1997, p2.

  • 3 Selected and adapted from “Future- Proofi ng Your Building: Designing for Flexibility and Adaptive Reuse,” Environmental Building News, February



Appendix: Questionnaire

The following questionnaire is offered for the benefit of the reader to evaluate whether the learning objectives of the paper have been achieved.

  • 1. List and define the four typical life-cycle stages of building materials.

  • 2. Explain how BEES can be used to evaluate product alternatives using LCA.

  • 3. Name and discuss three holistic strategies that can be used during interior design to create sustainable interiors.

  • 4. List and explain four attributes of materials that are often used to determine environ- mental preference.

  • 5. What are VOCs? Explain four strategies that can be used to minimize the VOC content of materials in an interior design project.

  • 6. Name four toxicants or hazardous ingredients that can be found in common building or interior finishing materials.

  • 7. What steps can be taken to evaluate environmental trade-offs during material selection? Name and discuss briefly.

  • 8. Explain the different types of product certification and list three third-party certifications systems.

  • 9. List three strategies for developing a green library.

  • 10. Explain how an interior designer can contribute to the integrated design process.