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The Green Decision
By Tom Bauer

The widely accepted implementation of the United States Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design® (LEED®) guidelines for the building construction industry has introduced a new decision-making matrix for stakeholders in the building construction process. This matrix represents the selection of products that meet the requirements of LEED design, as well as products that create opportunities for LEED credit contribution.

A heightened level of scrutiny over the specification of building products has forced product manufacturers to evaluate not only how well their materials perform, but a host of new factors, including but not limited to:

  • Inclusion of key raw materials, including recycled, regionally procured, and rapidly renewable raw content
  • The location from which raw materials are harvested or extracted
  • The location where finished materials are manufactured
  • Rapidly Renewable Materials (LEED MR Credit 6)

LEED MR Credit 6 specifically deals with the use of rapidly renewable materials contained within the building’s construction materials. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) defines rapidly renewable materials as natural, non-petroleum-based building materials that have harvest cycles under 10 years. Applicable building materials are usually composed of rapidly renewable materials and recycled content such as newsprint, cotton, soy-based materials, seed husks, seashells etc. To achieve the credit, the project must use rapidly renewable building materials and products for 2.5 percent of the total value of all building materials and products used in the project, based on cost.

For many roofing material manufacturers, showcasing products specifically designed to help architects and building owners achieve their LEED goals and directives has become a top priority. For example, as a manufacturer of high-performance building solutions, The Garland Company, Inc., in its manufacturing process, is beginning to replace traditional petroleum-based products (such as asphalts) with soy-based oils and limestone-based additives with chitin. Chitin is the main component of the cell walls of fungi and the exoskeletons of arthropods, such as crustaceans and insects. As a limestone-based substitute, chitin contains the high percentage of calcium carbonate necessary to maintain or exceed previous levels of performance. By incorporating soy oil and chitin, the newest generation of Garland roofing membranes contributes to LEED MR Credit 6 for the inclusion of rapidly renewable content, in addition to other areas within the Material Resource credits.

The decision-making process for the incorporation of rapidly renewable materials, as well as other sustainable raw materials, is similar to the process that many families face each year as they decide between a real or artificial Christmas tree. As with the natural versus artificial tree decision, deciding to “go green” with rooftop material selection provides the obvious feel-good benefits of conforming to society’s desire for more natural materials, as represented by the LEED material resource guidelines, while underscoring the sustainability requirements central to the USGBC’s mission.

Procurement and Manufacturing Location (LEED MR Credit 5)
When faced with the decision of real versus artificial, we need to examine the Christmas tree with some of the product scrutiny that many building materials face in today’s marketplace. Therefore let’s examine how well the trees stand up to some other sustainable building material criteria.

As with many of our building products, the harvest/extraction and manufacturing location are important factors. To meet the requirements of LEED MR Credit 5, the product must contribute to the project goal of having 10 percent for one point or 20 percent for two points of all of the raw materials extracted and/or harvested and manufactured within 500 miles of the project. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, North American real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada, while 80 percent of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China. Therefore, we have a clear advantage toward the real tree as long as we can find a tree farm within 500-mile radius of our home. This should not present a problem to anyone other than Clark Griswold.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, it takes from four to 15 years to grow an evergreen tree of typical height (6 to 7 feet). The average growing time is seven years, which is well within the defined time period of the USGBC of 10 years. This short recovery period for the growers is achievable due to the fact that for every real Christmas tree harvested annually, one to three seedlings are planted the following spring. This creates a sustainable industry, making it a model that can be passed on to future generations.

For artificial trees, the concern lies in their fabrication, which is heavily based on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. To create PVC, you need petroleum, a non-renewable, carbon-emitting resource. In addition, the manufacturing, processing, and shipping of artificial trees creates greenhouse gasses (GHGs). Clint Springer, Ph.D., a botanist and global warming expert at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, says that when making the choice, environmental impact should be at the top of your list. While many consumers may think they are considering the environment when purchasing an artificial tree, they may not understand the entire footprint of that PVC tree.

Conclusion
Despite the seeming complexity of the decision-making process that accompanies the latest round of LEED requirements, comparing roof product selection to the simple selection of the family Christmas tree helps provide an understandable framework with which we can all identify. The newly adapted building product decision process, as outlined by the LEED program, is not as tough as it seems. By aligning your project goals with products that meet the established LEED criteria, you can create high-performance buildings that are a model of sustainability.

About the author: Tom Bauer is a LEED accredited professional and a product manager for The Garland Company, Inc., a Cleveland-based manufacturer of high-performance solutions for the total building envelope. Prior to his work with Garland, he was employed as an environmental and energy consultant in the manufacturing industry. Bauer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with a concentration on environmental science from Mount Union College in Ohio.


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