Environmentally expensive flooring can help you turn your plant around

Environmentally responsible flooring can cost less in the long run.

By Marian Keeler, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP

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“We have been trying to protect the environment by doing ‘less bad,’ by dumping fewer poisons into our air, land and water. But ‘less bad’ isn't good enough: Let's say you want to drive your car south, to Mexico. But you're heading north, to Canada, and speeding along at 70 mph. It doesn't do much good to slow down to 20 mph, does it? You're still driving in the wrong direction! The only solution is to turn the car around,” William McDonough, architect and author, Cradle to Cradle.

Those who operate and manage manufacturing facilities that produce lumber or leather, food or furniture, want flooring that is durable, contributes to a safe workplace, and is easy and cost-effective to maintain. They consider the staining agents in use, the varieties of loads and vehicle traffic on the floor— fork lifts and carts—the need for safety floors and slip resistance ratings and, in the case of electronics manufacturing, conductive or static dissipative capability. Adding to this already full list of requirements are those of a Shakespearean brave new world of buildings variously labeled as sustainable, green, environmental or high-performance.

Owners of industrial buildings increasingly seek flooring choices that can perform by reducing operating and replacement costs as well as address three main environmental concerns: resources, energy and air. Resource efficiency, or the conservation of raw materials, whether mined, harvested or synthesized, is a concern in light of an ever-diminishing supply of these materials. Energy efficiency, a concept that draws increasing attention, can be addressed in a minor way through the degree of insulation and surface reflection in these flooring materials. Good indoor environment and air quality (IEAQ) is a major issue that directly affects building occupant comfort, health, productivity and insurance costs related to illness.

Three plant environments

The plant setting presents an unique opportunity to design floors that respond to varied plant functions and their sustainable requirements. Typically, plants may contain three or more types of spaces: the production and finishing space, an interstitial space and an office space. Each of these spaces has different sets of demands according to the types of work performed there and the pattern of foot traffic. The production space is the most “unfinished” of the three, where flooring materials must withstand heavy traffic, impact, staining and other necessary abuses. The interstitial space may contain restrooms, vending machine areas, training rooms, cafeterias and plant managers’ offices. The office space most closely parallels a traditional commercial office building space; it may contain executive offices, conference rooms, showrooms and cafeterias. Environmental demands and flooring types change with each space.

In the plant’s production setting, the environmental focus is on resource efficiency rather than IEAQ because, depending on the plant’s particular output, emissions from the production process may well overwhelm those from the flooring material. Here, the environmental focus should be on selecting a resource-efficient floor.

In the interstitial space, one is more concerned with clean shoe soles to prevent plant-area contaminants from spreading to the office area. Consequently, the flooring material should change at that transition to a tile or other easily cleaned surface with the addition of walk-off mats and sticky paper to assist the process. The environmental focus in this space would be on resource efficiency as well as protecting good IEAQ.

In the office area, health effects from recirculated indoor air are easier to control through wise material selection. Energy conservation and resource efficiency also should be considered. A properly selected carpet is responsive to both considerations, but shoes must be clean by this point so that contaminants don’t become embedded there.

At this point, the question becomes how to select the appropriate environmental floor that responds to these areas and their functions. To do this effectively, it’s essential to have a solid understanding of what each green principle means.

Easy on the resources

Resources mean all resources: water, soil, raw materials and biodiversity. Resource-efficient products (also known as recycled content products, or RCPs), typically embrace the 1970s catch-phrase “recycled,” meaning that they contain a portion of used or reprocessed material. The 21st century lends a more technological sensibility to that phrase: our building materials now carry an entirely new subset of recycled considerations. Among them is a material’s post-consumer (PC) recycled content, or the amount of previously-used feedstock contained in the product. The less desirable “secondary material content” refers to recycled scrap, such as rough edges and trim, which is collected and used again in the manufacturing process, also known as pre-consumer or post-industrial (PI) content. Both these values are expressed in percentage by weight or volume. Managers will find that flooring manufacturers are accustomed to revealing this number, more so than 10 years ago.

Why is this important? From a cost standpoint, reduced virgin feedstock and more recycled content means less effect on landfills, incinerators and other disposal routes. From an environmental stewardship perspective, more recycled content means reduced mining and harvesting of limited natural resources, some of which take years to regenerate, if they regenerate at all. Specifying products with renewable raw materials (bamboo, cork, agricultural waste products such as soy and corn as opposed to old-growth wood) is another way to conserve resources.

But the resource efficiency concept doesn’t end with recycled content. It also refers to life expectancy (to reduce replacement costs), durability and minimal packaging that reduces disposal fees. When considering a wood floor, it means checking into the forest management and harvesting practices. Specifying wood labeled by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent third-party international accrediting body for forests, is a way to ensure getting wood of high quality.

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