Environmentally expensive flooring can help you turn your plant around

March 22, 2006
Environmentally responsible flooring can cost less in the long run.

“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.

Collectively, these resource-efficient considerations reduce the environmental footprint, that is, the amount of land it takes to feed, clothe, shelter, dispose of waste and produce goods for every person on the planet. If everyone lived like the citizens of Cardiff in Wales, we’d need three planets the size of earth to sustain the current world population, according to Dr. Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network (www.footprintnetwork.org). More than a feel-good factor, these concepts translate into great business decisions that affect the bottom line.

A parallel consideration is material life cycle. Life-cycle analysis, or LCA, has the drawback of not accounting for or quantifying health effects, but it examines the amount of energy, raw material, transportation emissions and disposal area required to make that product, in other words, its biologically productive area and cost. Many environmentally responsible flooring manufacturers have been proactive in analyzing the life cycle of their product, and can share the results with consumers. Asking for this information should guide plant owners toward environmental stewardship and crafting a company environmental policy.

Energy and air quality

We’re accustomed to the focus on energy, its rising cost and the twin goals of optimizing efficiency and implementing conservation measures.

Fortunately, correct flooring choices can affect energy in nuanced but useful ways. Some of these techniques involve passive solar design such as using a concrete floor that acts as a thermal mass, absorbing the sun’s rays by day and then releasing the warmth at night. Light-colored or reflective floors can reduce heating costs in acclimatized plants and reduce demand for artificial lighting, especially in combination with daylighting techniques.

Be wary, however, of the floor’s vulnerability to UV rays, which can cause brittleness and degrade color. Ensure that the flooring of interest isn’t susceptible to the temperature swings often seen in industrial buildings. Still, when selecting flooring materials, a little energy consciousness pays off.

A plant’s favorable indoor air environment can be another contributor to cost savings and health. Select highly reflective floor surfaces to bounce light in a space, or choose low reflective floors to absorb light for visual comfort and glare reduction. Preliminary studies indicate that good IEAQ can elevate worker productivity and morale, leading to less absenteeism attributable to symptoms of sick building syndrome.

IEAQ is a function of the level of ventilation, building maintenance and chemical emissions reduction. Controlling the sources of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from flooring materials themselves, as well as from their coatings, sealers, joint sealants and cleaning products are important to consider. Many environmental flooring makers are careful to reduce the concentration of specific types of chemicals of concern (carcinogens, reproductive toxicants and chemicals with long-term health effects) in their formulae. These chemicals are troublemakers owing to their significant long-term human health implications, which can range from headache and eye irritation to endocrine disruption and cancer.

Unfortunately, asking for a material’s VOC content doesn’t reveal the complete picture. It’s important to distinguish between VOC content and VOC emissions because of the potential presence of precursor chemicals in a material that can be released to combine to produce new chemicals of concern. To take your flooring research to the next level, ask to see a product’s emissions testing results. You’ll find that many vendors have already run tests and obtained third-party certifications from independent labs to prove the products are low-or no-VOC emitters.

Examples of these IAQ certifications include the Carpet and Rug Institute’s (CRI) Green Label Plus for carpets (www.carpet-rug.org, click on “Green Label Plus”), Scientific Certifications Systems (SCS) for adhesives and coatings (“Indoor Advantage” and “Indoor Advantage Gold” at www.scscertified.com/iaq) and FloorScore for resilient floors (www.scscertified.com/iaq/floorscore.html). See the sidebar for additional information.

Flooring represents a hefty investment because of its sheer quantity of material: there is just more of it in a building than most other materials, second only to wall areas. Addressing flooring costs before plant renovation or construction will pay dividends. Happily, environmentally sound flooring choices make sense from an economic standpoint as well as those of health and conservation. A 2004 study by the international cost-estimating firm Davis Langdon shows that green buildings are no more expensive to construct or operate than conventional buildings  (“Costing Green: A Comprehensive Cost Database and Budgeting Methodology,” www.davislangdon.com/pages/usa/researchpublications.htm) In fact, green buildings can actually reduce operating and replacement costs over the long term.

Although environmental flooring specification requires a little research, distilling green considerations into the three main principles of sustainability makes the process smoother. The key is to ask questions, starting with the manufacturer’s representative for the flooring you’re researching. Ask to speak to technical staff if the representative is stumped. By supporting the demand for environmentally designed flooring materials and by asking for third-party certifications and certified environmentally preferable products, or EPPs, (www.scscertified.com/manufacturing/manufacture_epp.html), our collective consumer demand will produce a beneficial shift toward market transformation and environmental thinking. Finally, the car will be going in the right direction.

Marian Keeler owns Green Building Design Services in San Francisco. Contact her at [email protected] and (415) 285-0128.

A guide to selecting environmental flooring

Tile — synthetic, durable tile with recycled content.

Carpet – heavy-duty indoor outdoor carpet with tackable adhesive, if traffic, torque and loads allow. For traditional adhesives, ask for water-based, green CRI Green Label Plus products.

Brick - if jointed flooring is not a factor, salvaged or reused bricks are a good way to conserve energy and provide thermal mass.

Wood - heavy-duty wood block or wood plank made from salvaged materials or wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Plastic - plastic block flooring made from recycled carpet, an example of downcycling (producing a new product from a used product) or recycled plastic made from other plastics used in the same applications.

Raised floor - appropriate for computers, clean rooms and wire/cable management. Provides another method of air delivery that is more healthful than conventional overhead ducts and registers.

Rubberized flooring - rubber sheet or tile made from recycled car tires. Beware of IAQ issues that present themselves as strong odors. Look for UV ratings or indoor-outdoor capability and note the recommended temperature range.

Resilient floors - at least two vendors carry sheet or tile products containing no chlorine, heavy metals or plasticizers. Look for slip resistance and UV ratings, recommended temperature range or rated safety floors, if required.

Terrazzo - terrazzo made with recycled glass as aggregate is good, if a poured, fluid-applied or integral floor is required. Watch for VOC emissions in the epoxy component.

Concrete - unstained or with water-based pigment, finish and topcoat. Provides thermal mass and an integral floor. Use resilient mats for foot comfort.

Cork - a rapidly renewable resource, provides acoustical, thermal and foot comfort. One drawback to cork is that it requires several coats of sealer, some of which are solvent-based.

Gym or track floors - may be appropriate for some plant settings.

Underlayments - can add to foot comfort, thermal and acoustical properties.

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