Setting a Green Building Product Standard

August 1, 2010
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A new initiative seeks to set sustainability benchmarks for green building products.



Building green is no longer considered a passing fad or fringe activity. Member-driven organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) are advancing the green agenda through social media, yearly conferences, regular member workshops, and well-attended webinars designed to build consensus for-and fundamental knowledge of-green building principles and practices. The USGBC has declared its intention "to make green buildings available to everyone within a generation," while a recent McGraw-Hill Construction market intelligence report predicts that green buildings in the U.S. will represent up to 20% of the residential construction market and 25% of the commercial construction market by 2013.

As the building industry advances along this path, manufacturers and designers are witnessing a tremendous new opportunity to introduce sustainable building products that will meet the growing demand. But what makes a building product green? How should it be sustainably manufactured, used, and ultimately reused or recycled?

How Green is Green?

While some manufacturers have been quick to label their products green, sustainable or eco-friendly, a number of their respective industries have been slow to establish the ground rules for what constitutes a green product. This, in turn, has prompted accusations of greenwashing, in which a product's sustainable qualities are challenged as misleading.

Specifiers, architects and others engaged with the built environment must then sort through product sustainability claims without a definitive benchmark. By contrast, the USGBC offers clearly specified green standards via its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. However, LEED pertains to whole buildings, not the products that comprise them.

Recognizing the need to set a similar bar for building products, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) launched UL Environment early in 2009. The newest member of the UL family is charged with driving for clear, industry-supported green product standards, along with third-party testing and certification services to verify compliance to those green product standards.

Reaching Out, Building Consensus

UL Environment launched a standards development initiative in the fall of 2009. This ongoing collaborative effort aims to formulate standards across an expanding range of building products, from ceramic materials and glazing to doors and windows, and mineral board and fiberboard.

UL Environment will develop the sustainability standards by engaging directly with manufacturers, product designers, architects, consumer interest groups, government entities, product installers, users, distributors and testing organizations via Standards Technical Panels (STPs). Throughout 2010, the panels will develop drafts of standards covering seven separate building product categories, including ceramic, stone, clay and glass building materials; plastics; insulation and roofing; glazing materials for windows and associated hardware and accessories; doors and related hardware; mineral board, fiberboard and wallboard; and suspended ceiling materials and systems.

Setting the Standard

The certification process will involve an analysis of a product's environmental impacts over its entire life cycle, which will encompass everything from identifying the source and content of raw materials through product development, distribution, use, and end-of-life recycling potential or disposal. The procedure will follow American National Standards Institute (ANSI) protocols and rely on the continued involvement of manufacturers and other stakeholders to ensure collaboration and transparency.

The initiative will seek to set sustainability benchmarks by creating a progressive, tiered structure that identifies environmentally preferable products. Manufacturers will have the opportunity to highlight achievements as their products rise through the sustainability levels that are outlined within the standard. Once established, the standards will provide architects and designers, manufacturers, building owners and operators, and other key players with the expertise they need to design, manufacture, specify, and select more environmentally preferable materials.

The ongoing engagement of manufacturers and other stakeholders will also promote the further evolution of the UL Environment sustainability standards. As new green innovations are incorporated into products and materials, the standards likewise can be adapted to keep pace and respond to the growing needs of the green building industry.

Why the New Standard Matters

A growing body of well-documented evidence confirms that green buildings:
  • Lower operating costs and increase asset value
  • Reduce waste sent to landfills
  • Conserve energy and water
  • Are healthier and safer for occupants
  • Reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions
In addition, green buildings demonstrate an owner's commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility. For these reasons and more, the green sector of the building industry is expected to continue its steady growth, which means that the demand for certifiably sustainable building products will likewise increase. The emerging UL Environment certification standards will support this growth even as they encourage manufacturers to continue to expand the range of available green building products and materials.

Building products that conserve natural resources, support energy efficiency, promote healthy environments and reduce waste will play a critical role in the future of the built environment. Through its development of green product standards and independent third-party assessment and certification, UL Environment will help manufacturers rise to this unprecedented opportunity with building products that are truly-certifiably-greener.

UL Environment currently offers Environmental Claims Validation (ECV), which tests and verifies manufacturers' self-declared environmental claims; Sustainable Products Certification (SPC), which evaluates and certifies products to accepted industry standards for environmental sustainability; and an Energy Efficiency Certification (EEC) Mark that validates product energy efficiency to government standards. UL Environment is developing additional environmental standards, as well as training and advisory services to support organizations in the sustainable products and services industry. c

Additional information is available at www.ulenvironment.com.

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