Definitions of Green Chemistry and a Look into Green Advocacy Issues

Posted on 12/9/2013 3:16:29 PM By Bob Braun

In this post, I look at the “Green Building” issues and commonality amongst the many organizations that use and define this term versus the term “High Performance Buildings.”  In previous posts, I reviewed the origin of chemical red lists versus standing regulatory compliance issues and looked at the various rationales for including specific chemicals on these lists.  

ASC sponsored a webinar recently on this subject from the viewpoint of the legal ramifications associated with product claims, as well as many building designers’ motivations to tout Green building designs.  I will discuss this presentation later in this blog.

Here are a couple of Green Building definitions for your review:

Wikipedia defines Green Building as, “…a structure and using process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle: from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.…” 

From Build Green: “A green building is an environmentally sustainable building, designed, constructed, and operated to minimize the total environmental impacts.”  

EPA defines Green Building as “…the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction. This practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. Green building is also known as a sustainable or high performance building.”
Can you see a common thread in the definitions above?

EPA provides the most comprehensive definition.  One item not specifically mentioned, but one that has come to the forefront recently (with the introduction of the LEED v4 version), are the credits now given for the use of “green chemicals”.  A green chemical is more or less defined as one that is not presently listed on the red lists I have previously reviewed

Here is what the Whole Building Design Guide, a program of the National Institute of Building Science, says regarding the selection of green products—

“Because of this high degree of variability, the evaluation of green products requires a working knowledge of:

1.  Relevant health and environmental impact issues associated with different material types;
2.  Government, industry, and third-party standards for green products, where they exist; and
3.  Available green products in the marketplace, including their specific green attributes, performance characteristics, appearance, and costs.”

One additional feature of the EPA ‘s definition is that it links the idea of green building with high performance building.  So now let us look at the definition of “high performance buildings”.  This is a bit more difficult to capture succinctly, but in general, a high performance building has focused historically on energy and durability.  However, over the last several years, there has been a commingling of the concept of a “green building” and a “high performance building.”  By definition, these two concepts often fly in the face of each other.  

Also, one can see that a multifunctional product (which may be less green) might offer additional benefits over a greener single function product.   This will lead to a reduction of sustainability and complicates the greenest product selection.   For Example, some products insulate and air seal and others only do one of these functions.  Additionally, one product may perform the same function as another, but at a reduced usage level.  A multifunctional product may also produce a building that incorporates a reduction of other building materials such as lumber or steel.

As one attempts to achieve ever higher levels of “green-ness”, building efficiency can be compromised.  Energy savings are a much easier metric to quantify when compared to the notion of “being green.” 

Furthermore, green today may not be green tomorrow.  CFC’s were considered very safe chemicals for many decades and the CFC manufactures praised them for many years.  This was because of the CFCs very high TLV values and very low human toxicity ratings.  However, these chemicals were later linked to global ozone depletion, which has the potential to affect adversely human health. I had a boss once who often told me, “Bob, you can never be too careful,” in his attempt to minimize laboratory accidents.  Over the years, I have often thought about this statement and the implications of it, even though I well understood his intention about lab safety. 

Now—back to the recent webinar I mentioned above.  Dr. Ujjval K. Vyas, Principal of the Alberti Group delivered the ASC webinar on Nov 13, 2013 titled “The Perils of Manufacturer Misrepresentation Driven by Green Advocacy, NGOs and USGBC.”  Dr, Ujjval reviewed the evolution of the LEED program and how it has influenced the entire building community in many ways.  His presentation walks through the motivations for building owners/developers, as well as the philanthropic and vanity participants and the product marketing sponsors.  He then relates these issues to the trends in public perception, the economic analysis, objective data, and finally to building performance and risk management.

Anything you’d like to see in the future on this topic?  Questions I can answer? Post a comment below and I’ll respond.

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