Materials & Resources
In the construction and day-to-day operations of buildings, many materials and resources are used and a great deal of waste is generated. The materials selected for use in a facility and the way they are disposed of impact the environment. Building managers and operators should follow protocols that encourage the selection of sustainably produced and transported products and materials. They should also be vigilant about reducing waste, re-using items, and recycling materials at the end of their useful life. Carefully selecting and disposing of materials is an important part of a building’s environmental, health, and social responsibility. See the Solid Waste Whole Building System for guidance on reducing waste.
Adaptive reuse refers to buildings that are repurposed for a use that is different than the original builders intended. These projects have lower embodied energy than new construction and help preserve existing, architecturally-relevant and historic buildings.
A product or material derived from plants or other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials. Biobased products generally provide an alternative to conventional petroleum derived products and include a diverse range of offerings such as lubricants, detergents, inks, fertilizers, and bioplastics. See the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) BioPreferred program for more information.
Read up on biomass technology basics at the Department of Energy's renewable energy module. Click the link below for more information on bio-based products and their selection.
Certified wood is a timber product approved by a recognized third party certifying organization as being obtained from a responsibly managed forest anywhere in the world. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a leading forest certification system, provides internationally recognized standards and accreditation services to companies, organizations, and communities interested in responsible forestry.
Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs)
Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) use less energy than incandescent lamps (light bulbs) and have a longer life span; however, CFLs contain mercury, a highly toxic substance that can have negative environmental impacts. Develop a lamp purchasing plan that will maximize lamp efficiency while maintaining low mercury content. Help reduce the amount of toxic materials entering the facility’s waste stream by recycling all mercury containing lamps.
Consider light emitting diodes (LEDs) as a cost-effective alternative to CFLs.
Composting is the process of decomposing organic waste such as paper plates, food waste, and yard trimmings. By composting, less waste is sent to the landfill. Soil with compost improves plant growth with less water; compost can also be used for erosion control.
Construction and Demolition Waste
Unlike operational waste, which is made after a building is built, construction waste refers to materials and debris generated during construction, renovation, demolition, or dismantling of structures, buildings and associated infrastructure. Material types in operational and construction waste differ from operational waste, so reduction and diversion strategies also differ. See Whole Building Design Guide | Construction Waste Management.
Durable goods have a long useful life (typically two years or more), are replaced infrequently, and typically have a high cost per unit. Examples of durable goods include furniture, printers, computers, refrigerators and televisions.
Durable Goods Recycling
Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by properly disposing of durable goods such as furniture and electronics. Durable goods may be diverted from the landfill through re-use programs or recycling. Find a local program or charity to donate used furniture or electronics, or find a certified vendor who will responsibly recycle the materials.
A measure of the energy used to harvest, manufacture, process, bring to market, and dispose of a product. In Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of building materials, embodied energy helps identify the true energy cost of an item. This accounting method attempts to quantify the fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other forms of energy that are involved over the material's life.
ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy that helps businesses and individuals save energy and fight climate change through energy efficient products, homes, and buildings. Products with an ENERGY STAR label are independently certified to have met the energy efficiency requirements set forth in ENERGY STAR. Over 70 different product categories have ENERGY STAR certified products including various building products, electronics, office equipment, lighting and fans, appliances, water heaters, battery chargers, and heating and cooling products. For buildings, the EPA provides ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager®, an online tool to measure and track energy and water consumption, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA also offers ENERGY STAR certification for top performing commercial buildings and industrial plants. To be eligible for ENERGY STAR certification, a building must earn an ENERGY STAR score of 75 or higher, indicating that it performs better than at least 75 percent of similar buildings nationwide.
Environmentally Preferable Products (EPP) and Services
These products and services are less harmful to the environment than their standard counterparts. Executive Order 13693 requires agencies to promote sustainable acquisition and procurement by ensuring that they purchase EPPs to the maximum extent practicable for all applicable procurements in the planning, award, and execution phases of the acquisition. See: EPA | About the Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Program
Federal Facility Criteria
The Whole Building Design Guide's Federal Facility Criteria (formerly Construction Criteria Base) is an extensive electronic library of construction guide specifications, manuals, standards and many other essential criteria documents. Published and updated continuously, it contains the complete unabridged, approved, current electronic equivalents of over 10,000 documents direct from participating federal agencies. WBDG's Federal Facility Criteria is the most effective tool available for finding and using current, approved U.S. construction criteria.
Green Seal is an independent, nonprofit organization which certifies and develops standards for products. Paints, adhesives, sealers, hand cleaners, cleaning products, and floor finishes are examples of products that Green Seal evaluates on toxin release, global warming potential, and potential for habitat destruction.
The Guiding Principles for Sustainable Federal Buildings are a set of sustainable principles for integrated design, energy performance, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, materials, and climate change adaptation aimed at helping Federal agencies and organizations:
- Reduce the total ownership cost of facilities
- Improve energy efficiency and water conservation
- Provide safe, healthy, and productive built environments
- Promote sustainable environmental stewardship
Invasive Species Wood
Traditional species of trees, such as mahogany, oak, and maple, can come from old-growth trees which can take over one hundred years to mature. There is a trend in green buildings to use lumber from faster growing trees and trees which have traditionally been considered “weeds”. New technologies make it easier to harvest this wood and use it in place of slower-growing lumber. Some examples of “weed” species are Tree of Heaven and Rosewood.
Janka Hardness Test
The Janka hardness test measures the hardness of wood, which is a useful indicator of how resistant the wood is to wear and tear. The results of this test are published in a chart called the Janka Hardness Scale, which can be used select the most suitable wood for flooring and furniture products.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are toxins found within products (paints, adhesives, cleaners, carpets, particle board, etc) and that are released into a space’s indoor air, thus harming its quality. Low VOC products are those that meet or exceed various standards for low-emitting materials. Low-emitting standards include Green Seal, SCAQMD, CRI Green Label Plus, Floor Score, etc.
Materials used in buildings often contain compounds that have a negative effect on indoor air quality (IAQ) and the earth’s atmosphere. These compounds can be present in adhesives, sealants, paints, flooring, carpets, composite wood and agrifiber products, furnishings, and in ceiling and wall systems. Low-emitting materials release only small amounts of these compounds into the surrounding air over time. Strategies for selecting low-emitting options include ensuring material compliance with the ANSI/BIFMA X7.1-2007 standard for furniture emissions. Non-profit certification programs that verify conformance with the standard including but not limited to SCS Indoor Advantage, Certified Green, Greenguard, and any other program that uses the open ANSI standard.
Non-toxic implies that a product, substance, or chemical will not cause adverse health effects, either immediately or over the long-term.
Ongoing consumables are items which have a relative low-cost per unit and are replaced frequently throughout the course of business. This includes items such as pens, pencils, paper, as well as toner cartridges and batteries.
Ozone-depleting Compound (ODC)
Once released into the atmosphere, ODCs reduce the ozone layer’s ability to filter out harmful radiation. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and halons are examples of ODCs. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments phase out production of these chemicals. A list of ODCs can be found at EPA | Ozone Layer Protection.
Post-consumer content is an end product that has completed its life cycle as a consumer item and rather than being sent to the landfill, it is diverted by reusing the material in a new product. Examples of items that may include post-consumer content are office paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, plastics and metals. By recycling materials that have served their intended use, new products can be made. For example, a plastic bottle can become carpet backing by placing it in a recycling bin. It’s just as important to purchase materials that contain recycled content as it is to recycle.
Pre-consumer materials are generated by manufacturers and processors, and may consist of scrap, trimmings and other by-products that were never used in the consumer market. Examples of pre-consumer materials are sawdust, planer shavings, walnut shells, trimmed materials, damaged or obsolete products, and production over-runs.
Rapidly renewable materials are agricultural products (fiber or animal) that are quickly grown or raised in 10 years or less, and can be harvested in a sustainable fashion. Examples include: bamboo, straw, cork, true linoleum products, wool, wheatboard, and strawboard.
Reclaimed lumber is wood collected from sources in the built environment rather than from fresh cut timber. This can include barn wood, old factory wood, and wood from boxcars or wine barrels. There are many advantages to using reclaimed wood, but one is the availability of exotic species that may no longer be available on the market. Additionally, reclaimed wood is often weathered and may be more aesthetically pleasing than conventional lumber.
Products containing recycled content are made from materials that would otherwise be discarded. Recycled content material reduces the need for virgin materials. There are two types of recycled content: post-consumer and pre-consumer (also called post-industrial).
Glass, plastic, aluminum, cardboard and paper (including glossy magazines, envelopes with plastic windows and sticky notes) can all be easily recycled. Depending on the waste hauler, recycling bins can include commingled waste (i.e. all materials are collected in one bin) or they may require separated waste (i.e. one bin for paper, one bin for plastics, etc). By recycling products, materials are sent back to the marketplace rather than to the landfill.
Most materials, goods and products travel a far distance via ship, train or truck before arriving at their final destination. The impacts associated with transporting those goods and products can be significant – added traffic congestion, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and worsening of air pollution. By selecting products that are locally sourced, the impacts of transportation are minimized. Additionally, choosing local or regional materials supports the local economy.
Responsibly Managed Forests
Responsibly managed forests are maintained to preserve the health and diversity of the forest while meeting society’s demand for forest products. Responsibly managed forests prohibit clear cutting, respect the rights of indigenous peoples, and maintain biodiversity, productivity and regeneration capacity. All certified wood comes from responsibly managed forests, but not all wood from responsibly managed forests is third-party certified.
Retained or Re-used Building Components
When a building is remodeled or a new addition added, elements of the structure can be retained and re-used. This is a type of source reduction. Examples of retained or re-used building components are finished ceilings, finished floors, interior doors, and other goods which remain in the completed design.
Similar to recycling, reuse refers to finding new uses for items instead of sending them to landfills. Can furniture be reused in another department of the company? Can electronics be donated to charity? Even using an empty soda bottle to make a hummingbird feeder is a way to reuse items instead of trashing them.
Waste comprises all materials that flow from a building to final disposal. Examples include paper, grass trimmings, food scraps, and plastics. Responsible stewardship tries to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill. This can mean recycling paper, mulching or composting grass trimmings, and reusing large items, such as furniture.
Source reduction reduces the volume or toxicity of waste generated. Source reduction occurs before materials have been identified as “waste”. For example, building management can designate reuse centers for office supplies and other reusable goods. Another example of source reduction is implementing a paper reduction campaign through double sided and electronic printing.
Submetering or system-level metering is used to determine the proportion of energy use within a building attributable to specific end uses or subsystems (e.g., the ventilation system of an HVAC system). This energy use information can be used to support energy management and identify opportunities for additional energy saving improvements.
In nature, mature wooded areas periodically burn, clearing out small seedling trees, bushes, and other items in the underbrush and leaving the larger trees intact. Modern forestry prevents forest fires, which causes the forest to be denser than it would be naturally and thus a greater fire hazard. In order to remedy that, responsible modern forestry removes less healthy seedlings, brush, grass, and other items. These materials, removed for “suppression” can be processed and utilized in buildings.
Purchasing managers should create purchasing plans and programs that give preference to items containing recycled content, certified wood, and rapidly renewable materials, as well as items that are energy efficient, non-toxic, durable and locally manufactured, harvested and / or extracted. Further, purchasing managers should prioritize vendors who promote source reduction through reusable or minimal packaging of products.
Vinyl Wall Coverings
One way to cover walls in a high-traffic area is to use vinyl wall coverings. Vinyl is a substance created from various plastics and polymers. As a wall covering, it is durable, fire-resistant, and easy to clean. It can also contain high levels of VOCs, so project managers should carefully research and weigh the options.
Virgin materials are natural resources that are extracted in their raw form that are traditionally used in industrial or manufacturing processes. Examples of virgin materials are timber, plastic resin derived from petroleum refining process, and mined/processed metals.
Waste diversion is the process of diverting waste from the landfill. Waste in landfills and incinerators create greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Ways to increase waste diversion include recycling, reusing, and source reduction.
Waste Stream Audit
Waste audits quantify the types and amounts of waste produced. Information from audits can be used to identify ways to reduce waste generation and increase waste diversion.
Waste-to-energy processes recover heat, electricity and fuel from non-diverted and non-recyclable waste. Incineration, gasification, pyrolization, anaerobic digestion, and landfill gas recovery are examples of waste-to-energy processes. See EPA | Advancing Sustainable Materials Management.
The lumber used in a project should encourage environmentally responsible forest management and minimize the negative impact of a project on forests. There are many ways to select lower-impact lumber for a project, taking into account the team’s needs, budget, availability of resources, and other factors. There are traditional lumber types, rapidly renewing materials (like bamboo), and species which have not traditionally been used for construction.
Did You Know?
Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60-watt bulb for up to 6 hours.
Comfortable workers are more likely to be productive and engaged with their work than those who struggle to work in spaces that create barriers and stresses. With an ever increasing number of environmental issues to be mindful of when designing spaces, GSA is developing practices that support both sustainability and worker comfort.
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