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Green Is The Only Way To Go In Flooring

Sustainability consultant Alan Best looks at current and recent developments in the global approach to sustainability and how they could impact on the flooring industry:

THE world is a changing with regard to sustainability measures and the flooring industry will have to change with it.
At the time of writing it was just announced that architects from across the world unanimously adopted the 2050 Imperative which commits them to 100% net-zero energy design and construction by that year.
That is a commitment to design buildings which produce as much energy as they consume.

The declaration was signed by organisations representing 1.3m architects across 124 countries and was the first such initiative to be unanimously agreed upon. The 2050 Imperative recognises the architects’ central role in planning and designing the built environment and the need to reduce carbon emission to zero by 2050. The signatories committed to the following actions:
1. Engage in research and set targets to meet the 2050 goal.
2. Plan and design cities, towns, urban developments and new buildings to be carbon neutral (net-zero energy), using no more energy over the course of a year than they produce, or import from renewable energy sources.
3. Renovate and rehabilitate existing cities, towns, urban redevelopments and buildings to be carbon neutral while respecting cultural and heritage values.
4. In those cases where net-zero isn’t feasible or practical, designs will be extremely efficient, with the ability to produce or import all energy from renewable energy sources in the future.
5. Advocate and promote socially responsible architecture to the community.
Speaking after the signing, Helene Combs Dreiling, president of the American Institute of Architects, said that over the next 20 years an area roughly equal to 60% of the total building stock of the world is projected to be built and rebuilt in urban areas worldwide. This, she says, provides an unprecedented opportunity to set the global building sector on a path to phase out carbon emissions by 2050.
Here in the EU we are well ahead of this timetable. The Directive of Energy Performance of Buildings 2010/31/EU Article 9 requires that ‘Member States shall ensure that by December 31, 2020, all new buildings are nearly zero-energy buildings; and after December 31, 2018, new buildings occupied and owned by public authorities are nearly zero-energy buildings’.
Member States shall furthermore ‘draw up national plans for increasing the number of nearly zero-energy buildings’ and ‘following the leading example of the public sector, develop policies and take measures such as the setting of targets in order to stimulate the transformation of buildings that are refurbished into nearly zero-energy buildings’.
This will clearly impact on current environmental standards for the design of buildings in the UK. Hitherto the standards that have most affected flooring products in the UK have been BREEAM (and the Code for Sustainable Homes) and to a lesser extent the US LEED Standards.
Flooring products still, I believe, represent the majority of products certified under the BRE Environmental Profiles scheme which is costly and time consuming, but often necessary to provide evidence that the flooring will meet the BREEAM standard required by a client. Ratings range from Pass to Excellent.
Although BREEAM and LEED are voluntary they are often a client stipulation and therefore essential. There are currently around 116,000 buildings certified under BREEAM with a further 714,000 registered. LEED has around 400 buildings currently certified in the UK with another 3500 seeking certification. This is a small fraction of current building stock but has provided two key methodologies for the calculation of the environmental impacts of buildings.
A key component in both current methodologies is the calculation of energy use during construction and use of the building. A compulsory move to Net Zero Energy buildings will require a re think of certification criteria by both schemes and significant changes are likely to follow.
How then will flooring products contribute to the Net Zero Energy picture?
Clearly flooring maintenance regimes make constant demands on energy and perhaps there will be an increased move towards low maintenance floors and finishes. There is probably room for innovation here involving both the flooring and the machines used to clean them.
As readers are no doubt aware the EU has banned the manufacture of vacuum motors above 1600 watts and with it some of the best performing vacuum cleaners. Therefore I suspect it will be more difficult for the FM sector to comply with some current carpet and other flooring warranty stipulations. Perhaps new nano chemical based sealants and soil repellents will emerge such as those used on ceramic bathroom fittings making them permanently easier to clean and requiring no re coating during its lifetime.
There is another factor regarding Net Zero Energy Buildings that I have touched on frequently and that is the presence of certain harmful chemicals in flooring and other construction materials and which are in danger of being overlooked in the quest for energy efficiency.
The use of safer building materials compatible with Net Zero Energy design is not specifically mentioned in the five points signed up to by the architects in the 2050 Imperative. Also what will Net Zero Energy buildings look like and what will they be like to work and live in?
In 2003 leading architect, Bill McDonough, co-founder, with Professor Michael Braungart, of the Cradle to Cradle Certification scheme wrote in Industry & Environment, a quarterly publication of the UN Environment Programme:
‘……Energy efficient buildings, which are designed to require less heating and cooling, and thus less air circulation, can make things worse. A recent study in Germany, for example, found that air quality inside several highly rated energy efficient buildings in downtown Hamburg was nearly four times worse than on the dirty, car-clogged street.
For all the care taken to save energy by keeping out the elements with better insulation and sealed windows, no one considered the long-term effects of sealing in the chemically laden carpets, upholsteries, paints and adhesives used to finish the interiors.
The effects are hard to ignore. Where buildings with reduced air-exchange rates are common, so are health problems. In Germany, where tax credits support the construction of energy efficient buildings, allergies affect 42% of children aged 6 -7, largely due to the poor quality of indoor air.
Eco-efficient buildings also have a cultural impact. Following the old modernist aesthetic, they tend to be steel and glass boxes short on fresh air and natural light, their internal ecosystems divorced from their surroundings.
In Frankfurt or Indonesia, they are the same. Architecture critic James Howard Kunstler has called these Bauhaus-inspired structures ‘intrinsically despotic buildings that [make] people feel placeless, powerless, insignificant, and less than human.’
Are these the kind of buildings we want all over the world? Can’t we do better?’ These for me are still key considerations in which flooring products have an important part to play both technically and aesthetically.
To add to these developing environmental and regulatory issues something that the industry is fully aware of, and is working hard to improve, is the fact that flooring continues to be a major source of waste. Increases in landfill taxes seem inevitable and there is a distinct possibility of landfill being removed as an option for some flooring types.
Helpful innovations here would include designing more flooring for end of life recycling and for high specification re-use following refurbishments. And perhaps post-consumer flooring collection points will one day become as common as bottle banks around the country.
n Alan Best, a sustainability consultant, is chair of the Flooring Sustainability Partnership, which he attends on behalf of Shaw Industries Group. He works with a number of construction related industries specialising in environmental certification, substitution of hazardous chemicals and waste reduction. Alan is co-author of the Croner ‘Essential Guide to REACH’. He also sits on a number of international bodies where he represents Shaw Industries Group.

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at