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Green Building Blog: The Meaning of Green

2008 August 22

About the author: Ken Sandler is Co-Chair of EPA’s Green Building Workgroup. He has worked for EPA since 1991 on sustainability issues including green building, recycling, and indoor air quality. Find out more about EPA’s green building programs at www.epa.gov/greenbuilding.

Photo of Ken Sandler standing on mountainSo what does it really mean to be green?

That may sound like one of those dreaded philosophical questions you have to ask of a white-bearded guru sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a mountaintop.

But as green becomes the hottest marketing term around, you do have to ask what it means. As everyone from your dry-cleaner to your gas station tries to convince you that they’re the greenest, how do you know who is and who isn’t?

The Federal Trade Commission, which monitors marketing claims, is looking into this issue as it updates its “Green Guides” . But the answers are not always as straightforward as we might like.

In my area of expertise, green building, EPA is considering how we can help this field better define itself. Here are a few of the questions we’re grappling with:

1) Essential components: The popular green building rating systems in the marketplace provide great flexibility to trade off among many strategies, from low-flow toilets to low-emitting paints. But are there any elements so essential that they shouldn’t be traded off – like energy efficiency?
2) Levels of green: A related question is how far you need to go to be called green – for instance, if a company changes its light bulbs to more efficient compact fluorescents, but does nothing to improve its inefficient heating and cooling system – how green can it really claim to be?
3) Lifecycle impacts: One of the most complicated exercises in the sustainability field is life cycle analysis (LCA). An LCA is the Herculean task of comparing the environmental and health impacts of a product throughout its “life” – say, from when trees are cut down or metals mined, through manufacturing and use, to ultimate disposal. An incredible challenge – and yet how can we know what’s truly greenest until we figure out how to do this type of analysis effectively?
4) Maintaining green: Finally, how long will the building or product remain green, and what maintenance will it need to keep that nice green glow from fading?

Maybe some day all of the answers will be easy to find. In the meantime, when you hear green claims, make sure to ask a lot of questions, compare and contrast products, and request as much background information as possible.

But please don’t attempt to climb any treacherous mountains looking for green gurus. No need, actually – these days, most gurus have email.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. N.J. SLABBERT permalink
    August 26, 2008

    Dear Mr Sandler
    I think you have raised a very important question above, ie how far you need to go to be called green. This takes us to the issue of defining green. Since “green” in this context is generally taken to mean a building’s suitability to its environment, I would be interested to know whether you think suitability to social and historical environment should be regarded as part of its measure of environmental sensitivity. In other words, can a building be called environmentally effective if it is, for example, energy-efficient but is not widely considered to fit well into the established character of its neighborhood, perhaps even being perceived as a visually marring presence. An ultra-modern building in an historical enclave would be a good illustration.
    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary.
    Good wishes
    N.J. Slabbert

  2. Ken Sandler permalink
    September 5, 2008

    Thanks for a very good question. This brings up the issue of the overlap of two major issues, both covered by EPA programs: green building and smart growth. Our smart growth program is all about making our communities both greener and more livable, including the issues of neighborhood cohesion and aesthetics that you raised. Please check out EPA’s program at: http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth.

    We are working to coordinate our approaches to green building and smart growth and I may well devote a future diary to this topic. Stay tuned!

  3. Dan Tate permalink
    October 14, 2008

    Hi Ken,

    You should do a post on concrete floors and indoor air quality. Seems like it is your expertise.

    Nice idea for a blog I have enjoyed the resource.

    Dan

  4. Allisha permalink
    February 2, 2009

    we are planning on starting an energy auditing company. I am looking to find out about government programs, both federal and state level. I am hoping you can point me in the right direction. Currently I have done a lot of reading on energy star programs and know that I need a blower door to produce 50pa of negative pressure and a thermal imaging camera. Currently we are looking at the FLIR B60, FLIR B200 and FLIR B250.

    Any opinions on equipment as well as federal and state programs would be of great appreciation.

  5. Mike permalink
    March 21, 2009

    Hello Ken,

    In your exploration of indoor air quality issues, have you come across any data, or ever read any opinions on the affects of buffing and burnishing floors to maintain floor finish?

    When it comes to indoor air quality it seems as though most of the focus is on VOC content in regards to chemicals and materials, which is good of course, but is it maybe short sighted?

    Floors are rarely a truly clean surface. Even after a floor was just mopped in a hospital or school, would most people consider it to be clean? With all of the potential contaminants residing on floors, buffing and burnishing simply kicks that all up into the air only to be spread through the air handling systems and settle on multiple surfaces and touch points in a building.

    The practice of buffing and burnishing is simply to temorarily restore the shine and remove fine scratches that occur in common floor finishes. People should look for finishes that do a better job of resisting scratches and maintaining their appearance.

    Finishing floors with conventional finishes, even if they are “green”, is really just putting lipstick on a pig. Would be interested in reading your opinions from an EPA perspective.

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    March 23, 2010

    What a great blog! It’s a pity that i can’t find your rrs address. If you can offer rrs subscription service, i can track your blog easier!

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    May 17, 2013

    The above 50 crowd can definitely benefit from yoga, and their life experience can be an advantage on the mat

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