Eco-labels, eco-scorecards, third-party product certifications, Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), Health Product Declarations (HPDs)—the sheer number of green building terms thrown around these days is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Even if you’re a LEED Accredited Professional, it can be hard to keep up with the ever-changing world of sustainable design. The coming launch of LEED v4—the latest iteration of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) ubiquitous rating system—will increase that learning curve even further.
But before you go jumping off the green bandwagon, there’s good news: if you’re responsible for specifying products and furnishings for LEED projects, life is about to get a whole lot simpler.
Architects, designers and facility managers pursuing LEED certification may now be able to earn points for specifying level®-certified furniture products under the USGBC’s new Pilot Credit 80:
Environmentally Preferable Interior Finishes and Furnishings (MRpc80)—a credit that specifically
recognizes products that have been certified to the ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard.
According to the USGBC, the purpose of MRpc80 is to increase the use of interior finishes and furnishings
with validated multi-attribute environmental and social profiles. This represents a significant shift away from previous versions of LEED, which only focused on single-attribute certifications measuring things like recycled content or VOCs.
“With LEED v4, we’ve placed a very heavy emphasis on life-cycle assessment and created [a system] that is focused on encouraging simultaneous, multi-attribute optimization,” explains Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development for USGBC.
“We’ve given [specifiers] the basics of single-attribute evaluations,” he adds. “Now all we’re asking them to do is combine all that stuff and say, ‘Alright, let’s make good decisions across this entire range of issues.’”
Environmentally-conscious designers and architects are more than happy to oblige because they understand that good design isn’t just about aesthetics or even performance anymore; it’s also about mitigating the negative impacts that materials can have on our health and the environment.
“We are exposed to hundreds of chemicals daily; we are unaware of many of those, which may be causing us harm by either breathing fumes or dust, by ingestion or by touch,” notes Deborah Fuller, RID, IIDA, LEED AP, sustainable knowledge leader at HOK. “We are seeing many more reports that show how chemicals have a direct effect on human health.”
Fuller suggests that being aware of these chemicals and trying to eliminate them from both finishes and products is the first step in providing
healthier spaces to clients—essentially what MRpc80 was designed to do.
“The general idea is that [USGBC is] trying to create transparency in the marketplace, so the specifier understands what’s really in that product and how it affects the occupant,” says Alicia Snyder-Carlson, a senior consultant at Green Building Services, Inc.
how it works
Under MRpc80, all level-certified furniture products may contribute to LEED certification credits based on a sliding percentage scale for level 1, 2, or 3 conformance tiers. According to the USGBC, a project must include at least five different third-party certified products that account for at least 50 percent of the total interior finishes and furnishing materials by cost.
In other words, earning LEED points on a project can be as simple as specifying level-certified products, whether it is done within LEED v4 or an older version
of the rating system. To be clear, MRpc80 is not yet part of LEED v4—it is currently being evaluated by industry stakeholders as part of the pilot credit process. As the USGBC gathers feedback on its language and considers alternate compliance paths, the credit will continue to evolve, with the goal of having MRpc80 (as well as several other new pilot credits) approved for the next version of LEED.
In the meantime, designers working on projects targeting LEED certification can use MRpc80 by specifying level-certified products, and may receive a point under the Innovation in Design credit category in return.
the next level
A number of furniture manufacturers have already undergone the rigorous process of achieving multi-attribute certification for their products, which many believe will help level the playing field (pun intended) for the entire industry.
“I would say that for the most part, the product manufacturers and the broader industry are actually embracing the shift to an LCA-basis of LEED rather enthusiastically,” says Owens. “That gives them the ability to talk about the way that they think about their products, rather than just talking about one aspect of their product.”
According to Brent Kress, eco-strategist at Versteel, the focus in recent years on single-attribute testing and certification programs, while providing a starting point for market transformation, has ultimately confused specifiers about what constitutes a sustainable product.
“The market, in my opinion, has been kind of brainwashed into thinking that GREENGUARD and VOC testing is the end all, be all,” he says. “What they don’t realize is that VOC testing is only two points out of 90 of level. It’s not even an apples-to-oranges comparison, and that’s the mindset.”
In the past, the limited number of sustainable, affordable, aesthetically-pleasing and high-performing products was a legitimate concern and a challenge for designers. That’s no longer a valid excuse.
“There are thousands of level-certified products out there right now, so there are plenty of options, whether it’s seating, casegoods or tables,” suggests Nick Blessinger, marketing communications manager for National Office Furniture. “Designers really have no reason to not specify a level-certified product” now that it is recognized by the USGBC, he says.
While BIFMA’s level is presently the only product standard named in the credit—a fact that some industry groups have criticized as a tacit endorsement—the USGBC says it is currently seeking input on and evaluating other multi-attribute, third-party product certification programs to include in the near future. “What we’ve discovered is that many of the programs that are out there aren’t necessarily as directly aligned to the outcomes that LEED v4 is seeking,” Owens explains, adding, “I don’t think it’s too disparaging to say that the BIFMA e3 program is like LEED for office furniture.”