Which Is the Right Flooring Certification for You?

Nov. 26, 2013
Choose between single- and multi-attribute programs.

Flooring certifications got you floored? It’s understandable. There are many flooring certifications and they cover everything from cork to carpet tile and rubber to rugs. But you don’t have to sweep your sustainability efforts under there.

“Learning how to identify sustainable flooring products has become easier with tools like third-party environmental certifications at your disposal,” says Chris Youssef, associate interior designer with design firm Perkins+Will. “The key is to educate yourself on which attributes meet the chosen goals and priorities, and then finding a credible designation with those products certified under it.”

Standards and certifications verify that salespeople aren’t lying like rugs about their green claims. And although the sheer number flooring certifications is daunting, they should be a significant part of your decision process.

“You’ve got to weave sustainability certifications into the aesthetic and price point considerations. It’s a complex buy, and going green has certainly made it tougher to weigh all these decisions,” explains Dave Kitts, vice president – environment at flooring manufacturer Mannington. “You’ve got to be informed.”

The learning curve may seem steep, but this guide will make your journey a little less bumpy. Use the following information to roll out a red carpet for flooring certifications.

Single-Attribute Standards
Early designations focused specifically on one aspect of sustainability such as VOC emissions or recycled content.

“When going green was new and fresh, it was all about indoor air quality characteristics from a product perspective,” Kitts says. “Fifteen or more years ago, the perception was that carpet and flooring were unhealthy because of their production, adhesion, and maintenance.”

From a building owner and facility manager standpoint, single-attribute certifications had the most significant impact and made the most sense to pursue.

“Thinking about occupant health and productivity, VOCs are normally the first issue that specifiers and owners are concerned about,” explains Bill Freeman, consultant to the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI). “Emissions can be harmful and disruptive.”

In the early 2000s, California set the standard on acceptable total VOCs in a product, and many early sustainability certifications adopted the benchmark set forth in CA 01350.

The FloorScore program implemented California’s stringent emissions requirements for resilient flooring products and was developed by RFCI and Underwriter Laboratories (UL) Environmental. Green Label Plus, from the Carpet and Rug Institute, applied the standard’s baseline for textile flooring. GREENGUARD uses even stricter requirements because it focuses predominantly on education, healthcare, and areas where children are often present. For a crash course on these and other certifications, see the table.

“Indoor air is a very important part of what we do because we deal with finishes,” says Diane Martel, vice president of environmental planning and strategy for manufacturer Tarkett North America. “We want to provide people-friendly spaces.”PageBreak

Lifecycle Certifications
Creating environmentally friendly spaces necessitates digging a little deeper.

“Early single-attribute standards spurred a broader approach,” Kitts says. “An evolution was brought on by LEED, Green Globes, and other local green building rating systems. The purpose was to have a more holistic view of a product.”

By incorporating multiple attributes into certifications, a much larger and clearer picture of sustainability emerged.

“To take a wide lifecycle perspective – where and how a product is made, its end use, and disposal – multiple stakeholders are involved, including manufacturers, end users, government regulators, and architects,” explains Kitts. “We want to define green in a consistent way instead of reinventing the wheel every time.”

Stakeholders found that answering the question of what is green entailed many different answers. “It’s a lot different than just asking what the recycled content is. Multi-attribute assessment standards allow you to bundle a lot of factors into one certification that answers all your questions,” Kitts adds.

Certifications such as ECOLOGO, Green Squared, NSF 140 for carpet, and NSF 332 for resilient flooring take into account raw material extraction, end-of-life management, and recycling, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, and water consumption of the manufacturing process.

“Some people think that manufacturers are not interested in the environment, but most understand their responsibilities and are dedicated to reducing environmental impacts from their products,” says Freeman. “They’re pursuing environmental certifications to provide what the marketplace wants, but at the same time, they want to be more responsible. We’re all working toward the same goal.”

Whether your goal is to be greener or earn LEED certification on a project, look for multi-attribute certifications to take the next step toward sustainability.

“Although many building owners are typically concerned with VOC emissions first and foremost, if they have additional environmental concerns, they can dig deeper and learn more about building product sustainability assessments and environmental declarations,” Freeman explains. “Products with lifecycle assessments can earn credits in the Materials & Resources section of LEED v4.”

Tools for Transparency
Standards and certifications do most of the heavy lifting for you, but if several products have earned the same designations, your decision may seem more difficult than ever.

Not to worry – two new tools from RFCI, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Product Transparency Declarations (PTDs), enable you to perform apples-to-apples comparisons.

“EPDs and PTDs present a product’s ecological impact in a way that is easy to digest,” explains Kitts. “Lifecycle assessments are very detailed and granular. They have a scientific feel and are hard to understand. EPDs and PTDs standardize lifecycle information and explain it for an average reader.”

Think of these tools as nutritional labels for a given flooring product. PTDs marry both ingredient and exposure disclosure by identifying and indicating proper levels of a product’s chemicals. EPDs document environmental impacts from cradle to grave.

“These tools are very specific to a building material and allow building owners to make product comparisons by providing not only ingredients but also the environmental impacts,” Freeman says. “They’re the next step in product transparency.”

Like most standards and certifications, EPDs and PTDs are voluntary, so if a manufacturer has pursued them, you can feel confident in their commitment to sustainability.PageBreak

Sustainable Means Functional
These days, sustainable offerings are comparable to conventional ones in terms of price, performance, and aesthetics, but some still require extra attention. Don’t neglect other due diligence just because a product has a fancy label. For examples of what to consider for different flooring types, see the sidebar.

“In focusing on green, long-term functionality and performance can be missed,” warns Kitts. “A robust, beautiful, and durable product in many ways is the greenest choice.”

Don’t focus all your energy on sustainability when specifying a system. Get the manufacturer to provide references for projects that have used the product in a similar application, and contact the user for practical input if possible. Set clear guidelines for preparation of the subfloor to create the conditions needed for the product. Check the qualifications and experience of the installer, and verify references and feedback from past projects.

“Environmentally speaking, you don’t want to send a green product to the landfill because it’s not working,” Martel explains.

When you hear the term lifecycle assessment being thrown around, beware that it doesn’t mean lifecycle cost, Kitts adds.

“Lifecycle assessment is an in-depth ecological evaluation, but lifecycle cost is economic,” he says. “It considers cost not just at point of purchase, but also end use, maintenance, and disposal.”

Address these concerns upfront for a long-lasting, sustainable system.

“Owners should know if a floor costs X but then costs double to maintain over 10 years and also has a significant cost attached to disposal,” explains Kitts. “If you have a super green product that only lasts three years, that’s taxing on the environment, and maybe more importantly, your pocketbook.”

Chris Curtland [email protected] is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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