Material selection is always a huge element of new construction, renovation, and commercial outfitting. Although the percentage of points allocated to the Materials and Resources (MR) category decreased from 19 to 13 percent in the 2009 LEED rating system, materials remain the primary visual and tangible interaction points between occupants and buildings. The aesthetics, durability, and sustainability features of materials are major considerations for project teams.
Rapidly renewable and regional materials tell a story about project teams and their finished spaces. For many teams, rapidly renewable products, like cork and bamboo, represent something new, different, aesthetically pleasing, and kind to the environment. Additionally, buying regional products made for and by local people supports local economies – an activity that everyone can support.
What Are Rapidly Renewable Materials?
The USGBC defines “rapidly renewable” as a material that’s able to regenerate itself in 10 years or less. That includes bio-based products made from plants harvested on a 10-year (or shorter) cycle. The goal of using rapidly renewable content is to reduce the number and quantity of products made from fossil-fuel derivatives. Rapidly renewable materials include linseed, straw, cotton, wheat, sunflowers, natural rubber, bamboo, and cork. These feedstocks are often used in green building products, like linoleum, straw bales, cotton batt insulation, wheatboard panels, bamboo cabinetry, cork flooring, soy-based foam release agents, and fabrics.
When considering rapidly renewable materials, some project teams think only of flooring – cork, bamboo, or linoleum; however, more products are incorporating bio-based materials, thus qualifying at least a portion of the materials for LEED credit. Look beyond flooring to insulation, millwork, casework, furniture, fabric, and coatings. Ask your product manufacturers what percentage of these products (and the many others not listed here) is made from rapidly renewable, bio-based, or agricultural products. Whether that number is 10 percent or 100 percent, it can contribute to the total value of products made from rapidly renewable materials.
Emerging Renewable Materials
LEED-CI Platinum was achieved in the Pittsburgh offices of the Green Building Alliance (GBA), which were constructed as a model for what can be done if one thinks out of the box. Many emerging technologies and products were used, including cabinetry constructed from Plyboo (a bamboo composite material), cork insulation, linoleum flooring, and bamboo facing on the reception desk. Each product contributed to the overall certification of the offices, although some are not typically used in space fitouts.
Another Pennsylvania project, The Barn at Fallingwater, also utilized rapidly renewable materials, including sunflower seed composite panels. Straw panels installed on the ceiling are not only rapidly renewable, but also sound absorptive. This LEED-NC Silver project also incorporates agricultural-waste fiber panels for millwork and interior finishes, plus other salvaged materials, like flooring. The CCI Center in Pittsburgh, a LEED-EB Gold project, used a number of rapidly renewable materials, including natural linoleum flooring and straw-core structural insulated panels.
Many rapidly renewable materials are grown domestically, but given U.S. geography and globalization, it can be challenging for projects pursuing LEED certification to use the same products to contribute to the “Rapidly Renewable” and the “Regional Materials” credits.
Documentation for the “Rapidly Renewable” and “Regional Materials” LEED credits follows the same basis, but with differing nuances. Both credits are based on the percentage of materials by cost that contributes to LEED credits. For rapidly renewable materials, 2.5 percent of the materials cost must be rapidly renewable for the project to pursue the single point for that credit. If 5 percent of the materials cost is from rapidly renewable feedstocks, a project may submit for an additional point under the “Innovation and Design” category for exemplary performance in rapidly renewable materials.
Purchasing products from local manufacturers is an activity that can support your local economy and reduce the emissions associated with transporting materials long distances. LEED incentivizes this practice with its “Regional Materials” credit, in which regional materials are defined as building products that are extracted, harvested or recovered, and manufactured within 500 miles of the project. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing products are not included in this calculation; neither are products that aren’t permanently installed (minus furniture, as long as it’s considered consistently for all of the MR credits). Nevertheless, if projects are following the intent of this credit, there are many opportunities to buy these components locally as well.
Finding a product that has been created within 500 miles of a project site can be complex, especially if the project team isn’t local. For this reason (and many others), one of your best resources for local products can be your local USGBC chapter or affiliate. These organizations are aware of local green building manufacturers; in some regions, they may be engaged with product sales people, distributors, and manufacturers. Either way, if you’re trying to find a certain product locally, use the USGBC chapters and affiliates as your resource; you never know what you might discover. In the case of the GBA, it works directly with green building product manufacturers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and currently has over 300 products listed in the online, searchable Pennsylvania Green Building Products Directory.
The GBA’s offices are a showcase for local and regional products, featuring everything from a concrete topping slab (literally manufactured next door) to refurbished cubicles originally manufactured elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Locally grown, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified cabinet doors and regionally made glass also contributed to multiple LEED credits.
Special attention to regional materials is also evident at The Barn at Fallingwater, which features wood products, stone, and millwork that were sourced from within 500 miles of the barn. Some materials were salvaged locally, including the utilitarian glazed block walls, the glass block windows, and the exposed, site-built roof trusses. The Barn also repurposes tongue-and-groove fir from an old ceiling as a lattice screen, while maple gym floor salvaged from a convent serves as the new thermal and moisture barrier between its two floors.
As mentioned previously, the LEED Regional Materials credit calculation is based on the percentage of regional materials by cost. Two points are available; 10 percent of the materials cost qualifies for one point, and 20 percent qualifies for the second point. As with rapidly renewable materials, an additional point in the “Innovation and Design” category for exemplary performance can be earned if 30 percent of the cost of materials is from regional products.
The material cost by which your project’s costs will be divided to determine the regional percentage is only the total of project costs in CSI divisions 3 through 10, 31, and 32. Furnishings are excluded from this credit unless included in the total material costs for LEED Materials and Resources credits 3 through 7. Thus, your regional product considerations and the overall material costs do not include appliances, equipment, or mechanical, engineering, and plumbing (MEP) fixtures. While there are many excellent MEP manufacturers working to create efficient products locally, their products can’t contribute to the LEED regional materials credit; however, in working to install regional products in a green building project, project teams can expand beyond the boundaries of LEED and, where feasible, specify local products where possible for all products, which includes the MEP category. Given that MEP products can be some of the heaviest components in a building, it only makes sense to source them from a local supplier where possible.
What about products that aren’t manufactured entirely within 500 miles of a project site? No problem. A percentage of a product can be considered regional; however, only the corresponding percentage of its cost will contribute to credit. Consequently, many project teams are depending on product manufacturers to provide them with this data – and many product manufacturers are ready and willing to supply the needed information. A knowledgeable and helpful product manufacturer will provide you this data as a percentage of its product by weight. The LEED AP on your project will then take that percentage and apply it to the overall cost of the product on the project, repeating this task for every product (or, depending on time and the scale of the project, just the most costly products and/or just those products for which the regional percentages are easy to obtain).
Many manufacturers are working tirelessly to include more environmentally friendly ingredients in their finished products, as well as to fabricate those products as locally as possible. If a project team is ever in doubt about a product’s contribution to LEED credits, the team should just ask the manufacturer. Informed companies are more than willing to provide quality information to assist green building project teams.
In the future, look for the USGBC to offer ways for project teams to use life-cycle assessment as an alternative compliance path for LEED’s regional material credit. These plans are currently under development, and many manufacturers are already exploring life-cycle assessment as a means of qualifying their green products.
Aurora Sharrard is research manager at the Green Building Alliance (GBA) and a LEED Accredited Professional. She works closely with Valerie Hearn, the GBA’s manager of green building products, policy, and business outreach, who is a LEED Green Associate. Both work with green building product manufacturers through the GBA’s Green Building Products Initiative.