Choosing green products to use in sustainable projects is always a balancing act, according to Dave Wesemann, LEED AP, VP, and principal electrical engineer at Spectrum Engineers, a Salt Lake City-based full-service MEP firm. Considerations include initial cost, long-term costs, ease of operation, and ease of replacement parts. “We go through life cycle cost analysis to make sure we’re making the right decision,” Wesemann says. “We like to make sure each product has been tested and proven, can be maintained, and is also cost-effective.”

Therefore, Wesemann tries to keep things simple. He and his team make sure the products they specify — and the replacement parts — are readily available and easy to maintain. “We’re careful not to specify the newest, latest whiz-bang items out there on the market,” he says. “The last thing we want to do is specify a system that’s so complex that it just gets abandoned when the building is done, and the architect and engineer walk away.”

Off the shelf

In fact, a 2009 survey of buildings by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the National Research Council reveals that buildings that achieve energy use reductions of 50% or more below standard practice do not typically incorporate state-of-the-art technologies. Instead, according to the report, “Real Prospects for Energy Efficiency in the United States,” the highest-performing buildings integrate multiple “state-of-the-shelf” technologies to achieve these performance levels. “This represents a huge opportunity for improved energy performance using existing, available technologies,” reads the report. “It’s not the leading-edge technologies that make the difference.”

For example, a low-ballast factor, program-start electronic ballast in combination with a 3,100-lumen T8 lamp is what Wesemann describes as the “workhorse” of energy efficiency. Pairing the energy-efficient luminaire with the ballast that drives it is the ultimate way to reduce overall lighting energy. “You want to make sure that when the luminaire is turned on, it is delivering light in the most efficient way it can,” he explains. “Then with the controls, you make sure the light isn’t on more than it needs to be.”

In addition, the combination provides the most lumens per watt with a competitive initial cost and maintenance costs, partly due to the use of standard products. “You see these 4-foot lamps all over the place,” says Wesemann, who claims that, in general, the T8 lamp is the most predominantly used lamp. However, the higher lumens version is slightly more expensive — about $5 or $10 per luminaire — than the standard 2,800-lumen lamp. “For a very small premium, you can get into what is called ‘premium’ efficiency,” says Wesemann, who says that maintenance personnel can replace the higher efficiency units with the standard lamp later, if necessary.

For that reason, he specifies these lamp and ballast combinations even if a building isn’t considered green or seeking a sustainable certification, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). “It’s something we propose on every project,” says Wesemann, who is a LEED-accredited professional. “In Utah, there have been three platinum LEED projects, and Spectrum has been involved with all of them. But we still specify these energy-efficient lamps and ballasts, whether or not the project is considered sustainable.”

Zero-energy buildings

Many federal, state, and local building codes have recently adopted more stringent energy-efficient standards. Therefore, even in non-accredited or certified green projects, products that decrease energy use are welcome. “You cannot use over a certain amount of energy per square foot based on the type of building, so those products help us to meet those codes as well,” says Wesemann, who states that most public building projects in Utah have at least some green considerations, particularly state government buildings and campuses for higher education.

In fact, education buildings were the largest market for green building in 2008, according to New York-based McGraw-Hill Construction’s Green Outlook 2011 report, “Green Trends Driving Growth.” The report predicted this market to grow from $9 billion in 2008 to between $13 billion and $16 billion in 2010.

However, other sustainable initiatives focus on commercial buildings. In San Francisco, Mayor Edwin Lee recently signed into law the Existing Commercial Building Energy Performance Ordinance, which will require non-residential buildings to make annual energy-usage reports available to the public. In addition, the new city code mandates that buildings over 10,000 square feet complete an energy-efficiency audit every five years.

In September, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) introduced a statewide plan designed to help commercial building owners to achieve net-zero energy use. The Zero Net Energy (ZNE) Action Plan aims to transform the state’s commercial buildings into energy-efficient facilities that are also powered by renewable or clean energy by 2030. To date, California has more ZNE buildings than any other state in the nation. Technologies needed to achieve ZNE — including high-performance lighting and rooftop photovoltaic (PV) arrays — are widely available, and the state and utilities offer many incentives to building owners.

Finally, the International Code Council, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that develops commercial and residential building codes and standards used by many state and local governments, revised its 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) in late October, based on proposals by a coalition led by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE); the New Buildings Institute (NBI), White Salmon, Wash.; and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Washington, D.C. The revisions call for a reduction in energy use by 30%, compared to the standards specified in the 2006 IECC. The changes include requirements for daylight zone controls, a new compliance option allowing the builder to choose between high-performance lighting, high-performance HVAC equipment, or on-site renewable power generation in meeting the code’s requirements for energy conservation. Methods specified include controlling all lamps or luminaires; dual switching of alternate rows of luminaires, alternate luminaires, or alternate lamps; switching the middle lamp luminaires independently of the outer lamps; or switching each luminaire or each lamp.

Notwithstanding the renewable and clean energy provisions included in these standards, specification of solar panels remains relatively low at 0.7% for commercial and institutional buildings. Energy efficiency remains the consistent driver for green building activity in these markets. The majority of corporate leaders (91%), commercial building owners (89%), commercial building tenants (96%), and architects and engineers (80%) rank energy cost and use savings as the impetus behind the decision to build green, according to the McGraw-Hill Construction Green Outlook 2011 report.

Moreover, according to “Real Prospects for Energy Efficiency in the United States,” the deployment of energy conservation products could do away with the demand for more expensive renewable energy systems. “The full deployment of cost-effective, energy-efficient technologies in buildings alone could eliminate the need to add to U.S. electricity generation capacity,” reads the report.

Certifications and eco-labels

A 2008 survey by McGraw-Hill Construction, New York, revealed that more than one-half of the architects, engineers, building owners, and contractors surveyed consider green product certifications and eco-labels “very valuable” when selecting green products. However, there are currently more than 100 green product certifications in the United States alone. For example, Energy Star, a program started by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1992 that focused on energy-efficient computers, includes labels for more than 50 energy-efficient product categories and thousands of different models oriented for buildings and homes. From 2006 to 2009, references to Energy Star in specifications have nearly doubled from a rate of 9.4% in 2006 to 18.3% in 2009. The Energy Star label appears most often in project specification for dormitories and apartments, according to McGraw-Hill Construction’s SpecShare, 2006-2009.

Green Seal, a non-profit organization that serves as a third-party certifier and standards developer, is the largest U.S.-based eco-label organization. Although it is most well known for certifying paints and coatings, it also certifies a range of other building products. From 2008 to 2009, according to SpecShare, the specification rate for Green Seal-certified products nearly doubled.

Green Electrical Upgrades Guides, developed in conjunction with the NAED Manufacturers Council, describe the green electrical products and solutions that have been proven to reduce electrical consumption and operating costs in commercial and industrial buildings. Although green product standards outline some of the criteria for different material types, unfortunately, they typically do not review the performance and variations of individual products from specific manufacturers.

GreenGuard, a voluntary certification program that tests and identifies products’ air emissions, compares product exposure concentrations against specific pollutant standards established by the EPA and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Its specification rate has been growing steadily since 2006. However, according to SpecShare, the rate is still quite low, reaching only 5% in 2009.

Give a hoot

The low specification rate for GreenGuard could be due to a lack of requirements regarding materials for certain building components, including electrical systems. Although plastic insulation and jacketing on electric and data wire and cable can contain lead, plasticizers, flame retardants, and chemicals that may be toxic, especially in the event of fire or as the wire jacketing deteriorates over time, LEED currently excludes MEP products for hazardous materials. LEED’s Energy & Atmosphere category encourages a wide variety of energy strategies, including: commissioning; energy use monitoring; efficient design and construction; efficient appliances, systems, and lighting; the use of renewable and clean sources of energy, generated on-site or off-site; and other innovative strategies. Yet, it doesn’t mention materials.

“Materials haven’t been as big of an issue because in the LEED rating system they don’t count those types of products in their overall equation for sustainable materials,” says Wesemann, who explains that those considerations are left more for the structural elements of a building. “Even if you could count them, the lighting fixtures wouldn’t be enough to put much of a dent in obtaining that specific LEED rating point.”

Moreover, a materials requirement for electrical systems could limit design choices. “In the lighting world, the many selections are based on look and performance,” Wesemann says. “If we were forced to look at only products that used renewable materials in their designs, it would significantly limit the design and wouldn’t really contribute that much to the overall sustainable picture. But we may see more manufacturers come onboard with that, though. We’re certainly not opposed to it.”

Currently, wires and cables are available with nonhalogenated insulation and jacketing and with no heavy metals. Brattleboro, Vt.-based BuildingGreen, Inc., publisher of the GreenSpec Directory, the leading national directory of green building products, and Environmental Building News, a newsletter that focuses on green building, included a new fast-connect wiring and cabling system that is made with no heavy metals or halogenated plastics in its 2010 Top 10 Green Building Products list. “Materials are a consideration,” says Jennifer Atlee, research director of the organization’s rigorous criteria it uses to include products in its directory. “But, depending on the product, there are other primary issues, such as energy efficiency and performance. Those are primary in terms of the life cycle impacts of those products.”

Green criteria

In the past year, approximately 180 product listings have been added to the GreenSpec database, which includes more than 2,200 product listings. Manufacturers do not pay to be listed, and neither GreenSpec nor Environmental Building News carries advertising. It bases inclusion on performance reports solicited from experts in the field and its members.

Electrical products are considered on the basis of efficiency, performance, and function. For exterior lighting, light pollution is a major consideration. “We try to look at the most important life cycle concerns for a particular product categories,” says Atlee.

Some products are included strictly for use, such as diagnostics and metering equipment. “In the past, we included more of them because there were fewer available,” continues Atlee, who explains that the GreenSpec directory has been around since before many products for green building were widely available. “As the industry makes more information available and becomes clear about what the standards are for a particular product category, we incorporate that into the GreenSpec directory.”

For some products, there remains a lack of information. “There are very few products for which there is full information and full disclosure,” says Atlee.

When available, the organization uses environmental product declarations, which are a full disclosure about the material or product, such as composition and overall life cycle impacts. Atlee describes them as a life cycle analysis that’s accessible to the public. “We love to find those whenever we can, but they are rarely available,” adds Atlee.

Therefore, the researchers often have to dig deeper. They look into patents and contact manufacturers directly. “We have a strong nose for greenwash,” Atlee says. “If we see something that doesn’t add up or doesn’t look quite right, we will dig in other places.”

The numerous certifications and lack of information can be confusing for any designer or engineer wanting to specify green products. Through its newsletter, BuildingGreen also offers a strategy for designers and engineers in the process of making product selections. While there is no definitive process for selecting green materials, Environmental Building News offers a 12-step method to help specifiers narrow the focus on important environmental considerations and to prioritize certain environmental factors (see Twelve Steps to Choosing Green Products). The process was initially published in the January 1997 issue.

Selecting environmentally preferable products (EPP) requires research, critical evaluation, and common sense. Issues such as code compliance, warranties, and performance must be carefully considered. Specifiers are advised to collect performance criteria, environmental product information, material safety data sheets (MSDS), maintenance expectations, and corporate environmental policy statements for the manufacturers under consideration. In addition, specifiers should expect that some green products may be subject to limited availability or long lead times, particularly when ordered in large quantities. Finally, users should be wary of greenwashing, which is making environmental claims that have not been substantiated by independent sources.

The architect and owner look to each specific discipline to propose sustainable, energy-efficient solutions in their respective area, but typically everybody will have some knowledge of what’s out there available, according to Wesemann. “Part of selecting a design team today is selecting one that is knowledgeable about the technologies,” he explains.

At Spectrum, specifying engineers are experts in their field. For example, the lighting design department is headed up by an individual who was a former president of the national Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), New York, which sets the standards for lighting. “Every year, he speaks at conferences, and people seek him out to see what’s going on in the industry,” says Wesemann. “Quite frequently, we all speak at sustainability conferences. To do so, you need to be up on the latest information, so we’ll do our own research.”

In addition to industry groups, Wesemann stays in contact with the manufacturers that are also actively involved with these industry groups. In addition to attending trade shows and staying up-to-date on research and development items, he checks out the latest products, receives samples to test, and sends them back with notes for improvement. “In general, it’s just being actively engaged in everything that’s offered out there,” Wesemann says. “You have to be active in your industry. Other than doing your design work, you need to be actively involved in your industry groups.”

Sidebar: Twelve Steps to Choosing Green Products

Choosing the right materials for a building is no easy task under any circumstances, according to BuildingGreen, Inc., Brattleboro, Vt.-based publisher of the GreenSpec directory of green products and the Environmental Building News (EBN) newsletter. No generic resource can anticipate all the demands and constraints of a particular project, so ultimately the designer or specifier must use the available information and make his or her own decision. Outlined below is EBN’s simplified methodology for choosing the most benign materials.


Two of the most significant sources of environmental impact from building materials are energy use in the building and possible impacts on occupant health. Considerations of impacts in the use phase depend not only on the material in question, but also on the application for that material.

Step 1. Energy use: Will the material in question (in the relevant application) have a measurable impact on building energy use? If not, proceed to step 2.

If yes (as for materials such as glazing, insulation, mechanical systems), avoid options that do not minimize energy use. Also take care to design the application to minimize energy use. For materials that can be used in an energy-efficient manner only with the addition of other components, the impact of including those additional components must be factored in. Examples include glazing systems that require exterior shading systems for efficiency, and light-gauge steel framing that requires foam sheathing to prevent thermal bridging.

Step 2. Occupant health: Could products in this application affect the health of building occupants? If not, proceed to step 3.

If yes (interior furnishings, interior finishes, mechanical systems), avoid materials that are likely to adversely affect occupant health, and design systems to minimize any possible adverse effects when sources of indoor pollution cannot be avoided.

Step 3. Durability and maintenance: Are products in this application likely to need replacement, special treatment, or repair multiple times during the life of the structure? If not, proceed to step 4.

If yes (roofing, coatings, sealants), avoid products with short expected life spans (unless they are made from low-impact, renewable materials and are easily recycled) or products that require frequent, high-impact maintenance procedures. Also, design the structure for flexibility so that materials that might become obsolete before they wear out (such as wiring) can be replaced with minimal disruption and cost.


The remaining steps pertain less to the application (how a material or product is used) and more to the material itself. They require knowledge of the raw materials that go into each product.

Step 4. Hazardous by-products: Are significant toxic or hazardous intermediaries or by-products created during manufacture. If so, how significant is the risk of their release to the environment or risk of hazard to worker health? If these are not significant, proceed to step 5.

Where toxic by-products are either generated in large quantities or in small but uncontrolled quantities (smelting of zinc, production of petrochemicals), the building material in question should be avoided, if possible, or sourced from a company with strong environmental standards.

Step 5. Energy use: How energy-intensive is the manufacturing process? If it’s not very intensive, proceed to step 6.

If the manufacture of a building material is very energy-intensive compared to the alternatives (aluminum, plastics), its use should be minimized. It is not the energy use itself that is of concern, however, but the pollution from its generation and use. Industries using clean-burning or renewable energy sources have lower burdens than those relying on coal or petroleum.

Step 6. Waste from manufacturing: How much solid waste is generated in the manufacturing process? If it’s not much relative to the quantity of product manufactured, proceed to step 7.

If significant amounts of solid waste are generated that are not readily usable for other purposes (tailings from mining of copper and other metals), seek alternative materials or materials from companies with progressive recycling programs.

Raw materials:

Step 7. Resource limitations: Are any of the component materials from rare or endangered resources? If not, proceed to step 8.

If yes (endangered or threatened tree species), avoid these products unless they can be sourced from recycled material.

Step 8. Impacts of resource extraction: Are there significant ecological impacts from the process of mining or harvesting the raw materials? If not, proceed to step 9.

If yes (damage to rainforests from bauxite mining for aluminum or from certain timber harvesting practices), seek suppliers of material from recycled stock or those with credible third-party verification of environmentally sound harvesting methods.

Step 9. Transportation: Are the primary raw materials located a great distance from your site? If not, proceed to step 10.

If yes (Italian marble, tropical timber, New Zealand wool), seek appropriate alternative materials from more local sources.

Disposal or reuse:

Step 10. Demolition waste: Can the material be easily separated out for reuse or recycling after its useful life in the structure is over? If so, proceed to step 11.

While most materials that are used in large quantities in building construction (steel, concrete) can be at least partially recycled, others are less recyclable and may become a disposal problem in the future. Examples include products that combine different materials (such as fiberglass composites) or undergo a fundamental chemical change during manufacture (thermoset plastics such as polyurethane foams). Consider the future recyclability of products chosen.

Step 11. Hazardous materials from demolition: Might the material become a toxic or hazardous waste problem after the end of its useful life? If not, proceed to step 11.

If yes (preservative-treated wood), seek alternative products or construction systems that require less of the material in question.

Step 12. Review the results: Go over any concerns that have been raised about the products under consideration, and look for other life-cycle impacts that might be specific to a particular material.

For example, with drywall and spray-in open-cell polyurethane foam insulation, waste generated at the job site is a potential problem that should be considered.

Source: BuildingGreen, Inc.