Over the last century, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II, scarce resources and economic pressures provided the incentive to conserve energy and recycle or reclaim raw materials. Newspaper drives, collecting metal cans and scrap, paying deposits on glass bottles or having the milkman pick up empty bottles for reuse, were all part of life well into the '60s. As our standard of living rose, however, many of these once precious commodities became disposable. Likewise, energy became abundant: oil, coal, hydroelectric and nuclear power drove a post war economic expansion that lasted, with occasional recessions, until the '70s.

Unfortunately, this "throw-away society" created lakes, streams, and other waterways that were so polluted that they would no longer support life and were no longer safe sources of drinking water; garbage that was dumped into the ocean washed up on our shores; and litter that was careless discarded lined our streets and highways. In addition, cheap oil from the Middle East suddenly became scarce and domestic production could no longer keep up with demand, resulting in long lines to buy half a tank of gasoline in the '70s.

Consequently, public demand for cleaner air and water, coupled with the growing need to conserve energy and natural resources, led to a number of measures, both voluntary and governmentally mandated. The federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency, and most states followed suit with their own similar agencies. Automobiles were required to be more fuel-efficient and less polluting, smokestack industries had to reduce emissions, and local jurisdictions required residents and businesses to sort out the recyclable materials from their trash. Increased energy costs provided the incentive to produce energy efficient machines and appliances for the consumer and for industry.

A new era

The construction industry was also affected by these trends, and its most visible response was the "green building" movement. Begun in earnest during the '70s, the movement suffered some growing pains when it initially produced buildings that, while more energy efficient than previous structures, were so air-tight that they trapped condensation and moisture internally and gave life to a new disease: "sick building syndrome." In addition, a proliferation of different "how-to-do-it" philosophies led to the creation of a variety of different green standards with varying compliance criteria.

But even with its early problems, the green building concept did not go away. Slowly, building users and owners began to demand facilities that were environmentally friendly and energy efficient. What they needed to make the concept work was construction criteria and standards that were consistent in content, environmentally friendly, and that could actually produce a building that would not deteriorate or subject its occupants to an unhealthy environment.

The lack of a consensus-type green building policy hampered the movement for many years until the task of creating standards was taken on by, among other organizations, the U.S. Green Building Council. While a number of major industry groups have taken on the task of creating green standards, the USGBC is today probably the most successful and best known of all the groups.

The USGBC is a coalition of business leaders from the building industry interested in promoting environmentally friendly construction practices. According to their website, there are now over 4,000 members from all aspects of the building industry-design, financial, manufacturing, contracting, state and local government, utilities, educational-that participate in activities that promote the means, materials, and methods intended to conserve energy, natural resources, and improve living and working environments. USGBC's main vehicle for implementing these practices is a scoring protocol known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

LEED is a voluntary national standard that uses a point system to determine and certify how environmentally friendly a building project is. There are five different categories that are evaluated for the awarding of points: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality. Points are also awarded for innovation in design.

The individual categories are broken down further into subcategories. The subcategories contain specific compliance criteria that enable the LEED program user to effectively and efficiently evaluate a material, system or concept for use.

The materials and resources category, for example, awards subcategory points for: building reuse, construction waste management, resource reuse, recycled content, the use of local and regional materials, rapidly renewable materials, and the use of specific environmentally-friendly certified wood products. The sustainable sites category evaluates such measures as public transportation access and the protection of open space; and the indoor environmental quality category awards points for effective ventilation, and efficient air-handling systems.

Fab four

There are four levels of LEED certification: basic certification, silver, gold and platinum. The different certification levels allow regulatory agencies and building owners to differentiate or specify the degree to which a project is green: the higher the green level desired, the more points a project needs. The state of Washington, for example, requires any state building greater than 5,000 square feet in floor area to comply with the silver LEED rating level as of July 24, 2005.

As suggested above, LEED weighs several aspects of a building project, from the original condition of the building site (points are awarded for reclaiming contaminated land and avoiding sources of water, including streams and lakes), to the project's proximity to public transportation. Energy consumption in all phases of the project is another key consideration, from the mining of the raw materials, manufacturing of the building materials, transportation of the materials to the construction project, and the amount of energy that is calculated to be conserved after the building is built.

Four LEED programs have already been published, each tailored to a specific aspect of construction: New Construction, LEED-NC; Existing Buildings, LEED-EB; Building Shell and Core, LEED-SC; and Building Interiors, LEED-CI. Currently under development are a program for homes, LEED-H, and a neighborhood development package, LEED-ND. Building upgrades are generally covered by LEED-EB; however, upgrades that require more than half the building occupants to leave the site are covered by LEED-NC.

To date, LEED certification has been used primarily as a standard for publicly funded construction projects. The states of Washington, Nevada, California and Michigan now require that buildings constructed using state funds must comply with LEED guidelines, as do the cities of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Portland, Ore. Virginia has similar legislation pending. These state and local jurisdictions are also using tax incentives to stimulate private use of LEED.

So, where does gypsum board fit into the grand scheme of LEED and other things green? There are several LEED categories that might benefit by the use of gypsum products. Since LEED evaluates the components of a building system as a whole, similar to the manner in which a fire-resistance-rated system is evaluated, it is difficult to attribute certain specific credit points for the general use of gypsum board products in a variety of general applications. However, because the methods and materials used to produce gypsum board are in many cases environmentally friendly, its use may contribute beneficially to the overall score awarded in a LEED evaluation.

To begin with, the paper facing on the vast majority of gypsum board products is manufactured from recycled material; in today's market, nearly 100 percent of the board manufactured is produced with recycled paper facing. Because of this, gypsum board can assist a designer in obtaining credit for the use of recycled materials. In addition, LEED offers additional credit for using post-consumer recycled materials. Since some gypsum board paper facing is produced from post consumer fiber, its use may apply toward extra recycling credits.

In many instances, the core of the gypsum board is also reclaimed material since manufacturers are increasingly using synthetic gypsum to manufacture gypsum board. The majority of synthetic gypsum used by the gypsum board manufacturing industry is a byproduct of a process used to clean the emissions produced by the burning of coal. Often this process is used in electrical generation and gypsum manufacturers are increasingly building their plants adjacent to power plants. This practice helps avoid the transportation costs of moving the material; a material that would otherwise be a waste product sent to the nearest landfill.

If the power generation plant and gypsum board plant are near an urban area, the products used locally may help meet recycling, energy, and transportation credits in LEED. Some gypsum plants are also capturing the heat produced from the power generation phase and use it in the board manufacturing process-a practice that may also earn energy and innovative use credits in LEED.

So, though it is difficult to predict the exact numerical credit a building project is likely to earn for including gypsum board products, it is safe to say that the inclusion of gypsum board has a strong potential to improve the overall LEED rating of a structure being constructed or renovated. Under the LEED criteria, each project has to be evaluated on its own merits; however, given its obvious benefits, the use of gypsum board can be a definite asset when building green.