Creating buildings in this day and age is surely near the top of “most difficult things we do” list. The challenges faced by designers and builders are many and great. Ever changing building codes, complicated regulatory requirements, tight deadlines, reduced budgets, and complex programs are the norm. The emergence and rapid adoption of green building requirements hasn’t made things any easier.
People are not perfect, and mistakes are made in the process of designing and building buildings, as they are with everything else we do in life. Blame is a natural human response to something that goes wrong, often brought about when people feel threatened or insecure, and playing the blame game is an experience Owners, Designers, and Contractors are all too familiar with. In my experience, green building requirements are often pointed to as the scapegoat when things go wrong, generally as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.
In this article, I offer a few green scapegoating examples from my personal experiences.
"It's the Green Floor Covering!"A two-story medical outpatient treatment facility I worked on was designed incorporating as many “green” interior finishes as possible. One of the materials chosen was bamboo for the flooring at the ground-level entry lobby and communicating corridor. I proposed an engineered bamboo flooring product as a more appropriate and durable product than the non-engineered bamboo flooring alternatives that dominated the market at that time. Engineered bamboo flooring is a product made of multiple plies of wood with a wear layer of bamboo glued together, typically 3/8 inch to 5/8 in thickness. Engineered bamboo flooring is a very dimensionally stable, highly moisture resistant material.
About 2 months after the building was occupied we received a call from the owner that the bamboo flooring was failing! The factory applied transparent finish on portions of the flooring was coming off and there were some planks that were warping and cupping. The owner blamed the bamboo flooring material as the cause-it had to be because it was installed exactly as the contract documents stipulated according to the contractor.
The manufacturer sent a technical representative to take a look. Upon first inspection, the representative suspected that the flooring had been subjected to excessive wetting, more than likely a result of wet mopping the floor after installation-a big “no-no” in the maintenance manual. The maintenance instructions clearly require that the flooring not be subject to anything more than a damp mop for routine maintenance and cleaning. At first, the owner’s cleaning staff denied wet mopping the floor, but after a lab test was conducted, it was determined that this was, in fact, the source of the moisture and cause of the failure. Improper cleaning and maintenance can cause any material to fail, green or otherwise.
"It's the Green Roof!"Googling “green roof failure” results in dozens of results in which green is unjustly labeled as the cause of problems many projects have encountered when incorporating this type of roofing assembly. Most of the failures that pop up in the Google search have to do with plantings dying prematurely, usually within a year or two. Green roofs, while relatively new to the U.S., have been performing beautifully and for many years in other parts of the world. The green roof failures I know of in the U.S. are not due to the concept, but the execution. One green roof failure I know of in Seattle is typical of many green roof failures.
On this project, a green roof was carefully designed and planned and looked beautiful at the time of substantial completion, but within a year, all of the plants were dead. No amount of irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides made any difference. There were lots of articles written about the failure, “green” being named as the reason for the failure.
I was fortunate enough to know the waterproofing membrane manufacturer’s rep that was ultimately able to solve the problem, and learn about the true cause of the failure. According to the rep, the project team ignored the manufacturer’s original recommendation that a special soil medium be used for the plantings selected. Instead, the team used a medium that was unsuitable for use on a green roof in Seattle. The manufacturer tested the soil medium that was used, as a favor to the building owner, and reported that the soil contained too much organic content (mulch, essentially) that prevented the plantings from flourishing. The poor soil was removed, the proper medium was installed, and now the green roof performs as it should.
"It's the Green Adhesive!"A low-rise commercial office building pursuing a LEED certification was covered with an SBS-modified roofing membrane assembly using a low-VOC, cold-applied adhesive between roofing plies. Not long after the roofing was installed, the plies began to delaminate from one another and the roof began to leak. The subcontractor immediately blamed the cause of the failure on the low-VOC adhesive he was required to use for the building’s LEED point accumulation.* An initial investigation by the contractor and the manufacturer’s representative found that the proper low-VOC was supplied and used, and that there was no reason that the adhesive should have caused the failure, thousands of square feet of the same system having been installed on countless buildings without issue. The subcontractor stuck to his story, however, but offered to repair and replace the entire roofing assembly-for a tidy sum.
As more questions were asked, it was revealed by one of the installers that gasoline was used frequently to thin the adhesive making it easier to apply. Gasoline can be a very effective thinner for petroleum-based adhesives, but it does not work very well in combination with water-based products! This alarming revelation was an embarrassment to the contractor, and resulted in an immediate replacement of the roofing system at no cost to the owner. The roof has performed flawlessly since it was replaced.
*Those familiar with LEED will know that a low-VOC, water-based adhesive on the roof is not a requirement for any LEED points. In this case, a standard, solvent-based adhesive could have been used without jeopardizing point accumulation.
"It's the Green Paint!"A low-VOC interior acrylic latex coating was specified for hollow metal doors and frames on a hospital project. The painter anticipated problems with adhesion of the specified low-VOC coating and asked instead to use a different, better low-VOC paint which was accepted by the team as a no cost change.
Shortly after occupancy, coatings applied to all the hollow metal doors and frames began to bubble and peel. The failure was first noticed where rolling hospital carts were making contact with the doors and frames. The coating was also failing near door handles and door bottoms where keys, hands, and feet made contact. The coating appeared to be failing due to a lack of adhesion between the coating and the factory-applied protection primer on the doors and frames. The painter immediately blamed the low-VOC coating as the reason for the failure and offered to repaint the doors and frames-for a cost.
The painting manufacturer’s rep maintained that the coating could not be the problem, because the same coating had been used on many other projects, over the same substrates, and experienced none of the problems exhibited in the hospital. The reason for the failure was found in the hollow metal door manufacturer’s literature, which cautioned against water based coatings applied directly to the factory-applied protective coating. The manufacturer recommended that the factory applied coating be mechanically abraded or that a metal substrate primer be applied over the factory-applied protective coating prior to application of the water-based topcoat. Neither of these things were done by the painter and the doors and frames were eventually stripped and recoated in accordance to the manufacturer’s recommendations, without further issue.
"It's the Recycled Content!"I was asked recently to review a draft report about the relationship between sustainable buildings and natural hazards, being prepared for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The stated purpose of the report is to describe the “interactions” between common green building practices and the capability of buildings to resist natural hazards. In the report, the authors lead the reader to believe that materials with recycled content somehow make buildings unsafe when subjected to natural hazards. I point out in my review comments that many building materials contain recycled content, and have for decades (steel, fiberglass insulation, gypsum board, concrete, aluminum, to name but a few), with no consequence whatsoever to a building’s safety during natural hazards-at least none that I am aware of. The report does not offer any specific details about how recycled-content materials make buildings less safe, something all too common when green is the scapegoat.
ConclusionIt’s easy to understand why green is sometimes identified as the culprit of problems that come up during building design and construction. It’s a relatively new and commonly misunderstood overlay to an already complex and complicated process. People feel safe blaming green for problems, betting on others ignorance to make the allegations stick. And it must work much of the time, otherwise it wouldn’t happen as often as it does!
I am always skeptical of claims that green is the cause of problems that come up during design and construction of buildings. In my experience when green is blamed, it is never corroborated by the evidence. So, the next time you hear that green is the cause of a problem in a building, ask questions and dig a little deeper, you may find that green is golden, and unjustified in being labeled the scapegoat