Balance, Balance, Balance...

by Rebecca Foss, CSI, CCS, EcoDesign Resources


We’ve all heard and seen the “emphatic 3” used in commercials and advertising since its first generation in real estate (Location, Location, Location), and its impact is probably lessening with overuse. But I’d like to borrow it one more time to make a very strong point about the growing use and understanding of sustainable design principles in the building professions.

It’s all about balance. How do we weigh the importance of the many different aspects of sustainable design. What is more important for each specific client/project/team? What does balance mean for architects, engineers…. owners, construction managers… contractors and product manufacturers? Where do we find balance in the implementation of philosophies and practices we don’t fully understand or that have no established performance data available for evaluation?

In the next few issues of specifics, we’d like to bring you viewpoints from practitioners in a variety of fields to discuss their ideas on balance and weighing the importance of several aspects of Sustainable Design. We’ll have articles on Site Selection for Sustainably Designed Projects, Construction Waste Management Practices (Building Design, Product Packaging, and Construction Site Practices), Sustainable Design Product Development and Manufacturing Strategies, and The Effects of Sustainable Design and Energy Code Developments, Cost Implications of Sustainable Design.

In this article, I’d like to address the choices we have in Selecting Materials, Products, and Systems using sustainable criteria, because this is something we can all do immediately. We’re all working on projects where we can evaluate at least one product in the light of sustainable criteria. In previous articles in specifics, we’ve reviewed some of the tools available for evaluating products and making design decisions (LEEDS, BEES). All of these systems rely on a basic premise: Set goals for your project before you begin the process. However, setting those goals may be a real sticking point. If you want to give sustainable design concepts a go, but don’t necessarily know how to get started, the following list can help by giving you some basic criteria you can use to evaluate choices you’ve already made or are about to make. The list is based on information from the AIA’s Environmental Resource Guide and the Department of the Interior’s Product Evaluation Resource Guide (NPS):

Selection Priorities

Consider these basics when the product source may be sustainable:

  • Natural materials are less energy-intensive and polluting to produce, and contribute less to indoor air pollution.

  • Local materials have a reduced level of energy cost and air pollution associated with their transportation, and can help sustain the local economy.

  • Durable materials can save on energy costs for maintenance as well as for the production and installation of replacement products.

In selecting building materials, it is helpful to prioritize them by origin, avoiding materials from nonrenewable sources.

Primary - materials found in nature such as stone, earth, flora (hemp, jute, reed, wool), cotton, and wood

  • ensure new lumber is from certified sustainably managed forests or certified naturally felled trees
  • use caution that any associated treatments, additives, or adhesives do not contain toxins or off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to indoor air/atmospheric pollution
  • remember that the process used to grow, extract, or harvest the product may produce more negative side effects that offset the benefits of using natural, regenerative materials (e.g. “scientific” farming practices for cotton involve intensive use of pesticides – organically grown products have less negative impact)

Secondary - materials made from recycled products such as wood, aluminum, cellulose, and plastics

  • verify that production of material does not involve high levels of energy, pollution, of waste
  • verify functional efficiency and environmental safeness of salvaged (recycled) materials and products from old buildings
  • look closely at the composition of recycled products; toxins may still be present
  • consider cellulose insulation; it is fireproof and provides a greater R-value per inch thickness than fiberglass
  • specify aluminum from recycled material; it uses 80% less energy to produce over initial production
  • evaluate products containing recycled hydrocarbon-based products; they may help keep used plastics out of landfills but may do little to reduce production and use of plastic from virgin resources
  • keep alert for new developments; new environmentally sound materials from recycled goods are coming on the market every week

Tertiary - man-made materials (artificial, synthetic, nonrenewable) materials having varying degrees of environmental impact such as plywood, plastics, and aluminum

  • avoid use of materials and products containing or produced with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) or hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that deteriorate the ozone layer
  • avoid materials that off-gas volatile organic compounds, contributing to indoor air/atmospheric pollution
  • minimize use of products made from new aluminum or other materials that are resource disruptive during extraction and a high energy consumer during refinement

Subsequent articles will address criteria and evaluation techniques in the areas of energy, waste, site selection, and cost implications of sustainable design.

Rebecca Foss, the president of EcoDesgin Resource, is actively promoting sustainable design. Contact her by phone at 612-375-8703, or by e-mail at

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