Advancing healthy interiors with LEED v4.1

Advancing healthy interiors with LEED v4.1

Spring 2019 | Written by Kiley Jacques

With growing emphasis being placed on health and well-being in the built environment, it is no surprise to hear the enthusiasm with which interior designer Annette K. Stelmack speaks about the beta launch of LEED v4.1. “With human health and the environment at the core of a sustainable mission, moving toward ethical interior design that first restores, then regenerates, will further support economic and social growth while contributing to a cleaner environment,” says the principal of Inspirit-llc, a sustainable design consultancy firm. After nearly four decades in the industry, Stelmack is pleased to see healthy building technologies and materials taking precedence in sustainable design plans. She is equally pleased with the adjustments made in LEED v4.1 to promote green interiors.

Interior designers are pushing beyond aesthetics and function to create spaces that restore and regenerate—emphasizing the value of healthier buildings for all. This apartment complex in downtown Denver, Colorado, won Best Design from the 2013 Mayor’s Design Awards and the Tribute Award for Most Sustainable Community from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.

Among the Modifications

Stelmack points to a few specific credits as having the greatest impact on her work, including the three Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) credits, which are: Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), Raw Material Extraction, and Material Ingredients. Together they are designed to reward project teams for specifying products with transparency documentation and proven environmental performance.

Under LEED v4.1, the optimization option for EPDs requires either 10 percent of products by cost or 10 products from three different manufacturers. Stelmack appreciates this approach. “As designers and architects,” she says, “we need to step back and recognize that this is doable . . . and that LEED v4.1 allows us to do it in such a way as to bring together not only the interior design community, construction community, and architects but also the product manufacturers.” She does, however, make the point that just because a manufacturer provides EPDs, it doesn’t necessarily mean the products are environmentally sound—it’s just a declaration, after all. Still, EPDs do provide people with information they can use to research materials designers recommend. “The EPD is not a quick, at-a-glance tool,” Stelmack notes. “It offers in-depth reporting, and we know it is developed to follow ISO [International Organization for Standardization] guidelines, plus we can find it easily.” Additionally, v4.1 gives “bonus” credit for EPDs that are independently verified and third party–certified, giving greater assurance of quality reports. According to Stelmack, “There’s no good reason not to pursue the EPD credit.”

In LEED v4.1, modifications were made to the Raw Material Extraction credit, which is intended to encourage project teams to use products that carry life-cycle information and have preferable impacts on the environment, economy, and society.

The apartment interiors feature Energy Star appliances, high-performance water fixtures, Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood cabinets, and energy-efficient lighting. The building is located in Colorado, near Coors Field, and has views of the Rocky Mountains.

Regarding the Material Ingredients credit—intended to reward project teams for selecting products for which the chemical ingredients are inventoried and for selecting products verified to minimize the use of potentially harmful substances—Stelmack is pleased because she works with chemically sensitive clients. For third party–verified information, she looks at manufacturers’ publicly available inventory of all ingredients identified by both name and a Chemical Abstract Service Registration Number (CASRN) and/or a European Community Number (EC Number). She also makes use of safety data sheets mandated by OSHA, as well as Health Product Declarations (HPDs), through which manufacturers document the chemical make-up of their products. “I can quickly go in and know where to find that information—I no longer have to get on the phone with R&D departments because we have more disclosure now,” she says. “My clients don’t even see products that don’t meet these criteria.”

Stelmack considers one of the first steps of interior design to be finding product databases. Before deciding on materials, she researches the manufacturers of products she might select. Her preference is to hear directly from manufacturers about the environmental sense they feel their products make. She first looks for manufacturers committed to doing life-cycle assessments (LCAs) of their products, which, she says, is a huge undertaking. Increasingly, however, more manufacturers are accepting the responsibility. “That has them looking at their environmental impact and thinking about potential changes they might make,” she explains, noting, too, that it used to be the only industry that met the Raw Material Sourcing and Extraction Reporting credit was the sustainable production of natural dimension stone. She explains that it has been moved back to a pilot credit line because there aren’t enough companies embracing Raw Material Sourcing and Extraction Reporting. With LEED v4.1, she foresees greater access to more sources for a wider selection of products.

Above and below: This contemporary mountain home is seamlessly integrated on a challenging steep site. Thoughtful design used classic mountain materials, recycled fir and stone, FSC-certified cabinetry and flooring, locally sourced materials and furnishings, zero- and low-VOC assemblies and finishes delivering the clients a sustainable environment combined with open space plans to create a generational family dwelling. Interior Design: Annette Stelmack and Rachael Morton | Architect: Hagman Architects Construction: Rudd Construction | Photos: Ben Tremper

Behind the Changes

Amy Costello, sustainability manager at Armstrong Flooring and chair of the Environmental Quality Technical Advisory Group (EQ TAG)—the technical group that oversees the Environmental Quality credits in LEED, including the Low-Emitting Materials credit—says: “The changes we made as a committee were to address market barriers. I think we were a little overenthusiastic when we set the changes for v4—we went from four categories to seven additional categories [for the Low-Emitting Materials credit]—and we were finding that people weren’t going for this credit. Whereas, prior to v4, under version 2009, almost everybody was obtaining the credit. We realized that if people weren’t trying to achieve it because we had set the bar too high, then we were doing everyone a disservice. So the changes we made in v4.1 benefit everyone by splitting up the ceilings, walls, insulation, etc. It’s not all or nothing—it opened up the credit to allow more people to participate. And, at the end of the day, that helps building occupants.”

She adds, too, that from both a manufacturer’s perspective and that of project teams—even if they aren’t going for LEED certification—the changes are seen as a positive because they present a more attainable end goal.

Melissa Baker, senior vice president for technical core at the U.S. Green Building Council, concurs, saying: “We are making the credits more accessible and making them work with more diverse types of materials. We are also giving project teams a chance to try it and then bring back ideas and content.” This approach was taken for both the Materials and Resources and the Environmental Air Quality credits to encourage teams to try them. Hearing from the market about how the new changes are working is a key piece of the LEED v4.1 revisionary effort. Baker points to the fact that there is a new existing interiors rating, too. “There’s more recognition and focus on how existing interiors operate—and [we will have] the ability to look at performance data and confirm that projects have met the goals.”

Indoor environmental specialist Larissa Oaks comments on the Low-Emitting Materials credits, which were commonly pursued in 2009 but saw a significant decline under the v4 rating system. “We wanted to fix that to get more project teams using those credits,” she says. “Manufacturers and third-party verification partners have really stepped up and are now frequently testing their products for VOC emissions and optimizing in that area so it is much easier for project teams and designers to find compliant products.” She describes LEED v4.1 as a restructuring of the path to compliance. “We have focused on the credit categories that are most important to designers, giving them more flexibility to accommodate unique and custom products, while still addressing the C02 emissions for the majority of products within a product category and material type.”

Oaks is also pleased with the new Indoor Air Assessment credit, which has designers thinking about how their material selections impact building occupants after the project is complete. This development was made in response to input from project teams that were interested in understanding more about long-term indoor air quality, believing such information could help inform future materials selections, construction techniques, and possibly ventilation operations. Additionally, under v4.1, teams are asked to test for fewer VOCs than were required under v4. Those included in v4.1 were carefully selected from a health as well as a feasibility standpoint. “There’s a nice balance between maintaining the integrity of testing for important VOCs but also being practical in terms of cost and time and effort on the project team’s side,” she says.

Baker appreciates the connection between designers being able to get product information up front and the revised air testing in order to create spaces that meet all expectations. “Disclosure of product information and air testing are key to good outcomes,” she concludes.

On the Right Path

As a designer, Stelmack stresses the importance of thinking about interior materials at the beginning of projects. She says leaving them to last can jeopardize the chances of earning LEED credits. Getting in early gives designers time to research companies who offer EPDs and who demonstrate Leadership Extraction Practices. Her advice to project teams is: “Involve the interior designer early to give us equal opportunity to contribute to the building as a whole. The process begins with researching interior product attributes by digging deep into understanding the composition and chemical make-up of every product.”

Stelmack is one of the first in her field to experience the revised rating system’s potential. With verified products and unencumbered pathways, LEED v4.1 promises to advance opportunities for creating healthy, high-performing indoor environments.

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