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Demand for “green” flooring is increasing

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

When Mark Bisbee started his business he ran a Yellow Pages ad.  “I listed it under ‘Recycled Carpets’,” says Bisbee.  “I got zero calls.” 

That was 1994.  The dangers of sick building syndrome were making headlines, but the causes and solutions were not yet shaping commercial construction.

“Nobody knew what VOC [volatile organic compounds] stood for or what formaldehyde was,” says Bisbee, owner of GreenFloors in Fairfax.  He credits the Internet with educating people on health risks in their interior environment.  “Today at trade shows people come up and want to know how many parts per million of formaldehyde are in the glue of bamboo floors.”

VOCs are gases that can cause slowed thinking, headaches, fatigue, respiratory problems, nausea, damage to the liver, kidney and nervous system, and cancer.  The typical modern office has numerous sources for VOCs but only one wall-to-wall emitter. “Carpeting became the scapegoat for the sick building syndrome,” says Bisbee. 

Still, it took the recent green-building boom to push manufacturers and building designers to embrace healthier flooring options.  The green market of nonresidential construction grew 10 percent in the past three years and will represent 25 percent of all projects by 2013, according to analysts at McGraw-Hill.  “All the manufacturers have realized in order to stay in business they need to have green products,” says Bisbee.

There are many ways a carpet, wood or tile floor can be “green.”  Getting rid of the chemicals is paramount. Numerous third-party certification programs test and vouch for low VOCs, including FloorScor by Scientific Certification Systems and Green Label Plus by the Carpet and Rug Institute.  Products bearing these seals of approval can earn points toward certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED. 

In addition, projects can earn LEED points by using materials made of recycled content; double points for post-consumer waste. “The race is on for that with manufacturers,” says Bisbee. 
And commercial renovations earn LEED points by recycling construction waste such as carpeting.

Lockheed Martin is replacing the carpet at the federally owned Warrenton Training Center, which straddles the Fauquier and Culpeper county line. The project isn’t seeking LEED certification, says Michael Bille, a senior construction engineer at Lockheed Martin.  So why bother recycling 30-year-old carpet?  “We’re doing our best to lead by example,” says Bille. 

The new carpet is low-VOC. It’s designed to outlast conventional brands, yet the price is comparable, to traditional carpet, says Bille.  The disposal costs for recycling the old carpet are a bit higher than having it hauled to a landfill, but that money’s recovered by the long lifetime of the new carpet.  Plus, adds Bille, recycling earns the company public approval. 

The defense contractor is going green right down to the adhesives.  That’s essential, says Bisbee.  He tells a cautionary tale from a recent consultation in “a very prominent government building” in D.C.  Bisbee was shown to a newly carpeted basement where, within minutes, his eyes were watering.  “The designer forgot to specify green adhesives,” he explains. The installation team went with the cheapest option, something solvent-based that filled the room with caustic fumes. “The space was totally empty,” Bisbee recalls.  Unusable.  Nothing cheap about that.

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