Is it green or not?
There are many facets involved with building a new green home. Heating and cooling systems, energy efficient appliances, indoor air quality and landscapes that take water conservation into mind often grab most of the headlines.
However, many homeowners and contractors still overlook the value of sourcing product locally, which can account for up to 12 points in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED accreditation process. Granted, leading green builders and architects know all about the need to source flooring and other items from local suppliers whenever possible. Doing so cuts down on the carbon footprint to build the home, while supporting local economies.
But to the average homeowner, the concept of procuring product locally – or as close to local as possible – is still a foreign concept. And for those that understand that concept, it can be difficult to navigate through the weave of a product’s supply chain to determine if it is sourced locally or not, and just how green that product is.
“Locally sourced is a pretty complex problem because products may be sourced locally, but refined remotely and then shipped all over the place,” says Susan Piedmont-Palladino, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and a professor of architecture at Virginia Tech. “It’s a real challenge to actually figure out where the labor is being done and where the raw material came from. Sometimes people take the attitude that whatever the local hardware store has is local enough. But how they got the product isn’t always obvious to the consumer.”
That’s an issue that manufacturers of U.S.-made products fight an uphill battle with. The term “imported” carries an allure and often a false impression that the product is exotic and of high quality. That often trumps the importance of the product being locally produced with a lighter carbon footprint.
“That whole idea of embodied energy is something that is very new to people,” says Dave Genest, sales and marketing manager at Trikeenan Tileworks, an American Artisan tile manufacturer based in Keene, N.H. “Most people think if you can reclaim your carbon and offset it in [some other] way that the world will be better place.”
Trikeenan buys its clay from suppliers in the Northeast United States, and works to support locally owned businesses. The firm collects and reuses clay, glaze waste and wastewater in its factories and offers product lines with 100 percent post-industrial recycled glaze and 100 percent post-consumer and post-industrial crushed glass material. The tiles are made from naturally occurring inert materials from plentiful resources such as clay and calcium carbonate.
Trikeenan uses water-based glazes, eliminating emissions of VOCs during manufacturing, resulting in a tile that is entirely VOC-free. Its factories are dedicated to recycling and reusing cardboard and paper. In fact, the company ships its tile in used clay boxes.
Of course, ceramic tile is also one of the longest lasting surfaces, therefore having a very low carbon footprint overall. Trikeenan’s fired scrap is even used by local New Hampshire towns to make roadbeds.
Builders in much of the East Coast can qualify for the LEED 500-mile credit by using Trikeenan’s tiles, as opposed to importing tile from Europe. The LEED standard, published by USGBC, awards credit for materials manufactured within 500 miles of the construction site. With factories in New Hampshire and upstate New York, Trikeenan’s 500-mile territory reaches all or parts of 18 states, Washington, D.C., and three Canadian provinces.
Overcoming consumer perceptions, habits
Despite that company's success, the buying local issue remains a challenge.
“Oddly enough, sourcing locally is a really complex issue for architects,” says Piedmont-Palladino. “I have great empathy for a New England tile manufacturer because if it doesn’t come from someplace exotic the perception is it isn’t good, and it is important to get over that.”
Genest says that in most cases, the amount of tile that homeowners are looking for is so small that while they acknowledge it’s nice being green, they aren’t likely to buy just for that reason. Often, they will buy to satisfy design tastes first, without considering the product’s greenness. “It’s either for a wall in a bathroom or a sink backsplash,” he says. “The area is so critical to them, they are most concerned with finding the right look.”
The residential sector is miles behind the commercial market when it comes to sourcing locally, according to Genest. Starbucks, for example, is using sustainable Boneyard Brick tile from Trikeenan at many of its coffee shops up and down the East coast.
USGBC's LEED system awards up to 12 points for building with environmentally friendly products. That’s less than 10 percent of the entire 136-point LEED certification rating system, so it is understandable why purveying local product is not on everyone’s priority list. By comparison, energy efficiency measures can earn homeowners up to 42 points.
“The residential market isn’t quite there yet,” says Asa Foss, manager of LEED for Homes Technical Development at USGBC. “Certainly right now energy efficiency should be a priority. But as buildings become more energy efficient, then the relative importance of choosing green materials becomes increasingly important.”