Green Building Library
Building Materials

Choosing Green Finish Materials

By Shannon Sullivan

"Green" finish materials can be difficult to define. Each product is defined as green according to its performance, its composition, or its lifespan, among other potentially green qualities. Some products may possess only one green quality, and others, many. It's helpful, when shopping for green finish materials, to keep certain guidelines in mind.

Before selecting new finish materials, it may be appropriate to determine whether they are necessary. Maintaining existing finishes conserves both energy and resources, as opposed to choosing new finishes even though they are considered green. Although green products are defined in part by their low impact on the environment, as new products, energy and material have been consumed in their production. Additionally, if a new product replaces an existing one, the existing material must often be discarded, if it cannot be reused or recycled.

It may be necessary to replace an existing finish, however. If the finish material releases or collects toxins, affecting the indoor air quality of a house for example, concern for health might outweigh the benefits of continuing to use it. Similarly, if an existing finish is inefficient or damaged, exchanging it for a green finish is appropriate. When building a new home, the use of green products is always beneficial.

When choosing a product, it is important to understand what makes it green. In order to truly know whether or not a product is green, one would have to perform a life cycle assessment. A life cycle assessment is an analysis of all stages of a product’s life: raw material acquisition, manufacture, transport, construction or application, use and disposal. All energy and material used in any of these processes affects that product’s level of energy efficiency, resource conservation and toxicity—in other words, its “greenness.”

Of course, it is impractical to monitor production or acquistion of every product from cradle to grave. Many raw materials used in green products are not available locally, and manufacturers are scattered throughout the nation and world, making travel to these places problematic. Effects of a product during its lifetime could also be difficult to measure, requiring special equipment and a great deal of time. In short, performing a life cycle assessment on one product, let alone the many products used in a large project, is difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

The means to perform a complete life cycle assessment may be inaccessible, but certain principles can be used to help determine whether or not a product is green in the readily observable portion of its life. Reading the product’s label, noting the geographic origin of the product in relation to one’s own location, knowing how the product will be used, and knowing the method by which it may be disposed, all provide feasible methods of green product analysis.

When purchasing a product, look for recycled content listed on the label or in a description of the product. A recycled product uses fewer raw materials than an entirely new product of the same type. There are two types of recycled content in a product: post-consumer and pre-consumer. The latter is also known as post-industrial. In terms of conserving material use, post-consumer recycled content is the preferable choice over pre-consumer recycled content. Post-consumer recycled material comes from material that has already served one purpose, while pre-consumer recycled material is made from scrap left by industrial processes. Using pre-consumer waste to make recycled products is essentially the same as simply not wasting material during production. Both types of recycled content help conserve resources, however, and looking for recycled content on the label of a product is one way to determine whether or not a product is green. 

Toxicity and resource efficiency should be taken into account when buying a green finish. Natural materials are more desirable than those made using petroleum or other chemicals. They are often less toxic and are more rapidly renewable. For example, bamboo grows rapidly, and is therefore a better choice of flooring than vinyl made from petroleum, in terms of resource conservation.

Another thing to keep in mind when searching for a green product is that minimally processed materials use less energy to produce than highly processed materials. It may be difficult to determine how much processing went into a product when looking at it on the shelf, but the product itself can give clues to its history. Cork flooring, for example, remains in a state similar to its natural state when in its finished form. Vinyl flooring or carpeting, on the other hand, are very different than the raw materials that went into their production, indicating greater inputs.

The energy used in the creation of a product, including all activity from the gathering of raw materials through manufacturing and installation, is called its embodied energy. While embodied energy, along with the amount of processing a product goes through, is important to take into account when buying a product, the energy used, or energy saved, during the product’s time of operation is often more important. Concrete is a good example of this tradeoff. As an integral part of a passive solar design, concrete reduces a home's operational cost, even though it takes a lot of energy to produce (high embodied energy). Although there are certainly exceptions, "operational energy" generally trumps "embodied energy."

Durability is one factor that may qualify a product as green. When buying a countertop, for example, granite may be a good choice because it is durable. However, consider whether the durable countertop will endure in other areas. If the granite is fashionable now, will it still be in several years? Will the countertop be a feature future owners of the home will be likely to accept and continue to use? Be conscious of whether finish choices are enduring, and not overly reliant on the fashion of the time. A product’s durability comes to an end when it is discarded as old-fashioned.

When possible, combine structural and finish materials. Stained concrete flooring is an example of this principle. Combining functions eliminates the need for two separate materials. Therefore, products that can do both jobs at once are often worthwhile green finish choices.

Be aware of a product’s place of origin. The energy used to transport all the raw materials of a product, as well as the product itself, contributes to its overall use of energy; a quality that may determine whether or not the product is green. A product’s labeling will sometimes indicate its place of manufacture. Remember, however, that the raw materials may have come from much farther away. Buying local green products, when possible, is preferable.


For more information on specific products, follow these links:
Recycled Roofing
This roofing material comprises recycled plastic and wood fiber. It carries a 50 year warranty.
staircase made with green materials
This stair case uses reclaimed 4 x 12 beams. The stair treads are locally harvested FSC-certified lumber. The newell post and railings are minimally processed local pine.
stained concrete floor
Stained concrete floors are a good example of using a material as structure and finish.