Green Buildings–Where the Greenbacks Are Buried

Steven Ferry

March 2007

Monica Gilchrist is the National Resource Center Coordinator for Global Green USA. She has a master’s degree in urban planning with a focus on green architecture and building. Gilchrist’s task is to establish and oversee resource centers around the country to educate the public, industry players and civic bodies on green building and the developing of green building policies. In this summary of a discussion with her, she sounds a clarion call for any readers of this magazine who may feel that green building may not be that relevant to the walls and ceilings industry, or who may be unconvinced that the time is ripe for a look at greening their business.

Greenwashing or Reality?
Contrary to the generally held notion in our industry that green walls and ceilings are a bit of a non-event, there are a number of green building techniques, products and systems that can be used for walls and even ceilings. Structurally, there is ICF (Insulating Concrete Forms) and SCIP (Structural Concrete Insulating Panels) in preference to traditional stick framing.

ICF has been used widely, particularly in hurricane-affected areas, where they are considered green primarily because of their durability, their resistance to extreme weather and their incredible capacity to create energy-efficient homes—although some are greener than others. In the February/March 2007 issue of Plenty Magazine (, an article lists the 20 companies that will change the world. One of them is Green Sandwich Technologies (, a company that manufactures SCIP wall systems.

In terms of finishes, there are some remarkable products available, particularly natural clay plaster for the interior and lime plaster for the exterior. With a conventional wall, drywall is hung and painted inside and stucco is applied the outside: The result is a system that cannot breathe, frequently resulting in mold and compromised indoor air quality. With many green products, which are frequently natural, walls can breathe. One particular product worth checking is American Clay, a completely natural clay product that is very easy to apply and so easy to repair that anyone can do it. It makes the room more pleasant to be in because it absorbs a little bit of moisture and a little bit of noise.

The lime plaster is more controversial in that it is more expensive and not nearly as widely available. So it comes at a premium whereas the interior is much more widely available and while it is also a premium over something like a basic paint, it is not a premium over a custom interior like a Venetian plaster.

Now, why would we build with anything other than drywall? Well for one thing, it’s an alternative. For another, more and more gypsum wallboard manufacturers are introducing mold- and mildew-resistant panels to the market, indicating that while we all know it takes more than just wallboard to make mold, the customers’ perception is that wallboard may be part of the problem. That being said, there’s no good replacement for drywall … yet. New products beginning to show up on the market such as full-wall SIP and ICF systems offer construction alternatives, but there is nothing that’s cost-comparative to good ole gypsum wallboard.

But drywall is not necessarily a "not-green” product. It can be green when it includes higher percentages of recycled content, and especially when used in conjunction with products such as the new clay surface. But you can build without drywall when you move away from traditional framing.

For ceilings, the green options seem limited currently to recycled-content ceiling tiles and tiles with lower VOCs (volatile organic compounds), both conferring significant environmental and health advantages.

So you see, wall and ceiling products have always been green to some extent, but in these days of building greener, some of these products are now greener than others.

Too Many Shades of Green
If you and/or your architect decide on a product, how can you decide how good it is without standardization and some sort of rating system? Currently, there is and there isn’t any standardization for green home and commercial building and remodeling products and systems. For instance, there are more than 70 local or regional green-home building programs in the United States. What is true is that we’re moving toward standardization: The U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating SystemTM is the only actual standard rating system, and it is growing rapidly in acceptance, with more than 35,000 LEED accredited professionals and almost 6,000 certified or registered projects currently on the books.

LEED for new construction was first released in 2000; LEED for commercial interiors/tenant improvements and existing buildings/operation and maintenance, in 2004; and LEED for core and shell and newly constructed homes are currently in pilot testing, while LEED for neighborhood development is under development. Eight-hundred homes across the country are involved in the LEED for Homes pilot program with more than two dozen homes LEED certified so far. The pilot will soon be completed and the LEED for Homes rating system launched this June. These ratings apply to the overall greenness of buildings; however, they do not include rating the individual green products and systems within those buildings.

On the Global Green Web site (, they discuss what makes a product green or not, a determination that requires a complete inspection of its life cycle, from raw material to production, to use to longevity and waste stream. At the bottom of that page, Global Green lists independent certification programs in the United States for different types of products. Other countries have other systems that are more widespread. What is missing, apparently, but soon to be rectified, is "Cradle to Cradle,” a product certification that has been launched over the past few years, which is most likely to become the de facto standard for any green product during the next five to 10 years. At the national Green Builders Conference held in Denver in October 2006, the buzz was all about Cradle to Cradle.

Selecting the Right Shade
With new construction, you are creating something that’s energy-efficient, healthy, that people can enjoy, and all of that. Frequently, there is no cost differential in going green because it’s a question of design, how to orient the building to the sun and so on. When doing a retrofit, however, and if you are using a green as opposed to a non-green product, there can be a premium associated with greening. So what are the principal concerns when selecting these products?

In a nutshell, cost, durability, maintenance requirements, how they work with other systems installed and health—not just of the occupants, but also the contractors working with the products! An incredibly toxic product will compromise an installer’s health over time. So, when a client foots the bill for a healthier product, the sub stands to benefit tremendously. Along this line, VOC standards are changing in many locations next year, with paints becoming better and healthier. We will be seeing this with a number of other products as well, such as adhesives, caulks, which have already undergone a lowering in toxicity/VOCs.

According to the USGBC Web site, an up-front investment of 2 percent for a green building results in 20-percent lifecycle savings. A $4 investment per square foot in building green nets a $58 benefit per square foot over the same time frame—80 percent from health and productivity benefits and the remainder from savings in operations and maintenance, energy, emissions and water.

Choice and availability of green products are growing rapidly; many mainstream manufacturers are now offering a green version of their products. While Global Green and other sites have useful lists of manufacturers of green products, the very best and most comprehensive is a database called Green Spec ( That site has a product directory that lists manufacturers all over the United States, and they are very transparent in what they include so that you can make informed decisions. They do not take any advertising dollars but are subscription-based and do an excellent job of screening people. The entire site,, as a whole is very useful.

Is the USA Really Following My LEED?
Since its founding in 1993, USGBC has been working to bring about high-performance green building in the construction industry. With more than 7,500 member companies and organizations (tripled in the last four years, during which time more than half a billion square feet of building space has been registered/certified under its LEED Green Building System), USGBC has witnessed the annual U.S. market in green building products and services grow to $7 billion

Forty-nine cities and 15 states in the United States (and 24 other countries) have adopted various LEED initiatives. Global Green is being contacted daily by cities that are interested in developing programs and has recently consulted with seven of them implementing, either voluntarily or by mandate, green building programs. New Orleans is one such city. A year or two ago, they wanted nothing to do with green building, but their current eagerness signals a shift in thinking that is being mirrored in many traditionally non-green, non-progressive cities, driven mainly by the huge financial component of energy price rises.

Examples of LEED projects in California include the city of Irvine. They decided that they didn’t want a standard that would be required of their builders, so they worked with their developers to create a voluntary standard that takes from LEED while reflecting the reality of the local building situation. Global Green consulted with them, speaking with developers to find out how hard, costly and practical going green would be, and from that research created a set of standards that was passed December 2005. As a result, Irvine has a 100 percent buy-in to the standard, with every single new project being built according to these standards—all on a voluntary basis.

The Irvine Company, a very conservative, traditional developer, took the lead in part on developing these standards because it viewed building a green structure as a financial opportunity. The market is shifting from building green as a financial hindrance to an economic opportunity as people demand green buildings. That is a huge shift from two or three years ago, when conservative companies wanted nothing to do with building green.

Laws and codes can both be a challenge to green building; for example, in the city of Los Angeles the codes are very strict about what materials and products can and cannot be used in construction. This makes it a challenge and liability to try to build green when using a new product. On the other hand, in places like New Orleans, after the terrible things they have been through, their codes are beginning to change. So anyone up to speed on building with something like ICF would be ahead of the curve before city policies and code changes were implemented. Tax breaks and incentives are following many of these policies.

Bottom Line: How Green Do We Need to Be?
As Gilchrist puts it, "I would definitely disagree with any idea that walls and ceiling subs are not really affected by the drive for greening on the basis that drywall is drywall and ceiling tiles are ceiling tiles, regardless of recycled content. I understand how they would feel that way, but I am seeing many people who felt that way across the board in building, who are now doing a 180.

"When we first opened Global Green three years ago, most of the people that came in were already interested in green building, so there was a lot of preaching to the choir. Over this past year, however, we have been flooded with professionals scrambling to catch up and keep up with market demand: contractors, architects, developers, interior people—you name it, people are coming in to learn about green building—and not so much because they’re interested personally, but because their clients are demanding it. People are seeing the relationship between their health and the buildings in which they live and work. The cost of energy is climbing steadily and it doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon, so people are being hit in their pocketbooks and that they care about!

"So, I would say green building is incredibly relevant, and any [subcontractors] who don’t climb on board will be left behind—both because of consumer demand increasing and also because mainstream people are becoming involved.

"It’s not just fringe people at green building conferences anymore: City policies are changing, bankers are investing, real estate people, the insurance industry, the leaders in the economic world are becoming involved heavily in green building. Major developers are developing housing tracts with green building in mind, another brand new trend. That’s why these stakeholders are really interested in green buildings.”

If this is the cutting edge reality, how long will it take for Smalltown, USA, to feel the pinch? Impact time frames are very regional, and they also depend on the type of building. This is just the beginning, according to Gilchrist, but the change is definitely sweeping the nation. In California, it’s happening right now. The Midwest is starting to take off right now. The time frame for subs and builders in other areas of the country to notice they’re losing sales because they’re not on the green bandwagon is within the year.

"The other driver that’s shifting people’s consciousness is climate change. There really wasn’t a widespread acceptance of the phenomena of climate change a year ago but a perusal of the mainstream news today delivers all kinds of references to and reports about energy, about climate change, about what can we do. Until very recently, that was another topic for the fringe to discuss, the progressives along the coasts and the blue states, but now it’s expanding into regions that had been resistive before. We’re seeing green building policies, climate policies and energy policies all starting to veer in the same direction.

The other thing that’s important to the wall and ceiling industry, too, is waste. In California, waste is required to be diverted from landfills, with construction as the number-one industry impacted by this requirement; cities merely transfer the burden onto the construction industry with fines levied for non-compliance. If green building practices are followed and most of the waste is recycled or diverted, then costs go down for developers avoiding fines. So, there are many ways to save money by building green.

To conclude with a few words from Gilchrist, "We are in an exciting time, and I would just encourage contractors to view this as an opportunity rather than as a barrier or something that is happening without any real relevance to them.

"Green building is a chance to get ahead of the game.”

About the Author
Steven Ferry is a Clearwater, Fla.–based writer for the construction industry.