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Interior finishes help define the character of a space—and also can be significant factors affecting its environmental quality. Chemicals offgassing from interior finishes, particularly carpeting, was implicated in some early high-profile cases of “sick building syndrome.” From this discovery came a series of efforts to measure and control emissions from carpet and other finishes, so that today there are low-emitting options available in all finish categories. If finishes are applied while occupants are present, it is especially important to use low-emitting materials.

Finish materials also affect the environment before they’re installed, due to raw material extraction and impacts from manufacturing. Wall and floor coverings are replaced more frequently than the rest of the building and so their cumulative environmental impact can be substantial. Where feasible, choosing enduring design over a trendy look reduces the pace of replacement cycles, minimizing associated impact. Design that uses structure as finish, such as polished concrete, also reduces material use and environmental impact.

Emissions from paints and coatings

Paint, stains, adhesives, and other wet-applied coatings have their greatest effect on indoor air quality during and immediately after installation. The health hazard is particularly acute for installers. Most conventional products off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other chemicals that are added to enhance the performance or extend shelf life of the product. Little scientific data is available on the health effects of many of these chemicals—and even less on the effects of exposure to a combination of such chemicals that may occur in buildings. Quality substitutions, which are lower in toxicity or nontoxic, are available for all of these products.

Some wet-applied products continue to emit VOCs for a long time after installation. In addition, VOCs emitted during curing can become attached to other surfaces in the space, especially fabrics, and then be re-emitted over time. To reduce this problem, painting should be done with soft surfaces covered and direct ventilation provided until the coating is dry.

Flooring options abound

Flooring and floorcoverings are subject to physical abuse from feet and heavy objects, and, because they’re the lowest spot in a room, they tend to collect dirt, moisture, and other contaminants. A good flooring material should be very durable—to reduce the frequency of replacement—and it should be easy to clean. Some spaces are suited to polished concrete which reduces overall material use by eliminating the need for added finish flooring. At the same time, softer surfaces may be preferred for comfort, noise absorption, and style.

Flooring is made from a wide range of materials, including wood, bamboo, cork, terrazzo, masonry, tile, along with VCT, linoleum and other resilient flooring materials, each with a unique environmental profile. For example, VCT and vinyl sheet flooring are widely used and have a low initial cost. However, maintenance requirements and costs can be high, and there are significant environmental and health concerns from the PVC and phthalate content, and from the emissions of frequent stripping and waxing cycles.

When selecting flooring and floor coverings such as carpet, make sure that it doesn’t introduce harmful emissions into the space. On top of that, look for lower-impact materials and manufacturing processes.

Sustainable wood products

Whenever possible, woods used in interior finish and trim should be from certified well-managed forests. In GreenSpec we look to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification as the most responsible indicator that wood products of all types come from well-managed forests. FSC-certified bamboo and cork flooring is also becoming more available. 

For most building materials, the terms “salvaged” and “reclaimed” apply only to materials that have been previously used and then collected for reuse. This definition applies to wood products as well, especially large timbers from old structures that are remilled for use as structural members or flooring. Be careful, though: some salvage operations, particularly river-bottom salvage, don’t count toward LEED credits and can cause habitat disruption.

Drywall and Backing boards

Conventional drywall is relatively low-impact in terms of manufacturing, but not all that durable, and the paper facing is susceptible to supporting mold growth. It is typically made from 100 percent recycled paper backing and natural gypsum, which is plentiful and can be low-impact to extract. More and more drywall today contains pre-consumer waste in the form of synthetic gypsum created by sulfur removal systems in the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants. This material is sometimes referred to as flue-gas desulfurization gypsum.

In selecting a backerboard product for wet areas, such as tub and bath surrounds, effective moisture-management should be the primary consideration. There are three major types of tile backer board appropriate for these applications: cementitious, coated glass mat, and fiber-cement.

Wall coverings

Textile and vinyl wall coverings are commonly used in commercial buildings for sound control and durability. Paper and vinyl “wallpaper” is widely used in homes. Avoiding vinyl (PVC) products where there are reasonable alternatives is environmentally desirable for several reasons. Beyond the environmental and health concerns with PVC and the phthalate plasticizers used to make it flexible, most vinyl wall coverings have very low moisture permeability, so there is potential for mold growth if moisture is trapped behind these wall coverings. Consider synthetic and natural-fiber alternatives to PVC-based wall coverings.

Interior finishes help define the character of a space—and also can be significant factors affecting its environmental quality. Chemicals offgassing from interior finishes, particularly carpeting, was implicated in some early high-profile cases of “sick building syndrome.” From this discovery came a series of efforts to measure and control emissions from carpet and other finishes, so that today there are low-emitting options available in all finish categories. If finishes are applied while occupants are present, it is especially important to use low-emitting materials.

  • Ardicoat Plus Cement Waterproofing
  • Ardicoat Plus Cement Waterproofing
  • ARDEX Americas
  • Ardicoat Plus Cement Waterproofing
    ARDEX Americas
    Ardex Ardicoat Plus uses fine portland cement powder and liquid acrylic to form a waterproof coating. Ardicoat Plus is typically used on balcony restoration, on the top side of weathered slabs, and for waterproofing foundations in place of asphaltic damproofing and bitumens, and is appropriate for commercial or residential applications. The emulsion is fiber-reinforced, but the company recommends using propylene mesh during installation for added reinforcement and to make sure the coating is applied at the proper thickness. Ardicoat Plus is available in a kit, with 25 pounds of the powder and 2.3 gallons of the liquid included.
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  • Eco-Tuff Rubberized Non-Skid Safety Coating
  • Eco-Tuff Rubberized Non-Skid Safety Coating
  • Eco Safety Products
  • Eco-Tuff Rubberized Non-Skid Safety Coating
    Eco Safety Products
    Eco-Tuff Non Skid Coating is a zero-VOC acrylic/urethane floor coating that contains 17% biobased content, 30% recycled crumb rubber, and no solvents or glycol ethers. Appropriate for interior or exterior applications for concrete, wood, primed metal and other surfaces, this non-skid flooring is breathable yet chemical-, water-, and weather-resistant, and has “a non-aggressive barefoot friendly texture,” in 36- or 60-grit equivalent surfaces, according to the company. It is available in one- or two-gallon containers and in several colors and can be top-coated for color or sheen using the company's Eco-Tuff H.T. Coating or Eco-Tuff H.T. Clearcoats.
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  • PlexiDeck Fluid-Applied Flooring
  • PlexiDeck Fluid-Applied Flooring
  • Plexicoat America
  • PlexiDeck Fluid-Applied Flooring
    Plexicoat America
    PlexiDeck offers a methyl-methacrylate (MMA) acrylic-based, fluid-applied flooring system where a zero-VOC, seamless, easy-to-clean surface is required. PlexiDeck can be used on steel, wood, or concrete in a range of commercial and industrial applications and uses quartz or paint flakes as decorative fill. It is available in roll-on and self-leveling formulas. Applied in layers, this flooring achieves a full cure in an hour, according to the company.
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  • Stonehard Seamless Floors
  • Stonehard Seamless Floors
  • Stonhard
  • Stonehard Seamless Floors
    Stonhard
    Stonehard offers a number of urethane and acrylic-based floor coatings for commercial applications. Stonclad products are for heavy-use applications and some include G2, a urethane mortar system that incorporates pre-consumer recycled glass and is formulated for the food and beverage industry. The others are a polyurethane or epoxy mortar system. Some of the epoxy mortar systems use 30% recycled content as well as biobasd soy components. Stoneshield Xpress methyl methacrylate (MMA) system cures quickly and is used for commercial applications that require a fast turnaround. Stonehard uses waterborne urethanes and MMA products with VOC levels less than 100 g/l.
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  • Fermacell Gypsum Fiber Board
  • Fermacell Gypsum Fiber Board
  • Fermacell GmbH
  • Fermacell Gypsum Fiber Board
    Fermacell GmbH
    Fermacell gypsum fiberboard is in part made from synthetic gypsum and post-consumer recycled paper fibers amounting to 76% total recycled content. The boards are pressed without any binders being added and are rated European class A2 for fire resistance. The boards come in thicknesses of 10 mm, 12.5 mm, 15 mm, and 18 mm and in dimensions up to 6 m x 2.5 m.
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  • Pergo Laminate Flooring
  • Pergo Laminate Flooring
  • Pergo
  • Pergo Laminate Flooring
    Pergo
    Pergo, part of Mohawk Industries, introduced laminate flooring to the world and continues to provide a full line of residential and light commercial products. This NAFLA-certified laminate flooring is available in a range of faux wood and stone patterns. It contains over 80% pre-consumer recycled content, meets CDPH Standard Method emissions standards, and is FloorScore certified. Pergo’s laminate flooring uses ScratchGuard Advanced surface protection that includes an aluminum oxide impregnated wear layer as well as its PermaMax wear layer to help provide an abrasion class rating of AC3. Individual plank replacement should be done by trained professionals. Pergo warranties vary depending on product and end use but Pergo XP (extreme performance) comes with a limited lifetime or seven-year warranty depending on residential or commercial use, respectively.
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  • Fixit 222 Insulating Plaster
  • Fixit 222 Insulating Plaster
  • Fixit, AG
  • Fixit 222 Insulating Plaster
    Fixit, AG
    Fixit 222 is an insulating, lime plaster with granulized silica aerogel. It can be sprayed or troweled onto a wall and provides an insulating value of R-5.15 per inch (0.028 W/mK). Fixit 222 is permeable to water vapor and can be used indoors or, if coated with a harder surface plaster, used on the exterior as a stucco cladding. The composition is silica aerogel granulate, lightweight mineral aggregate, natural hydraulic lime, chromate-free white cement, and white calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). As a 100% inorganic material, Fixit is nonflammable without added flame retardants. Fixit is not currently distributed in North America.
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  • Stramit CAFboard
  • Stramit CAFboard
  • Stramit USA, LLC
  • Stramit CAFboard
    Stramit USA, LLC
    CAFboard is a compressed-fiber panel manufactured by Stramit from wheat straw. The company markets the boards for SIPs, door cores, interior sheathing, acoustical panels, and many other applications. CAFboard is processed under high heat and pressure, which convert lignin already present in the straw into a natural binder—no binder is added, and testing shows zero VOC emissions. The boards have a STC ratings of 32 (for thinner boards) and 45 (for thicker boards); and a one- or two-hour fire rating (depending on thickness) based on ASTM E119/UL263. The boards contain no added flame retardants. CAFboard is available in densities from 15.6 to 40.5 pounds per cubic foot, and Stramit USA claims that the R-value of these panels ranges from R-2.32 to R-3.03. However, the company couldn't provide a lab report backing those claims, and we think they are exaggerated—see our full review for more discussion.

    Stramit also claims high resistance to mold and mildew without added chemicals, low moisture absorption, natural termite resistance, and a negative carbon footprint. CAFboard panels range in thickness from 1.000" to 3.125" and are available in two standard widths—31.50" and 42.24". The company also incorporates CAFboard into two other Stramit products: the CAFsteel panelized building system and the CAFquiet interior partition system, which features an STC rating of 50.
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  • Purline Eco Resilient Flooring
  • Purline Eco Resilient Flooring
  • Wineo
  • Purline Eco Resilient Flooring
    Wineo
    Purline Eco is a resilient flooring product that is free of chlorine, solvents, and toxic phthalate plasticizers. Rapeseed and castor oils are used as plasticizers to make the polyurethane permanently elastic. Purline is suitable for heavy industrial applications with a Wear Class of 43. The wear layer is antistatic, antimicrobial, chemically resistant, and a fleece backing is compatible with traditional adhesives for installation. The product is certified UL Greenguard Gold for low emissions. Purline eco is available in plank or tile format with a thickness of 2.5 mm supplied in rolls that measure 2 m x 20 m. A selection of 45 designs includes wood and stone patterns.
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  • Fellert Acoustical Plaster
  • Fellert Acoustical Plaster
  • Fellert USA
  • Fellert Acoustical Plaster
    Fellert USA
    The makers of Fellert Acoustical Plaster claim their product solves cracking problems while also providing an exceptional NRC rating of 0.85–0.90. Acoustical plaster provides a highly reflective interior that also absorbs sound and reduces noise even in large, open space, but its seamless look often doesn’t last because plasters tend to crack with normal settling and other loads. With a backing made of acoustical fiberglass board and spray-applied plaster incorporating perlite, bentonite, and post-consumer recycled cotton, Fellert Acoustical Plaster can flex—with an internal stress rating of 2.1 according to ASTM D6991-05. The product is installed with PVC-based C-channels.
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  • Eco Fiber Touch
  • Eco Fiber Touch
  • Shaw Contract Group
  • Eco Fiber Touch
    Shaw Contract Group
    Eco Fiber Touch is a commercial carpet cushion that is made from 100% pre-consumer fibers from carpet, yarn, and other sources. Appropriate for hospitality, education, and other high-traffic applications, this high-density cushion is available in a variety of weights and thickness. Eco Fiber Touch is CRI Green Label Plus and Cradle-to-Cradle Silver certified. This cushion comes with a limited 10-year warranty.
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  • Domus Mineral Paint
  • Domus Mineral Paint
  • Roma
  • Domus Mineral Paint
    Roma
    Roma offers hypoallergenic, environmentally preferable finishes, including BioCalce lime washes and Domus potassium silica paints. BioCalce emits no VOCs and can be used on masonry or wood surfaces; Domus is vapor-permeable, provides greater adhesion and durability than acrylic paints, and its alkaline surface helps control mold and mildew without added biocides. These paints use zero-VOC natural mineral tints and are available in matte, eggshell, and satin.
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  • Nydree Hardwood Flooring
  • Nydree Hardwood Flooring
  • Nydree Flooring
  • Nydree Hardwood Flooring
    Nydree Flooring
    Nydree Flooring sells and distributes new FSC-certified ash, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and walnut wood flooring. Its Core collection uses recycled Aspen tree fibers and all-natural dyes. Nydree MRA1585 Moisture Retarding Adhesive, the recommended adhesive for all Nydree Flooring products, contains no VOCs. Fixed length, double end, grooved planks can be specified in widths of 2-2/3" (67.6 mm) and 4" (101.6 mm) at a thickness of 3/8" (8.26 mm). Nydree Flooring also offers reclaimed oak flooring.
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  • Uniboard Luxury Laminate Flooring
  • Uniboard Luxury Laminate Flooring
  • Uniboard
  • Uniboard Luxury Laminate Flooring
    Uniboard
    Uniboard offers Luxury Laminate Flooring that is appropriate for residential or light commercial use. It is available as faux wood planks in 10-, 12-, and 14-mm thicknesses with AC3, AC4, and AC4 abrasion class ratings and 25-, 35-, and 35-year warranties, respectively. The high-density fiberboard used in this laminate is made from FSC-certified, 100% pre-consumer recycled content and meets CARB II emissions requirements.
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  • Torlys and Quick Step Laminate Flooring
  • Torlys and Quick Step Laminate Flooring
  • TORLYS
  • Torlys and Quick Step Laminate Flooring
    TORLYS
    Torlys offers direct pressure laminate flooring under both the Torlys and Quick Step brands. Appropriate for residential and light commercial applications, this laminate flooring is available in planks that mimic the look of wood and tiles. Torlys laminate flooring contains 74% pre-consumer recycled content, meets CDPH Standard Method emissions standards, and is FloorScore certified. Products range in thickness from 8 to 9.5 mm and have abrasion class ratings of AC3 or AC4, depending on style, and most carry a 7- or 35-year warranty for commercial or residential applications, respectively. Individual Torlys laminate flooring planks can be replaced if damaged by using its Bulldog Easy Plank Replacer.
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