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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.

  • 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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  • 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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  • 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 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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  • 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 include G2, a urethane mortar system that incorporates pre-consumer recycled glass and is formulated for the food and beverage industry. 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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  • Degaclad CQ Fluid-Applied Flooring
  • Degaclad CQ Fluid-Applied Flooring
  • BASF Corporation
  • Degaclad CQ Fluid-Applied Flooring
    BASF Corporation
    BASF’s Degaclad CQ is a methyl-methacrylate (MMA)-based flooring system used on concrete floors where a seamless, easy-to-clean surface is required. This durable, self-leveling, slip-resistant, decorative flooring system uses quartz as fill and is appropriate for a range of commercial applications. It is applied in layers that achieve a full cure in an hour, according to the company. All layers of Degaclad are under 200 g/l VOC, and most are under 100 g/l.
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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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  • Mohawk and Columbia Laminate Flooring
  • Mohawk and Columbia Laminate Flooring
  • Mohawk Industries
  • Mohawk and Columbia Laminate Flooring
    Mohawk Industries
    Mohawk offers direct pressure laminate flooring under both the Mohawk and Columbia brands. This laminate flooring is intended for residential and light commercial use and is available in a range of faux wood and stone patterns. This NAFLA-certified laminate flooring contains over 74% pre-consumer recycled content, meets CDPH Standard Method emissions standards, and is FloorScore certified. It uses an aluminum oxide impregnated wear layer to help provide an abrasion class rating of AC4 (commercial grade) and uses the Uniclic tongue-and-groove installation system, which provides a good edge seal and makes individual plank replacement possible. This flooring comes with a limited lifetime warranty for residential use and a 5-year warranty for commercial.
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  • Mannington Laminate Flooring
  • Mannington Laminate Flooring
  • Mannington Commercial
  • Mannington Laminate Flooring
    Mannington Commercial
    Mannington laminate flooring is intended for residential use and is available in a range of faux wood and stone patterns. This flooring contains over 74% pre-consumer recycled content, meets CDPH Standard Method emissions standards, and is FloorScore certified. Mannington’s NAFLA-certified laminate flooring has an abrasion class rating of AC3.
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  • Trox Floor Diffusers
  • Trox Floor Diffusers
  • Trox USA, Inc.
  • Trox Floor Diffusers
    Trox USA, Inc.
    Trox is a leading German manufacturer of floor diffusers for access floor systems that are used as conditioned air supply plenums. Trox's line of diffusers includes rectangular floor grilles, circular diffusers, and low-profile fan terminals.
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  • RFDD/ARFHD Round Floor Diffuser
  • RFDD/ARFHD Round Floor Diffuser
  • Price Industries
  • RFDD/ARFHD Round Floor Diffuser
    Price Industries
    Designed especially for underfloor air distribution (UFAD) systems, these floor diffusers from Price have a low throw height—the distance air is pushed into the conditioned space—to reduce air mixing and energy use. Conventional overhead air distribution systems rely on intensive air mixing to ensure uniform temperature and humidity levels throughout the space, while UFAD instead allows natural convection to buoy warm air and associated contaminants up toward the ceiling, where they are removed by the return plenum. This feature of UFAD is one of the reasons for its energy-saving claims, but most floor diffusers are not specialized to provide this lower throw height. According to Price, the low throw height of its RFDD diffusers improves not only energy performance but also indoor air quality (because increased stratification results in removal of contaminants) and thermal comfort (because of a draft rate of less than 10%, based on ASHRAE 55–2010).
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