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Materials Selection through the LEED Lens

Wall panels to be re-used in the Philadelphia office space to earn LEED points for materials re-use. Mike Pulaski photo.

Thornton Tomasetti stands to gain nine LEED points from a careful selection of materials for our new downtown Philadelphia office. Although Thornton Tomasetti’s Sustainability Practice staff are often engaged in the process of considering the use of local, recycled, and non-toxic materials for our projects, this was the first foray into the process for the “home” team in Philadelphia.
Following materials selection for the Philadelphia office, Mark Coggin, structural engineer and Philadelphia Office Leader, has changed the way he looks at furniture and floor coverings and particularly how he views green materials such as cork and sorghum.
“We had used cork in some of our school projects, but I hadn’t realized that cork was a sustainable material. I never thought it was something that I would use in our office space, but you know what? It’s great!” remarked Coggin. Cork will be the flooring for the office kitchen and, along with very comfortable lounge chairs, will contribute to giving the space a unique character that will invite inter-office discussions.
For Steve Ross, Thornton Tomasetti’s tenant relocation manager, the LEED materials selection process was also educational. In particular, he found great value in having an experienced LEED-accredited interiors architect help with the process, and explained, “it’s not just about engineering, but about the details in the surfaces and materials. It is not a straight accounting procedure, you have to take your best guess and certain materials look more attractive than others.”
Despite the general perception that “green” materials are priced at a premium, Coggin and Ross have found little additional cost in sourcing materials for LEED certification. For example, the team looked at three vendors of office furniture, first selected because of the high quality of their merchandise. The vendors were all located within 300 miles of the office – and would therefore meet the LEED criteria for regional sourcing – and all the vendors offered furniture that met LEED criteria for recycled and non-toxic materials. Some suppliers would even provide a consultant to help with filling out the LEED paperwork.
“In the case of furniture, we found that all the suppliers were on the same playing field and that no one is standing ahead of the other in regards to what they can provide for LEED,” explained Ross. The team found that LEED has become the industry standard for office furniture.
Sourcing for LEED certification was not problematic in the case of paint either, because most manufacturers are now offering no-VOC or low-VOC paints that would be LEED compliant for low toxicity. Carpet, which can be up to 10 percent of the total cost of a fit-out, has also gone the way of paint with the no-VOC LEED-compliant carpets comparable in cost to other quality carpet on the market.
Perhaps the greatest complexity in materials selection came when the team wanted a special feature. For example, the team was interested in a reception desk that was unique. They looked into sorghum desks – sorghum is a fast-growing grass that meets LEED criteria for rapidly renewable resources. However, sorghum is expensive, and instead the desk will be comprised of a core of wood that is sustainably certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and a recycled-material laminate that is regionally made.
In the pursuit of a green and healthy office space that would achieve LEED certification, other interesting features have been selected that will add character to the Philadelphia office. These include polished concrete in the lobby and task lighting at each desk.
“We had to be smart about where we would spend limited dollars so that they would count to achieve the greatest LEED points,” explained Coggin. “This is the interesting part of the process, which has been great. I’ve learned a lot and the building manager has been very receptive and supportive.”
In addition to the building manager, another critical partner in the process has been the interior designer, L2 Partridge. Explained Coggin, “The interior designers are very familiar with finishes that have recycled content and what can be purchased regionally. Without them, I would never have thought of using solid surface, a laminate, or sorghum.”
Please return to this blog in a few weeks to learn about sub-metering for LEED points and real-time data on electricity use.