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Green Specs II
A methodology for evaluating environmental impacts of building materials and products.
By Meg Calkins, ASLA

For every building product or material, there is a complex web of environmental impacts that ripple across the country, and sometimes around the world. The manganese to color the brick made in Iowa, for example, came from China, and if not handled properly during manufacture and installation, it can cause disorders of the central nervous system. The unit paver contains only enough ground, granulated blast-furnace slag—an industrial by-product from steel processing—so as not to affect the color, and the iron oxide pigment for the poured-in-place concrete in Illinois came from Mexico and is sealed with a product that contains volatile organic compounds. It is impossible to track all the environmental effects of building materials, but it is possible to discover the major ones and to specify materials and products to minimize the environmental impacts.

This article suggests a methodology and questions to ask of manufacturers and distributors to better understand the environmental life-cycle impacts of materials and products. To illustrate the benefits and limitations of the methodology, a sample analysis and comparison of three paving assemblies has been performed. The questions are not intended to produce one right answer as to which product is best—that is a nearly impossible task, and different projects will have differing priorities. Instead, the questions are designed to bring the major environmental impacts and hazards to light in order to assist with product selection.

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