Op-Ed

A New Year’s Toast to Practically Perfect Products

Our Top 10 products are leading toward a more sustainable future. They are not perfect, but let’s not make a desire for perfection the enemy of the good.

Brent Ehrlich, Products & Materials Specialist at BuildingGreen

Photo: BuildingGreen

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. … But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

– Anton Ego, food critic,

Ratatouille

 In our quest to provide unbiased information, BuildingGreen often plays the role of the critic. We risk championing products while also acknowledging their faults and knocking them down a peg or two.

We loved the energy efficiency of fluorescent lamps, for example, but we hated their light quality, poor dimming, and mercury content. When the first commercially viable residential white LEDs became available back in 2005, we recognized that they were the future of lighting and gave them a Top 10 award.

But we also saw that they were not even as efficient as CFLs, they had questionable performance and reliability, and you just about had to refinance your home to pay for one.

Yet LEDs were a “risk” worth championing. They are now ubiquitous and cost-competitive, and they are opening new frontiers in what is possible for lighting design. Though still not perfect, they continue to improve.

The truth is, it is hard not to find fault with even the “greenest” new building product or material.

Don’t confuse “top 10” with “perfect 10”

All products have environmental or health impacts at some point in their life cycle, and with all of our pressing environmental and health concerns, we tend to want solutions now. It’s all too easy to see products with flaws as a step backward ... or at least sideways.

There are still plenty of reasons for optimism, though, which is why every year I enjoy focusing on new, industry-transforming products for our Top 10 Green Building Products list. The manufacturers of these products bring innovation and leadership to a generally risk-averse building community.

I am proud to be part of a team that discovers and defends these selections, and even prouder of the manufacturers that have to fight the status quo to get these products to market.

But the critic in me also knows these are not perfect products—and we have received feedback suggesting I am not the only one who feels this way.

Criticizing trees, ignoring the forest

Honeywell’s Solstice blowing agents and refrigerants, for example, are revolutionary. They will soon replace blowing agents with high global warming potential in foam insulation and similar chemicals in many refrigeration loops, significantly improving the environmental performance of insulation and our buildings (see Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation).

The first product in North America to use Solstice, spray polyurethane foam (SPF), provides excellent R-value and seals the building envelope. Unfortunately, SPF is also a petrochemical that typically contains halogenated flame retardants, and if it’s installed without proper protection, it can cause respiratory problems for workers or occupants—subjects we have covered in depth (see EPA Raises Health Concerns with Spray Foam Insulation, Getting Flame Retardants Out of Foam Insulation, and others).

Guess which feedback I have heard the most: Solstice is a revolutionary blowing agent with a GWP of 1? Nope. SPF is a toxic building product? Yup.

I have heard similar negative feedback repeated for other selections as well—critiques like these.

Ecovative’s backing in Gunlocke’s chair: A niche product that is not scalable.

Powerwall: Tesla will never meet production quotas or high expectations.

Heat pump clothes dryer: Too complicated and expensive.

Hyperchair: Just put on a sweater.

Sloan’s Hybrid urinal: NO! Not another “waterless” urinal!

In each case, the criticisms are based in fact yet miss the bigger picture in their pursuit of perfection.

Stepping stones to better products

All of our Top 10 products have compelling, positive sustainability stories to tell.

Ecovative’s mycelium board is actually close to the perfect cradle-to-cradle material. And the Hybrid Urinal offers the potential for massive water savings (and associated energy savings) with almost none of the problems of waterless products. Powerwall and NuLed’s PoE technologies will change how we interact with power and lighting in our buildings—thanks in large part to those first white LEDs we recognized ten years ago for their potential rather than for their perfection.

Their benefits far outweigh the negatives, and they are stepping stones to better future products. I am not just optimistic about our current crop of Top 10 winners: I’m genuinely excited by them.

Perfection may be the enemy of the good, but these products are very, very good and have set a high bar for what is possible. They may not be perfect, but they are all great products and ideas that are worth celebrating.

Look how far we’ve come

The green building industry should be proud of the collective positive contributions these companies are making.

Major companies are taking global warming seriously; small innovators are changing how we heat and cool our buildings; breakthrough materials are finally being used.

And there are other positive-but-imperfect advances taking off throughout the green building industry. Data is being collected through Environmental Product Declarations and Health Product Declarations that will eventually allow us to improve our material selections.

LEED, Passive House, and Living Building Challenge projects are expanding our ideas of what green buildings can be.

And businesses such as Google and Kaiser Permanente are investing in the future of their employees and patients through careful material selection and biophilic design.

There is a lot to be grateful for in the New Year, and I for one will be toasting the imperfect successes of the past year along with the efforts of all my colleagues.  To all the imperfect perfectionists out there, I say Cheers! And keep the constructive criticism coming.

Published December 22, 2015

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