Greenguard: A Rating System for Indoor Air Quality

As the ideas put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system slowly gain mainstream acceptance, the organization is expanding its program to apply to other facets of architecture, including commercial interiors, operating systems, and core and shell projects. But private-sector organizations are also weighing in, creating their own rating systems for sustainable design. One such company is Greenguard, which tests products to ensure their chemical and particle emissions meet Greenguard’s proprietary indoor air-quality pollutant guidelines. Those products that pay the testing fee and pass muster earn the right to call themselves Greenguard-certified.

“Most manufacturers have a very rigid and stringent quality control process in place for things like ergonomics, abrasion, fire resistance, and how their products will hold up if you drop them,” says Greenguard spokesperson Henning Bloech. “But indoor air quality or chemicals that are evaporating from their products aren’t really a part of [their measurements].”

Because pollution levels can be up to 100 times higher indoors than out, increasing numbers of public- and private-sector employers are having their interior products tested, in order to improve workers’ well-being and reduce liability. Knowing an item is Greenguard-certified—and thus emits fewer toxins—is helpful to an architect or interior designer looking to specify healthier furnishings.

Launched in 2000 by the Atlanta-based, for-profit laboratory Air Quality Science (AQS), Greenguard is now a separate, not-for-profit organization. The company still conducts its tests exclusively at AQS, although Greenguard is in the process of documenting and publishing its testing methods, so that other labs might adopt them.

To develop the Greenguard standards, AQS looked to guidelines set by government and industrial bodies, including the State of Washington’s Indoor Air Quality program; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office Furniture Specifications and National Ambient Air Quality Standard; and the U.S.’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s Formaldehyde Rule.

To see if a product is worthy of Greenguard certification, AQS conducts a 96-hour test, during which products are placed in a sealed chamber through which purified air is poured. The resulting exhaust is then tested for formaldehyde, volatile organic chemicals, respirable particles, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions. Also measured are how much a product emits at a certain point in time, how the emissions change over time, and how the test results translate into a real building environment.

Despite its not-for-profit status, Greenguard charges $3000 for each product certification application; $1000 per category tested (and $500 to have it tested each year afterward); and an additional licensing fee. These costs have proven of concern for some of its clients, which have included Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Benjamin Moore.

“Overall, [Greenguard] has the potential as a program to be a positive force,” says David Rinard, Director of Corporate Environmental Performance for Steelcase. “But when you’re a company who has as broad a product line as Steelcase,” he says, “[The certification costs] start to add up pretty quickly.”

Greenguard’s Bloech admits that the certification process is not as cheap as the tester would like it to be, but he notes the organization is committed to stringent testing standards. Besides, he adds, “The first LEED buildings were horrendously expensive, but slowly it’s becoming more manageable. We’re in the same process, only we’re about ten years behind the USGBC.”

Building more testing laboratories is one measure Bloech believes will bring down costs; the additional facilities would also advance Greenguard’s efforts to be viewed as an impartial industry standard. “As Greenguard is positioning itself to be similar to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the only way to really truly maintain that credibility would be to have other laboratories participating to avoid potential conflict of interest,” argues Steelcase’s Rinard. “You can’t have the ones who created the program as the only people doing the testing and running the program.”

With health concerns increasing and more states enforcing pollution measures, Greenguard figures to be busy for a long time. And while the company has yet to resolve all the issues necessary to make its system the industry’s de facto standard, it continues to raise awareness of indoor air quality as a key component of healthy, sustainable buildings.

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