GREENBUILD 2004 FROM A to Z: Perspectives from Tabletop 14

Bill Walsh | November 19, 2004 | Policies

Last week, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) attended GreenBuild, the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) annual conference and exhibition in Portland, Oregon. GreenBuild gives over 5000 registered attendees access to 450 exhibitors, and over 100 workshops, seminars and speeches. This year HBN staffer Tom Lent made an award-winning poster presentation on the Green Guide for Health Care, and Bill Walsh spoke on a panel entitled: Getting to the Heart of Green Design: Making it Green and Fair.

For the past three years HBN has taken advantage also of GreenBuild's generous policy that offers a reduced non-profit rate which entitles us to a full conference registration, and a table top exhibit on the exhibition floor. It is on the exhibition floor where the real networking happens, rumors swirl, and you get a feel for the state of the green building movement. With apologies for its extended length (it was a big conference) and the promise of returning to our usual 500 word format next time, here are the perspectives we gained, from A to Z, at our post in Aisle 100, Tabletop 14, the HBN exhibit at GreenBuild 2004.

Armstong World Industries Senior Scientist Steve Baer stopped by our table to take umbrage at our frequent jabs at his buddies in Armstrong's vinyl flooring division. Steve is a decent fellow who does such a great job in Armstrong's recycled ceiling tile operation that we wish they would put him in charge of flooring. He thought we should give credit where credit was due, noting that the company was only showing linoleum at its booth on the GreenBuild exhibition floor. He's got a point. By forgoing the greenwashing opportunity and not touting vinyl as a green flooring product at GreenBuild, Armstrong World Industries earns a rare Thumbs Up from the folks at HBN.

Boora Architects of Portland hosted a jam-packed reception on Thursday night. boora (they are the e.e. cummings of architectural firms ) showcased their latest healthy building project, The Standpoint, a 52-unit condominium development pursuing a LEED Platinum rating. They then graciously turned the podium over to HBN, and we presented our Healthy Building Leadership Awards to Habitat for Humanity for their efforts at PVC-free construction. Many thanks to boora and all the folks who turned out to salute Habitat's principled stand on the PVC issue.

Critical mass. Based on the overwhelming support our anti-PVC campaign received from the USGBC rank and file membership, it seems apparent that there is critical mass among Council members for a PVC-related LEED credit. Of course our sampling was not scientific, but we feel confident that if the PVC elimination credit originally proposed in LEED Commercial Interiors is ever balloted, it will receive the overwhelming support of the USGBC membership.

Dow. Wow. Dupont-Dow Elastomers knows how to turn heads -- by prominently displaying the words "No PVC" on their exhibit. Isn't Dow the world's largest manufacturer of chlorine, chlorinated chemicals and PVC plastic? Yes. Yes, they are. This is the Tao of Dow.

E.V.A. The vinyl that is not PVC. We promised the folks at Lee's carpet that we would clarify that the ethylene vinyl acetate they use as backing for their carpets is not chlorinated PVC. See the HBN publication Sorting Out The Vinyls for more information (

Firestone Building Products quietly announced that it was phasing out its PVC membrane, and ramping up its TPO membrane offerings, which are free of brominated flame retardants as well. All backed by the reputation and guarantee of one of the nation's leading roofing suppliers. ( October 8, 2004 [PDF])

Green Guide for Health Care won both the popular vote -- People's Choice Award -- and the electoral vote -- Best in Show jury award -- for poster presentations. Convened by the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and sponsored by the EPA's Hospitals for a Healthy Environment program, the GGHC brought together a steering committee that included both HBN and USGBC representatives to come to consensus on health-based guidelines for health care facilities construction. See, it can be done!

Habitat for Humanity rebuffed yet another 11th hour attempt by their million dollar donor, the Vinyl Institute, to deter them from sharing the stage with environmental health activists at HBN's Healthy Building Leadership Awards. Responding to charges that the appearance poured salt in the open wounds of a major benefactor, Habitat New Orleans Affiliate Executive Director Jim Pate told the crowd at boora that he would have thought the Firestone decision to cease orders for 800 tons of PVC annually would have hurt more.

Illiopolis, Illinois is practically still smoldering from the springtime explosion that killed 5 workers and leveled the Formosa PVC plant that supplies Armstrong flooring operations. In keeping with another promise we made to Armstrong's Baer, HBN reiterates its offer to lead a nationwide campaign to obtain tax breaks and public investment in the nation's first linoleum factory, and double nationwide linoleum sales within 5 years, if Armstrong or any other flooring manufacturer will build the factory in the United States.

Judith Helfand stopped shooting her next documentary about global warming, Melting Planet, long enough to make a whirlwind tour through Portland. On Wednesday she debuted her new short coda to Blue Vinyl, Eck Weldt, at the Portland International Nature and Environment (PINE) Film Festival. On Thursday night she received a mensch's welcome from by the crowd at boora, where she debuted a short follow-up film that documents the building of the PVC-free Healthy Habitat in New Orleans. But her best moment may have been on Thursday afternoon when she posed for pictures on the exhibition floor with the vinyl industry executives gathered at the Vinyl Institute booth. In an uncharacteristic display of wit and grace, the vinyl guys suggested new topics for Judith's lens, including Blue Wood and Blue Cement. What did the folks over at the FSC and Portland Cement booths think of that?

Kaiser Permanente may be doing more than any other institution to demonstrate the power of green purchasing policies in corporate America. From their own corporate environmental policies, to their leadership on the steering committees of the Green Guidelines for Healthcare and the LEED for Healthcare Application Guide, to purchasing guidelines that are literally creating new product offerings for everybody, Kaiser is a true leader in the green building movement.

LCA. Life Cycle Analysis. Chemical manufacturers and the vinyl industry love it. But leading LCA practitioners acknowledged at GreenBuild that current Life Cycle Analysis tools don't deal well with risk uncertainty, social criteria, or health and other toxicity issues. See the connection? Will this be enough to slow the USGBC's rush to make LCA the primary basis for LEED 3.0?

Milliken Carpet company has a lot of fans out there, and several stopped by the HBN booth to offer that this pioneer in PVC-free production (1986) was getting short shrift amongst all the publicity we have been giving to the latest industry defections from the poison plastic. We get the message. As a PVC-free pioneer, Milliken gets a big Thumbs Up from us.

NYSERDA's Craig Kneeland. This was the first year that the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority's Senior Project Manager wasn't associated with a Healthy Building Leadership Award. But he was gracious nonetheless, as he campaigned for a seat on the USGBC Board of Directors. Last year, Kneeland served as advisor to the NY State Attorney General's office in their successful defense of the NY Green Building Tax Credit from a vinyl industry lawsuit. The year before, he accepted the Leadership Award on behalf of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation which authored the tax credit which excludes vinyl flooring.

Osmose corporation, manufacturer of wood treatment products, exhibited their arsenic and cadmium free products following the January,2004 ban on CCA-treated wood for the retail market -- proving once again (recall how DuPont has prospered since the phase-out of CFCs) that the phase-out of deadly chemicals does not destroy the American way of life as we know it.

Pretty in Pink. Shaw Carpet's trade floor exhibits are always provocative. But the head-turning quotient of pinkness on their GreenBuild real estate this year gives you an idea of just how liberating PVC elimination can be.

Questions, of the frequently asked variety. HBN has exhibited at GreenBuild since 2002, and typically the FAQs were easy to answer: Who are you and what are you doing here? Not this year. This time around we were tongue tied in response to the repeated query Have you seen the vinyl booth? What are they doing here? Good question.

Richard Jackson, currently the State Public Health Officer for the State of California, and formerly the Director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), spoke passionately at GreenBuild about the role of the built environment in today's major health issues. We have Dr. Jackson to thank for initiating the human biomonitoring project while at CDC. It was this project that detected the prevalence of phthalates in the blood of women of child bearing age. Phthalates are present in many cosmetics products, but 90% of all phthalates manufactured are used as plasticizers to soften vinyl.

Smell Test. The vinyl shower curtains at the HBN table sure got a lot of attention. Talk about your phthalates. The EPA says that "Caution should be exercised when opening the bag of a newly bought shower curtain to minimize the exposure risk" to four air toxics, some of which exceed worker exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Note to Vinyl Institute: waterproof respirators would be an irresistible take-away to offer at your booth next year.

TSAC. The USGBC's Technical Science Advisory Group (TSAC) announced a December 15, 2004 release of its draft report on PVC, almost 5 years to the day that a "final decision" was originally promised (but in fairness to TSAC, long before that committee existed). The TSAC decision will be a defining moment for the Council and the green building movement. Make plans now to convene chapter discussions on the draft report at January meetings, and to participate in the public comment period that follows.

Under, Down. We were pleased to meet representatives of the Australian Green Building Council who have had a PVC-avoidance credit in their green building rating system for some time now. They report that the credit has caused no worries. Too right mates!

Vinyl Institute reportedly presented the Portland, OR affiliate of Habitat for Humanity with a $5,000 contribution during GreenBuild.

W. We did meet one conference attendee who thought the re-election of George W. Bush bodes well for environmental policy. We won't mention names, but suffice to say that soon Dioxin will be reclassified from a human carcinogen to a vitamin.

X. Ten. We found more than ten exhibitors on the GreenBuild exhibition floor that advertised their products as PVC-free, including one of the world's largest PVC manufacturers (see D, above).

Years that the unpublished US EPA Dioxin Reassessment has been in process: 13. When EPA scientists postulated that dioxin could be far more toxic than previously thought, the George Herbert Walker Bush administration granted chemical industry requests for a lengthy reassessment. As the mounting evidence indicated that dioxin was in fact more toxic than EPA had hypothesized, the same industry groups that initially requested the reassessment have repeatedly sought to kill it. And you wondered why the USGBC's PVC review is taking so long?

Z. Fedrizzi, Rick. Can this former Vice President of Marketing for a multi-national corporation steer the Council through the shoals of corporate greenwash, ahead of the threatening clouds of trade association lawsuits, into the stiff head wind of the most anti-environmental federal government ever? A polished debut as USGBC CEO at GreenBuild 2004 reminds us that only Nixon could go to China. He created the EPA too! All the best, Rick.