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April 24, 2014  |  Login
Understanding Sustainable Building Material: 6 Questions to Ask
By Eric Corey Freed

Whenever you’re choosing among various products to use in your building or remodeling project, you want to find out some key information from the products’ manufacturers.

For example, say you’re getting ready to buy countertops. You start by making a list of the countertops you like best. After you’ve identified your favorite products, find out which companies manufacture those products. For each product, write down the company’s contact information alongside the name of the product and any other identifying information you can find (such as the manufacturer’s product ID number). This information is often on the back of the sample you see at a showroom or store. (Some tips on choosing green building materials.)

Not every manufacturer will have the same identifying information for every product. You just want to assemble as much identifying information as possible so that the manufacturer knows exactly which product you have a question about.

After you have your list of products and manufacturers, start by calling the first one on your list, and move through your list until you’ve found the answers you need from every manufacturer. Be sure to ask each manufacturer the questions in the following sections — you want to be able to compare the answers to all the questions from all the manufacturers, so you can get an accurate picture of how they stack up.

You can find many of the answers to these questions from the manufacturers themselves in the form of a material safety and data sheet (MSDS). Every manufacturer is required by law to produce an MSDS for every product it sells. The MSDS includes information about the product such as ingredients, toxicity, health effects, proper storage, disposal, and special handling procedures. The exact contents of the MSDS will vary from product to product, but they’re basically the same.

Tip: You can request the MSDS directly from the manufacturer or find the MSDS online at Web sites such as MSDS Search ( or MSDS Online ( In addition, each sales representative should be able to provide some answers about the products he sells. If the sales rep doesn’t know, ask him to find out.

Where Did This Material Come From?

From the obvious (wood comes from trees) to the obscure (linoleum comes from linseed oil), this question explores the source of the product. When looking for green materials, try to choose from one of four possible sources:

Reclaimed: Reusing materials salvaged from other uses, reclaimed materials offer old material quality no longer available. For example, the siding of an old barn can be milled into new flooring.

Recycled: Unlike reclaimed materials, recycled materials are put back into the material production and reprocessed into new finishes. Sourced from various materials, recycled materials often have slight imperfections that add to the final appearance. For example, glass tiles can be made from recycled windshields.

Sustainable harvested: Yielding materials without completely destroying the chance for future harvesting, sustainable-harvested materials will be around for future generations. For example, bamboo wood is actually a grass, and the root continues to grow after being harvested. more



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