bio debatable

Paints comprise perhaps the most prominent eco-product category in the mainstream. But their green rigor is debatable, says Amrita Khalsa, vice president of marketing at Santa Fe, N.M.–based EcoDesign, a company that specializes in nontoxic paints and wood finishes. “A lot of these paints still have solvents that are as harmful [as the VOCs] and worse. Some have solvents to make the paint dry faster, glossy, or flat.” Her company's BioShield line of natural paints and finishes is made from naturally-derived raw materials, including citrus peel extracts, seed oils, tree resins, and tree and bee waxes, among others. The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. in Groton, Mass., also offers nontoxic paint made with all-natural milk protein, lime, clay, and earth pigments.

No matter how seemingly benign, earth-based products have their own set of issues. For one, architects can become distracted into thinking the products are primary problem-solvers. But loading up on bio-based materials in an otherwise energy-inefficient home is like putting a Porsche engine in a Pinto. “I like to call it the vitamin-enriched cigarette,” says Peter L. Pfeiffer, FAIA, principal of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects in Austin, Texas. “A cigarette enriched with vitamin C is still not good for you.” The architect says green products must work in conjunction with thoughtful design. So, for example, Pfeiffer says, if you're concerned about off-gassing paint products, you should also ensure the humidity is under control in the house, because one has a great effect on the other.

“Too many architects and builders and homeowners lose sight of the forest through the trees by getting too hung up on nifty sounding green products,” he says. “The value of green products always has to be put in perspective to the overall goal.” Pfeiffer says 95 percent of green building benefits are found in the first 5 percent of a house's design process, so pay attention to proper solar orientation, adequate roof overhangs, light-colored building exteriors in warm climates, and appropriately sized HVAC systems.

Other concerns are durability and maintenance. Will the products hold up as well as conventional materials or require more time and perhaps additional, volatile products to maintain? “It is important to look at the benefits and drawbacks of each,” says architect Joe Prudden, principal of Salt Lake City–based Ark-Ology. “Each material has its correct application, so it is important to use it appropriately.”

Susan A. Maxman, FAIA, principal of Susan Maxman & Partners, Architects in Philadelphia, says many green products are equal to, and sometimes better than, conventional ones. Theresa Phelan sees it another way. “While the performance of these products has been fairly comparable, they are not as bulletproof,” she says. “But they're easier to repair.” For instance, a hole in a plastic product is harder to patch than one made from a natural material, she points out. Architects and homeowners need to get over the notion of the silver bullet maintenance-free product, she continues. “People want a maintenance-free home, but it's just not possible. It covers up something going on under the surface. Natural products have more of a permeability factor, which is a healthier thing.”

cost and effect

In many cases, nature-based products will be pricier than their conventional counterparts, so architects need to educate clients about the merits of their selections. Prudden appeals to his client's interest in a healthier space; Phelan encourages people to look at the long-term savings as well as the health benefits.

Because many bio-based products are fairly new, it pays to research them thoroughly. “A third-party certification is a good way to know what you're getting,” says architect Nancy Malone. Ultimately, it's worth the extra effort to give your clients the healthiest possible products to go along with your thoughtful design.