Within the gray areas that exist between vague, vacuous product claims and proven performance lies a no-mans-land for green building professionals seeking reliable specs. Even with the growing numbers of labels and certifications that substantiate to varying degrees “eco-friendly” claims, not enough manufacturers are seeking third-party certifications; too many are still making broad, sweeping, and, frankly, meaningless statements. Product selection will continue to be one of the most critical challenges you will face in meeting your green missions—and that puts your business and reputation at risk.

As a former high-performance home builder, I know what this feels like. You’re caught between a commitment to build high-performance homes that will strengthen your business and your responsibilities to build homes that perform their most basic functions without creating problems—or liabilities—that could weaken your business. You’re stuck in another gray area, between innovation and risk.

“Nobody,” builders often say, “wants to be the first to try out a new product,” and yet we’re driven to embrace change and improve the way we build. This dilemma puts pressure on every decision you make, whether it’s detailing a wall section, specifying ventilation equipment, or selecting finishes.

You have to find a reliable level of confidence in your decisions and balance the trade-offs associated with them. But how can you gain the confidence you need? One of the clearest suggestions about sizing-up green building products that I’ve heard in a while came from attorney Patrick Perrone during a session at the NAHB’s recent National Green Building Conference in Dallas: “Only after assessing products as building products should you evaluate their green attributes.”

Instead of asking, “How many green points can I earn by using a product?” Perrone suggests asking the following questions: “Will it perform its most important function?” “How long is its warranty period?” “Is it readily available?” “How does it compare with the products I know and use now?” “Does it have a performance track record and meet industry standards and code requirements?” “Is its performance tied to unfamiliar installation practices?”

This is solid advice that empowers you, through your own experience and expertise, to filter out products that would put you outside your comfort zone in terms of unknowns and risks.

Only after evaluating potential selections for their application as viable building products can you focus on their green attributes and performance benefits and how they’ll integrate with the other elements of your green projects. Then you should ask, “What makes these products green?” “How can I avoid greenwashing?” “How do I verify manufacturers’ performance claims?”

As you’ll see in Aurora Sharrard’s feature article “Keeping Them Honest”, navigating your way toward reliable answers to these questions is still troublesome and often imperfect. But solutions are emerging, mostly because green building professionals are demanding more substantiated data from manufacturers and are pressuring them to back up their claims with third-party certifications. Follow Sharrard’s advice and you’ll find your way out of the gray and into the green.