Interior Materials

Most Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, and studies have shown that air quality is often worse indoors than outdoors at the same location.

The materials that make up a building have a big impact on indoor air quality especially finish materials, paints, coatings, and the like that are most exposed to indoor air.

1 No-VOC paints, finishes
2 No-VOC furnishings
3 Exposed concrete floor
3 Natural materials
3 Natural floors & surfaces
3 Recycled content
3 Salvaged materials

These impacts are especially critical to children, the elderly, and individuals with chemical sensitivities. You can also choose materials with high recycled content, and protect our forests by using sustainably harvested woods or wood substitutes. The interior materials you choose can be a statement of your commitment to the local and global environment as well as health.

Goal: Create healthy indoor environments

Choose materials that don't off–gas, or release harmful gases into the air.

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Use low– or no–VOC, formaldehyde–free paints, stains, and adhesives

What is this?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), are a wide variety of potentially harmful gases. The full health effects of long–term, low–level VOC exposure is hard to study but is of significant concern to many health professionals. The drying of con ventional paints, stains, and adhesives all produce VOCs.

Why do it?

VOC exposure produces complicated health risks because of the large number of gases involved, their potential interactions, and their low concentrations over long periods of time. People can tell the difference when VOCs are avoided, and they appreciate it; buildings finished without VOCs lack the unpleasant smells of drying paint.

How to do this?

The best way to avoid any potentially dangerous exposure is to reduce use of VOC–containing products.Choose and specify low– or no–VOC paints, stains, and adhe sives such as those that meet Green Seal standards. All major paint manufacturers now offer low–VOC lines, and they are applied like other paints. Specialty paints are also available for use around chemically sensitive individuals.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers, painters.


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Use low– or no–VOC carpets, furniture, particleboard and cabinetry

What is this?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), come not only from drying–out solvents (as discussed above), but also from the long–term off–gassing of glues and chemical coatings in solid materials ranging from carpets to plywood.

Why do it?

As discussed above, VOCs pose uncertain but significant longterm health risks that can best be mitigated by choosing not to introduce VOCs into your building in the first place.

How to do this?

Avoid wood particleboard in cabinetry, doors, and furniture, with urea formadehyde resin, choosing MDI or phenolic resins instead — substituting exterior plywood for interior grade plywood will achieve this. Look for carpets with the Carpet and Rug Institute's Indoor Air Quality label, or other interior products such as wallcoverings and furniture with GreenGuard certification.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers.


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Use exposed concrete as a finished floor

What is this?

Finished concrete is a durable and attractive material, common in retail as well as industrial uses.

Why do it?

Many buildings have a slab–on–grade first floor, so it can be practical and inexpensive to add a finished topping slab. Concrete poses no VOC risks, requires little finishing, and is easy to clean and maintain. It offsets the need for other flooring materials, and works well with radiant heating systems (see Heating & Cooling).

How to do this?

Either finish and protect your initial slab, or plan an additional 2–3–inch thick topping slab on top of a rough concrete pour for the finished slab. Investigate concrete colorings and surface finishes as a wide range of appearances are possible. Area rugs can be used on concrete floors to add softness while keeping the space clean and low–maintenance.

Who does this?

Architects, contractors, subcontractors.


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Use natural materials such as wool and sisal for carpets and wallcoverings

What is this?

Natural materials are produced from biological fibers, oils, and inert minerals. Wool comes from sheep, and sisal comes from sea grass.

Why do it?

Natural materials add warmth and comfort to interior spaces, and tend to cause less damage to the environment than the processing of synthetic materials. They may also pose fewer health risks than synthetic materials, although some natural materials may not be suitable around sensitive individuals.

How to do this?

Choose and specify finishes that include natural materials. Many choices are available for carpets, mats, and wall coverings, as well as natural paints and sealants.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers.


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Use sustainable materials for flooring, trim, and interior surfaces

What is this?

Many interior materials are produced from natural, renewable sources and contain no toxic components or byproducts. Some commonly used materials for rolled sheet flooring and flooring tiles, such as vinyl (technically known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC), do entail significant environmental problems and are not sustainable.

Why do it?

Vinyl production is not sustainable because it produces dioxins that pose major environmental and human health risks in the areas where manufacturing occurs. Also, additives that harden PVC can be hazardous, PVC releases dangerous gases during building fires, and it is not recyclable. By contrast, purchases of other materials support industries that produce less environmental pollution.

How to do this?

Sustainable options for typical interior uses include real linoleum (made of linseed oil, sawdust and rock flour), sheet rubber, cork and stone for flooring; and rubber, sustainably harvested wood or recyclable plastics for trim (see above and below).

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers.


Goal: Support the market for recycled materials

"Buy recycled" is a good motto not only for paper products but also for building materials. More and more building products contain recycled content, helping to close the loop and keep solid waste from accumulating in our shrinking supply of landfill space.

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Use recycled–content floor tile, carpets and pads, cabinets, and countertops

What is this?

Many interior materials are available with recycled content. Recycled carpets often are made from old carpet fiber, while ceramic tiles contain glass waste and cabinets are made from wood scrap.

Why do it?

As both environmental and monetary costs of waste disposal continue to increase, recycling is becoming more important. Using recycled–content products helps to accelerate the development of recycling technologies and support this transformation.

How to do this?

Choose and specify recycled content interior materials. Use a variety of green materials listings if your architect or contractor is not familiar with these products.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers.


Goal: Support sustainable forests

Wood is a great interior finish material, used for floors, trim, handrails, furniture, and many other applications. In order to ensure our supply of wood in the future — and especially beautiful tropical hardwoods — we must harvest wood at a sustainable rate and ensure that forests are healthy ecosystems.

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Use reclaimed or salvaged, sustainably harvested (FSC certified), or engineered wood for flooring and trim, or use wood alternatives such as bamboo and cork

What is this?

Sustainably harvested wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC — see Wood Framing). Engineered wood is made from small trees and scraps and is available for trim and flooring. Bamboo is a plant that grows much faster than trees, making it easier to harvest repeatedly, and cork is bark harvested from cork trees without killing the parent tree.

Why do it?

Current patterns of wood use are not sustainable; we must switch to sustainable harvesting and wood alternatives before exhausting the world's forests and causing irreversible environmental damage.

How to do this?

Specify and choose FSC–certified wood for all interior uses where wood is to be used, or use wood alternatives.

Who does this?

Building owners, architects, specification writers.


More Information

Eco Design Resources
RecycleWorks IAQ
Building materials
Green Seal
GreenGuard
Carpet and Rug Institute