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Sustainability Information: Do You Need CSI’s GreenFormat?

Oct 2014

As a member of The Construction Specification Institute, I have been involved with CSI’s GreenFormat Task Team for several years.  CSI developed GreenFormat as the best way for industry professionals to organize, request, and use product sustainability-related information.  Just like other widely-used and accepted CSI information structures (like MasterFormat and SectionFormat) it can be the basis for many useful information products.

If you have followed progress in green building and sustainability, you’ll know that GreenFormat was released back in 2006.  In 2008 GreenFormat.com enabled manufacturers to pay for product information listings while users accessed that information for free.  The difficulty and costs of maintaining this web-based tool suggested that CSI take a different approach, so since 2012, GreenFormat has been shifted from a web-based product selection tool to a comprehensive information formatting tool that anyone can use.

The GreenFormat Task Team is organized around specific responsibilities like promotion, education and updating.  In recent reviews of GreenFormat we have received two types of feedback.  One is technical feedback, such as suggestions for improving content and format.  The other is fundamental feedback, asking whether GreenFormat responds to industry needs and even more basic questions like, ‘Why do we need GreenFormat?’

The fundamental questions are harder to answer, and our response to them has been twofold. First, a lot of valuable work has gone into GreenFormat to bring it into existence as a published CSI standard.  Second, it is part of our charge to bring the best thinking to bear as we move it forward.  Attention must be focused on responding to real market needs because only the market can determine if it is useful.  Market support will quickly let us know if GreenFormat is a viable basis to bring manufacturers and specifiers together over a set of relevant, objective and useful sustainability attributes.

Responding to these fundamental comments grows from an understanding that there is an important and unique function for GreenFormat.  Sustainability prioritizes product and material attributes; it advocates for a point of view that doesn’t always have unanimous agreement.  In a diverse marketplace, there are enough people for whom GreenFormat’s structure could provide value.  It does this by allowing product decision-makers to match up their desired selection criteria with the features of available products.  A universal format of single attributes would make this much more difficult.   Besides, many would agree that a comprehensive, holistic approach to choosing products for specific applications is better than depending on single attributes which could lead to products that fail early or don’t perform as intended.

When a designer wants to know about product features that are important to them (in this case sustainability-related attributes) GreenFormat can serve as a useful checklist.  Or when a manufacturer wants to respond in one way to hundreds of separate inquiries about a product’s life-cycle impact, Green Format can do that too.  What we hope to see before long is information providers structuring new knowledge offerings around GreenFormat, just as seamlessly as they do today using MasterFormat and SectionFormat.

GreenFormat’s value can be to serve as a sub-set of a much larger domain of selection criteria.  It can serve to organize and classify information that building owners, designers, constructors, suppliers and regulators exchange as they consider all aspects of sustainability; including the environmental, economic and social impacts of products they make or use.  The challenge is for tools based on GreenFormat to actually enable better choices.  Those tools will have to be objective, ethically sound, evidence-based and comprehensive, so that users can make choices that are better for the environment but also assure high performance in the intended applications.

CSI recognizes that sustainability is a complex idea that means different things to different people.  As a professional association it must be neutral and cannot advocate for a particular point of view.  But GreenFormat can enable information providers and decision-makers to have their own perspectives, determine their own priorities, communicate the selection criteria important to them, and ultimately reduce confusion in the marketplace. If you would like to find out how GreenFormat can enhance your communications, download the development draft at www.csinet.org/GreenFormat, and watch for further developments.