architectural rendering of a LEED certified commercial office interior

LEED v4 Impact on Paint & Coatings

In just the past few years, green building has evolved beyond an emphasis on the sustainable design and construction of the building itself to the environment it creates for inhabitants.

By Rick Watson

This shift in priority is reflected by the sunset of LEED 09 and the development of LEED v4, which focuses on human health beyond previous LEED building certification systems. In addition to increased thresholds for energy, water, waste and indoor environment quality – which will drive the goals of green building further than before – LEED v4 advances a paradigm shift in how building designers and architects think about, source and utilize building materials. Advanced life-cycle assessments, environmental product declarations and material ingredient reporting bring some transparency to the manufacturing and decision-making process for materials.

VOCs and VOC emissions

Under LEED 09, paint and other building materials were addressed and evaluated according to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). To achieve LEED v4 accreditation for the same products, however, VOC emissions and VOCs must also be taken into consideration.

VOCs are carbon-containing ingredients that can have effects on those exposed to high concentrations of VOCs – the lower the VOC level, the better it is for the interior air quality of the building. When paint or another product is drying, VOCs can evaporate out into the atmosphere and produce what qualifies as VOC emissions. When a product releases VOCs, it’s considered off-gassing. These present and expressed VOCs can have a major impact on the qualification of products for LEED v4, though it’s important to note that, in some cases, a local regulation may require a lower VOC level than LEED v4 requirements.

In terms of points, under LEED 09 paint could help earn up to one point in the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) credit category if they did not exceed stated VOC content limits. Under LEED v4, architectural paints and coatings can now help contribute points across three different credit categories, which focus on:

  • Emissions (EQ credit); 

  • Product disclosure and material ingredients (MR credit) 

  • Integrated analysis of building materials (pilot credit)

To qualify for EQ credit and earn points, the compliant paint and coating products category needs to be combined or bundled with other product categories. MR credits are achieved by combining manufacturers’ compliant product offerings. 

Indoor environmental quality credit

The first LEED v4 category, EQ, is worth a possible 16 points. The subcategory EQ, Low- Emitting Materials, covers paint and coatings and is worth a maximum of three points when compliant products from up to seven categories are bundled together. The category has a VOC threshold as well as emissions and content requirements that must be met to help earn points. When evaluating an interior paint and coating product for compliance, you’ll need to determine if the product has been third-party emissions tested as well as the VOC limit. 

According to USGBC, the rule states that, for interior paints and coatings applied onsite, at least 90 percent by volume must be emissions-tested and 100 percent must meet VOC content. These values can be found on manufacturer or third-party certification group websites and Environmental Data Sheets (EDSs), along with certificates of compliance for products that are determined to meet the emissions threshold. 

All paints and coatings wet-applied onsite must also meet the applicable VOC limits of the California Air Resources Board 2007, Suggested Control Measure for Architectural Coatings, or the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113 effective June 3, 2011.

It’s important to note that a new requirement for exterior-applied paints and coatings under the EQ category now exists for healthcare and school facilities. Adhesives, sealants, coatings, roofing and waterproofing materials applied onsite must meet the VOC limits of California Air Resources Board 2007, Suggested Control Measure for Architectural Coatings and South Coast Air Quality Management District Rule 1168 July 1, 2005. 

EQ point options and third-party certifications

When determining which paints and coatings to specify for LEED v4 projects, design teams have two options to help them earn points for low-emitting materials. The first option is the Product Category Calculation, which is the one more commonly used. 

Under this method, points are earned by bundling or combining products from two or more of the six available categories (seven for healthcare facilities and schools):

  • Interior paint and coatings 

  • Interior adhesives and sealants 

  • Flooring 

  • Composite wood 

  • Insulation

  • Furniture 

For example, using compliant paint products and adhesives and sealants can help earn one point. By adding compliant flooring products, insulation and composite wood, you could earn a total of three points for having five compliant categories without furniture. 

The second option is Budget Calculation Method, which can be used if some products in a category don’t meet the necessary criteria. Under this method, points are based on the total percentage of surface area covered by compliant products. This is calculated according to the type and number of products used, with various formulas available on the USGBC website, 

To help specifiers identify whether a particular product is compliant, a chart of low- emitting materials with third-party certifications and labels is available on websites like UL SPOT. Third-party certifications, like UL GREENGUARD Gold, are an important tool in the specifying and LEED process. GREENGUARD helps manufacturers create —and buyers identify and trust – interior products and materials that have low chemical emissions into the environment during product usage, thereby improving the quality of the air in which the products are used. GREENGUARD Certified products are recognized, referenced or preferred by more than 400 federal purchasers, retailers, green building rating tools and building codes around the world. 

Materials and resources credit

LEED v4 focuses on materials in order to get a better understanding of what’s contained inside them and the effect those components have on human health and the environment. As a result, new requirements for life-cycle assessments, environmental product declarations and material ingredient reporting have been put in place and are helping to bring greater transparency to the manufacturing of building materials. Using these mechanisms to make data-driven design decisions is a LEED v4 requirement when looking to optimize building performance and human health. 

In the second LEED v4 credit category, MR, there are two different ways paints and coatings can help earn points: Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Material Ingredient Reporting. 

EPDs address transparency in environmental life-cycle impacts, but not every building product will have one. Manufacturers who produce EPDs must go through an extensive, multi-step process for each individual product and must be third-party validated.

To start, a Product Category Rule (PCR) must be established through an open-stakeholder process, which acts as a roadmap to conduct a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), which usually includes product performance, before the publication of an EPD. The EPD acts as a “nutrition” label for environmental impact of the product based on the results of the LCA. All of these steps must be conformant with ISO standards and externally reviewed.

To earn points for the EPD credit, design teams must use at least 20 different permanently installed products from at least five different manufacturers that meet one of the following criteria:

  • Product-specific Type III third-party EPD; 

  • EPDs that conform to ISO 14025, 14040, 14044, and EN 15804 or ISO 21930, and 
have at least a cradle to gate scope; 

  • Industry-wide (generic) third-party certified EPD (less value) valued as (1/2) of a 

  • Product-specific declaration (less value) valued as (1/4) of a product; or 

  • USGBC-approved program.

Earning points with the Material Ingredient Reporting Credit follows the same “five and 20” rule as EPDs, but the compliancy programs are different. The 20 different permanently installed products from at least five different manufacturers must use any of the following programs to demonstrate the chemical inventory of the product to at least 0.1 percent (1000 ppm): 

  • Manufacturer Inventory – publicly available for all ingredients by name and Chemical Abstract Service Registration Number (CASRN); 

  • Health Product Declaration; 

  • Cradle to Cradle; 

  • Declare Product Label; 

  • Cradle to Cradle Material Health Certificate; 

  • UL Product Lens– third-party certification; 

  • BIFMA; or 

  • ANSI Facts. 

MR third-party certifications

The Product Lens certification is a result of collaboration between UL Environment, MBDC and the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, with UL basing the program’s chemical assessment on the Materials Health Assessment Methodology from the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products program. The tool was developed in partnership with MBDC to meet and exceed the chemical disclosure requirements outlined by the design community and LEED.

Product Lens has been designed to meet credit requirements in LEED v4 for chemical disclosure (MR Credit: Building Product Disclosure and Optimization – Material Ingredients). All information is verified by UL, helping manufacturers address the skepticism inherent in self-disclosure and signaling trust and legitimacy to specifiers and purchasers beyond those programs that do not require true third-party validation.

This ingredient disclosure tool provides hazard information across the entire life cycle of a product and also considers risk and exposure, fulfilling industry demands for transparency. Product Lens was unanimously accepted by USGBC as one of the approved ways to demonstrate the chemical inventory of a product and is being added as an addendum to LEED v4.

Product Lens reports for specific paints and coatings, as well as other building materials, can be viewed at

Pilot credit

The third and final way to earn points for paint and coatings products under LEED v4 is the Pilot Credit, Integrated Analysis of Building Materials. The category offers one point for the use of materials that provide life-cycle information and have environmentally, economically and socially preferable life-cycle impacts.

The pilot credit requires building teams to use three or more different permanently installed products that have a documented qualitative analysis of the potential health, safety and environment impacts of the product in five stages of its life cycle.

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Durability + Design In Depth. Rick Watson is director of product information, Sherwin-Williams.