New Three R's in School Design

Considering the exciting trends that are currently influencing school design, it’s tempting to think that the creativity seen in today’s school building projects is inspired exclusively by new theories and ideas. In truth, the design concepts that have the creative power to transform mere buildings into wonderful places for students to learn and communities to gather have been in practice for hundreds of years. From an historical standpoint, teachers and architects have always recognized the importance of setting to great school design.

Ever since Socrates created a think tank in the middle of an ancient marketplace and Frank Lloyd Wright perched his Hillside Home School on a brow overlooking the prairies of Wisconsin, school designers have worked to create schools that both educate students and enhance the environments they inhabit.

In recent years, however, school design has shifted to include some very modern thinking — how to create school buildings that not only reflect their surroundings, but also safeguard and respect the natural world around them. The principles of sustainable school design are stimulating the creation of effective learning spaces that, among other things, are energy efficient and preserve natural resources. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle have indeed become the new three R’s in schools.

This interest in sustainable design comes as no surprise to the carpet industry, which, I would argue, has invested more resources and incorporated more sustainable best practices than any other building materials industry — and perhaps any industry — period. Far from being an environmental liability, carpet adds significantly to a school’s sustainability profile.

Of course, the case for using carpet in schools goes well beyond its environmental attributes. Carpet has contributed to high-quality school environments for many years. Valued by school facility designers for its color and design flexibility, carpet’s softness makes it a safer, as well as a more comfortable flooring choice. In a classroom, carpet reduces noise, defines learning areas and cuts down glare. In terms of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carpet is one of the lowest emitting of all building materials, and multiple studies demonstrate how clean, dry carpet actually contributes to improved indoor air quality. Hard science illustrates how carpet in schools helps create environments where teachers are happy to teach and students are excited about learning.

The Carpet and Rug Institute is the trade association that represents U.S. carpet manufacturers. The group’s 2008 Sustainability Report, which measures environmental performance across the carpet industry, reveals that, from 2003 through 2007, carpet manufacturers invested over $40 million in new, energy-efficient technology, and reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40 percent. That figure far exceeds the 29-percent goals for carbon reductions established by the Kyoto Protocol. In addition, numerous facilities in the carpet industry have been certified as “zero waste.” During the same five year period of 2003 through 2007, industry-wide conservation efforts like these and others resulted in a 30-percent decline in water usage. As an example, many mills use no new water in the manufacturing process — the same water is captured and used repeatedly within the facility. Other conservation practices such as recycling and renewable energy use have skyrocketed. Remarkably, all of these advances occurred at a time when carpet production was increasing dramatically.

On the product side, environmentally-responsible carpet is widely available for multiple markets and end-uses, offering features such as recycled and recyclable content, longer warranties, high-performance fibers and backing systems and product stewardship plans. To simplify the process of finding and specifying sustainable products, the carpet industry developed the first-of-its-kind ANSI/NSF 140 2009 Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard. This groundbreaking standard establishes third-party guidelines for public health and the environment, and establishes criteria for performance, recycled content and end-of-life recovery.

Every carpet certified to the ANSI/NSF 140 standard is listed on the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) Website. Carpets certified to ANSI/NSF 140 must meet the requirements of CRI’s Green Label Plus Indoor Air Quality testing program, which means they qualify to contribute towards LEED totals.

Another important aspect of sustainability is product performance. Pulling carpet up before the end of its expected life cycle wastes resources and burdens our nation’s landfills. Two tools are available to ensure carpet stays in place: the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Texture Appearance Retention Rating (TARR) system and Seal of Approval testing and certification program for carpet cleaning solutions and equipment. CRI’s TARR system matches carpet styles to their intended end uses. Each commercial carpet carries a TARR number that represents its ability, based on extensive wear testing, to handle heavy foot traffic.

Numbers are then matched to end-use environments, using a chart located on the CRI Website. As an example, a school dormitory requires a carpet with a TARR rating of 3.0 or greater in the common area, but only a 2.5 or greater TARR rating in the bedrooms.

Good cleaning and maintenance are not things we immediately think of as contributing to sustainability, but they certainly do. A carefully designed and implemented maintenance program not only improves the long-term appearance of carpet, it is essential to ensuring carpet’s best environmental performance as well. The Carpet and Rug Institute started its independent Seal of Approval testing and certification program several years ago, in response to research that showed that end users were dissatisfied with available cleaning products on the market. In the five years since CRI started the Seal of Approval program, literally hundreds of cleaning solutions, vacuums, extractors and cleaning systems have passed the independent performance testing and have been identified as top performers and listed on the CRI Website.

The Georgia Superintendent of Schools recommended Seal of Approval products and equipment to her state’s district leaders, saying, "In an era when school budgets are especially tight, it is my sense that using CRI Seal of Approval-certified products and equipment will save school districts money."

Perhaps the most exciting thing that is affecting the sustainability of carpet is the explosion of interest and activity surrounding carpet recycling. Largely through the efforts of a nonprofit government and industry group called the Carpet America Recovery Effort, or CARE, over 1.5 billion pounds of post-consumer carpet have been recycled, reused or otherwise diverted from landfills in just five years. In addition, work is underway to establish a sustainable funding mechanism for carpet recycling to help the process pay for itself.

For now, information on how to tap into the nationwide carpet collection network is available on CARE’s Website. More than two hundred carpet suppliers who are aligned dealer members of CARE are also listed on the site. These largely commercial vendors are committed to helping increase the diversion of carpet from landfills. Sourcing carpet from a CARE Aligned Dealer supports recycling and puts you in touch with any available collectors in your area.

Another way to participate in carpet recycling is to specify products certified to the NSF 140 standard, which requires manufacturers to have end-of-life management programs in place.

I am tremendously proud of the strides the carpet industry has taken to make carpet the most sustainable flooring product and one of the most sustainable building materials available. Do some research; check out the links in this article, and see if you don’t come to the same conclusion.

Werner Braun is President of the Carpet and Rug Institute and current vice-president of the World Carpet and Rug Council. He can be reached at