Today, more and more organizations are taking steps to become green. Buildings (commercial, industrial and residential) and their construction are responsible for one-third of our total energy, two-thirds of our electricity and one-eighth of our water, according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The bottom line is that mail centers will need to become green, too.


If you know your company is building a new office, it is very important to approach the building team with some of these tips. These are fundamental ways in which you can inform the people responsible for the new design what to do with your space. Most of the time, architects and engineers are not fully aware of how a mail center operates, making it difficult to present choices that are going to be effective.


According to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the people in a building typically cost 10 to 12 times more than the building's infrastructure. This is an important fact from the point of view that managers need to begin to pay closer attention to what it takes to keep the employees happy in the workplace. A well-designed building can greatly improve the life quality of its inhabitants and also contribute to their health. That is why making buildings more energy-efficient is a vital component of any effort to promote energy independence.


So in the process of designing a new building, it is important to keep in mind some very important aspects. What we are looking for are ways to minimize strain on local infrastructure and contribute to overall quality of life.


LEED is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and
operation of high-performance green buildings. LEED gives building owners and operators the tools they need for an immediate and measurable impact on their buildings' performance. LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.


Using LEED's system, I will present alternatives in these five categories. Some of them will not be directly related to the mail center, but they will indirectly strongly affect your operation. I am sure that you will look and sound like an expert bringing these ideas to the construction team:


1. Sustainable Site Development

In this category, the designers look for the land where the building will be located. At this point, make sure that they will have public transportation close by and bicycle storage and changing rooms for the employees. The recently opened New York Times building in New York City, which cost millions of dollars, forgot to include a bicycle rack for its employees in a city where most inhabitants don't have cars!


2. Water Savings

Potable water is increasingly disappearing from our planet. It is fundamental that we look for ways to reduce water usage and engage in some program for water reduction. Ask the team if 
they are planning for waterless urinals, for example. Also, see whether they are going to install water-efficient equipment. Water-conserving toilets, shower heads and faucet aerators not only reduce water use, but also reduce demand on septic systems or sewage treatment plants. Reducing hot water use also saves energy.


3. Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency requires use of manufacturing processes and production of products that require less energy and improve and enhance occupant comfort and health. High-efficiency appliances offer both economic and environmental advantages over their conventional counterparts. Use Energy Star-qualified appliances and electronics, which save energy and money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Quality and durability: longer-lasting and better-functioning products will have to be replaced less frequently, reducing the impacts of producing replacements. Ask for underfloor air distribution, where the wires run in a space dedicated to airflow below the floor. It will help in the control and distribution of heating and cooling for the staff and in the arrangement of furniture.


4. Materials Selection

Low-impact materialsChoose nontoxic, sustainably produced or recycled materials that require little energy to process. Design for reuse and recycling: "Products, processes and systems should be designed for performance in a commercial 'afterlife,'" some experts advise. Ask for materials that come from nearby, sustainably managed renewable sources that can be composted when their usefulness has been exhausted. Some manufacturers offer mail center furniture made of certified wood and that complies with these requirements. Use untreated natural fabrics whenever possible and fabrics that are dyed with organic or natural pigments, free of toxins, carcinogens and heavy metals and also solution dyed versus conventional dyed. Use fabrics that are naturally fire retardant and stain resistant versus needing chemical treatments. Whenever possible, use refurbished systems or use regional woods for new furniture, harvested from sustainable forestry operations.


FlooringBamboo, a recent addition to our market, is now widely available for flooring. A fast-growing grass from China, bamboo is a renewable resource that is harvested every 3-5 years. It is durable and a dimensionally stable material, but one should be certain it is from a certified source and manufactured with environmentally safe adhesives. For resilient flooring, linoleum is recommended over vinyl flooring. It is a natural product, biodegradable and emits very low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cork tile is another natural, sustainable choice that is durable and naturally moisture resistant. Vinyl tile and sheet is made from PVC, it emits VOCs, and it is not biodegradable. Solid vinyl tiles can be recycled, but sheet vinyl has a backing that makes it difficult to recycle. Vinyl products have been linked with health risks and are therefore not recommended. Tiles and sheets are frequently available with recycled content, but be aware that there are also VOCs being emitted and care should be taken to use appropriately. Carpet may contain many chemicals, such as flame retardants and biocides. Natural fibers (such as jute, cotton, wool) or fibers containing recycled materials carry a lower embodied energy than carpet made from nylon or virgin plastics. Carpets can collect high amounts of dust, which can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people, especially when combined with forced-air heating. Vacuuming stirs up this dust, thereby contributing to indoor air quality problems. Several carpet manufacturers have started recycling programs with their carpet products. At the end of the carpet's useful life, the manufacturer takes the product back and fabricates it into new carpet. Carpet backings of styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) latex should not be used when considering healthy environments.


PaintPaints, stains, transparent finishes and adhesives contain many toxins, including urea formaldehyde and other VOCs, volatile organic compounds. VOCs are used to increase finish level, durability and convenience of application. Numerous nontoxic or low-toxic versions are available and are preferable. In general, alkyd-based or alcohol-based paints contain higher levels of VOCs than do latex or water-based paints. Use adhesives with low VOC levels, or better yet, do not use adhesives where possible. Nonsolvent adhesives release 99% fewer hazardous emissions than solvent adhesives. Yellow and white glues are recommended. When specifying sealants, consider using only silicone sealants in interior areas. All other sealant types, especially the butyl sealants, emit VOCs and other toxic compounds. Factory-applied finishes generally contribute fewer VOCs than field-applied finishes.


5. Indoor Environmental Quality

The choice of interior finishes has a particularly acute impact on indoor air quality (IAQ). Many interior materials involve the use of toxins, which are frequently found in adhesives, paints, binders, finishing products and even the cleaners used for a product's maintenance. These toxins, which are VOCs, include solvents and urea-formaldehyde, which emit gasses over a long period of time. Other indoor pollutants include molds, bacteria, fibers and dusts. Accumulation of pollutants can cause building-related illness (BRI), which includes eye, nose or throat irritation, asthma, headaches, nausea, and liver, kidney and nervous system damage. Buildings that repeatedly trigger building-related illness are referred to as having sick building syndrome (SBS). While ventilation systems are intended to exhaust pollutants, the systems often fail to perform this task effectively and, instead, reduce the energy efficiency of the building. The best method for controlling the quality of indoor air is to reduce or eliminate pollutants at their source through informed material selections. Use products with low or no VOC content, and choose water-based finishes whenever possible.


LightingMost mail centers are located in the basement or in places without access to natural lighting. You can explain to the designer the benefits of daylighting by utilizing the natural bright light of the location whenever possible in lieu of the fluorescent overhead lights. If this is not possible, automated lighting controls can be installed and are extremely efficient. And install high-efficiency lights. Fluorescent lighting has improved dramatically in recent years. There is a growing body of evidence that natural daylight is beneficial to our health and productivity. There are also products that enable us to bring daylight into a building, including tubular skylights, specialized commercial skylights and fiber-optic daylighting systems.


If you are planning on new construction, make sure that you get an opportunity with your organization's architect to speak about greening your mail center.


Vera Angelico, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a licensed architect in New York and Michigan who specializes in mail center design. LEED Accredited Professionals have demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and principles and familiarity with LEED requirements, resources and processes. Angelico can be reached by phone at 212-867-5849 or via email at