Expert Advice on Green Buildings

Low VOC Paint: A Smart Choice for Any LEED or Green Building Project


There are many airborne contaminants it’s important to be aware of. However, in non-industrial environments, the most common airborne contaminants are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particulates and CO2.

VOCs can be emitted from sources such as building materials, furnishings and cleaning products, as well as particulates that are a byproduct of cleaning, construction, paper dust, deteriorated insulation and combustion such as cooking. Carbon dioxide, while not dangerous as a toxic agent, can be an asphyxiant.

The presence of these contaminants may be mitigated by assessing the amount of exhaust and ventilation air delivered to specific spaces and using low-emitting materials where possible.

Many indoor paints and finishes release low-level emissions into the air for years after initial construction is completed. The sources of these emissions are volatile organic compounds which, until recently, were integral with the performance of the paint.


Per the LEED BD+C Reference Guide, “VOCs are carbon compounds that participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions (excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides and carbonates, and ammonium carbonate). The compounds vaporize at normal room temperatures.” But recently, new indoor environmental regulations, coupled with a progressive green building movement, have led to the development of low-VOC and even zero-VOC paints and finishes. These new paints have shown to be just as durable and cost-effective as their predecessors, but now are less harmful to building occupants and environmental health. Premium performance and decreased environmental impact is the goal for this new class of interior finishes.

How Low VOC Paints Work:

Low VOC paints use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents and contain no or low levels of other harmful ingredients. The amount of VOCs varies among different products, and should always be listed on the paint can or MSDS (material safety data sheets).

High quality interior finishes and paints with low-VOC content can help enhance the indoor air quality of the built environment. For projects pursuing green building certifications, low and zero-VOC paints are a significant advantage. According to the current LEED BD+C Reference Guide, the maximum allowable content for gloss, semi-gloss and flat paints is currently 250 g/L, as dictated by Green Seal Standard GC-03 (which sets limits for anti-corrosive and anti-rust paints). Compliance with this performance metric makes a project eligible for Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Credit 4.2: Low-Emitting Materials – Paints & Coatings, the intent of which is to reduce the quantity of indoor air contaminants that are odorous, irritating and/or harmful to the comfort and well-being of installers and occupants. Since the intent of this credit can be met with specification alone, it is relatively easy and typically no-cost.

And with the prevalence of more environmentally-friendly paints for indoor use, their use makes sense for LEED and non-LEED projects alike.

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Expert Advice and Comments

New Pilot LEED Low-VOC Requirements

The proposed LEED 2012 requirements for Low-Emitting Interiors (including paints, coatings, adhesives, sealants, insulation, furniture, and all layers of walls, floors and ceilings) are available for LEED pilot use today. These new requirement required measurements of emitted VOC concentrations in air, in addition to VOCs contained within paints, coatings, adhesives, and sealants.

You can see the new requirements and extensive commentary at this link:

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