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Guest blogger: Sunshine Mathon, Foundation Communities in Austin, TX

Spoiler Alert:  Sherwin-Williams  Pro Mar 400 Zero VOC paints was identified as the “sweet spot” of cost and health as best as we could determine.  My journey to this conclusion can be found below:

The original goal for the Lakeline Learning Center was to achieve Living Building Challenge (LBC) full certification.  The Learning Center will act as the heart of our newest affordable housing community, Lakeline Apartments, when it opens in early 2017. The building will house free afterschool programming for children in the community as well as adult education classes focused on financial literacy and physical fitness. In other words, nearly all of the 128 families will be using the building on a regular basis.

The reality of an unfortunate gap between cost and budget emerged on the project as a whole, however, and we had to let go of pursuing the LBC Materials Petal. However, we wanted to remain thoughtfully strategic with our material choices, still prioritizing interior materials that were red-list compliant.  In this spirit, we specified paints made by ECOS.

Regrettably, despite the fact that our project actually had a relatively small surface area that required painting (15,000 sq ft), the added cost to use ECOS paints in place of our go-to Sherwin-Williams products came out to be more than $28,000 - over 1% of our total construction budget.

So, ECOS was out, and back to the drawing board. We decided to dig deeper and find the best possible option from the Sherwin-Williams catalog (property management gets the best bulk pricing and availability with Sherwin-Williams in our region).  I began sifting through product literature of different paint lines and realized that some products were described as “vinyl acrylic.”  We had been doing our best to avoid vinyl products in our project, and I worried that this paint might be something to avoid, too.

When I reached out to Healthy Building Network for assistance, they clarified that vinyl acrylic is not the same thing as polyvinyl chloride, what is typically referred to in shorthand as “vinyl.”  They also pointed me toward their CompAIR tool, which provides a useful means to parse paints and other wet-applied products on more than just the stated VOC content.

With some website digging, I found the relevant Safety Data Sheets, Environmental Declarations, etc. and started plugging data into the CompAIR calculator.  In the end, because most of the paints I was considering were truly zero VOC, CompAIR was unable to find meaningful differences between my paint options.

Referring to the HomeFree website’s resources on paints, Healthy Building Network also suggested I reach out to Sherwin-Williams to discover whether any of the paints I was considering met GreenSeal-11 standards - the most stringent standard to date for paints.*  I reached out for answers, and continued to search on my own while I waited for a response.

A few years ago, as part of our effort to “green” operations, we established an internal policy to only use Sherwin-Williams paints with 50g/L or less VOC for operations and maintenance.  I requested a breakdown of paints used in the current year, including costs and quantities, from our staff and discovered surprising breadth and inconsistency from property to property. This query precipitated a broader discussion that bridged new construction specified paints and O&M.

I compounded the list of paints in hopes that one might meet the needs of the Learning Center while establishing precedent for how we move forward on operations throughout our portfolio so I created a comprehensive cost/health “ratio” analysis.

The result: Sherwin-Williams Pro Mar 400 Zero VOC paints rose to the top as the “sweet spot” between cost and health as best as we could determine with published data.  We have since updated our maintenance policy to only use this paint for maintenance and apartment turnovers in the future.

The Sherwin-Williams rep did get back to me on my GreenSeal-11 question.  Pro Mar 400 Zero VOC paints do meet the parameters of the GreenSeal-11 standard, but do not have the certification specifically.

We would certainly love to see Sherwin-Williams clarify this in their product literature so we could feel that much better about finding a paint option that works for us.


Foundation Communities is the largest nonprofit developer and owner of affordable housing in central Texas providing beautiful, resource-efficient and healthy homes for 6,000 low-income families and individuals. With firm belief in the natural alignment between the mission of affordable housing and sustainable development practices, Foundation Communities develops housing where families succeed.

With a Master in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin, Sunshine Mathon is the Design + Development Director at Foundation Communities and oversees the design and construction with a comprehensive focus on sustainability.

* Paints meeting the GreenSeal-11 standard are limited to a total VOC limit of 100 g/L, including tints. In addition, the standard prohibits the use of specific substances, including:
  • Preservatives that emit formaldehyde into the paint over time
  • Heavy metals such as lead and mercury
  • ​Any chemical or material which is considered a carcinogen, mutagen, reproductive toxin, hazardous air pollutant, or ozone depleting substance