Materials Update: A Clearer Picture
The momentum for bringing more transparency to materials selection got a boost this fall when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released its LEED v4 standard, which includes credits for building product reporting and disclosure.
The move follows growing concern about building materials and hazardous chemicals, and their effect on occupants and workers. As awareness has grown, several tools have entered the marketplace, from third-party certification programs, which can be used to determine the validity of green building product attributes, to Health Product Declarations (HPDs), which ask manufacturers to spell out exactly what’s in their products and to identify the health hazards associated with those chemicals.
“We’re trying to understand what’s the best available product,” says Jean Hansen, sustainable interiors manager, senior professional associate, HDR Architecture (San Francisco).
National efforts, such as LEED certification, help push the discussion forward, while a lot continues to happen on the local and regional level, too. For instance, in the San Francisco Bay area, a number of design firms, including HDR, have begun hosting sessions with manufacturers’ reps to educate them about HPDs and why they’re important to their firms.
This past fall, the USGBC’s Northern California Chapter launched a Building Health Initiative, with participants from a range of sectors coming together to collaborate and share best practices. The founding partners, which include Kaiser Permanente, HDR, HOK, Interface, and several other companies, have committed to undertake organizational actions, such as educating clients and peers about health impacts of the built environment and creating education programs.
“Physicians understand the underlying causes of their patients’ conditions. That’s why we ask, ‘Where do you work, live, and play?’ It’s imperative that the medical profession and the building industries learn from one another about the health impacts of the built environment,” Dr. Elizabeth Baca, an advisory board member for the initiative, said in a release.
Suzanne Drake, interior designer, Perkins+Will (San Francisco), says it’s a conversation that’s “in progress.” “The design community wants the HPDs, and we want to make it as easy for the manufacturers as possible to provide that information for the purposes of making an informed decision,” she says.
On the other hand, the subject of materials and transparency is not without some complexity. For one, manufacturers are cautious to release proprietary information, including product content. There’s also the task of trying to track down all the materials that go into a single product, with parts and pieces that often come from multiple manufacturers from around the globe.
Another issue, Drake says, is the question of hazard versus risk: “It takes some thinking about whether it’s really a risk or not? How is the product used? Is it inert when it’s installed? Does it affect workers or users? Is it continuously offgassing?”
But with more knowledge, change will follow, Hansen says, pointing to LEED’s recycled content credit and how that information wasn’t generally shared with designers until the credit was offered.
Now, she says, the industry is moving beyond a single attribute and looking for a broader understanding of what materials are made of. “There are so many issues when it comes to the content,” she says. “We’ll keep pushing it forward.”
For more on the materials discussion, check out a video interview with William McDonough, co-author of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” and “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability–Designing for Abundance,” at the Healthcare Design Conference.