Health advocacy

A new role for design professionals
Friday, November 9, 2012
By Kathy Wardle

It seems not a day goes by that a product manufacturer comes out with a new building material that touts environmental merits. Such benefits may include durability, recycled content or recyclability and emission properties relating to volatile organic compounds or formaldehyde.

But what is really known about the ingredients in these building materials?

Over the last 18-24 months, material transparency and disclosure of building material ingredients has emerged as an extremely important trend within the green building movement.

Although this concern is not necessarily new, increasing evidence suggests greater care and consideration should be given to the overall health and environmental impacts of building materials. Sources like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have found concentrations of indoor pollutants at levels two to five times higher than typical outdoor levels. Dizziness, fatigue, respiratory ailments, heart disease and cancer have all been linked to indoor air pollution.

Part of the challenge in minimizing exposure to harmful substances is it is difficult to find a complete list of building material ingredients that allows industry to determine which ones are potentially harmful. Some manufacturers do not disclose information due to proprietary reasons while others simply don’t know due to complex material supply chains.

A collective effort is underway by the Materials Research Collaborative to develop a Health Product Declaration (HPD) open standard, which is aimed at creating a consistent format for reporting product content and associated health information for individual building products and materials.

By creating a unified format, similar to the concept of a food label, building material ingredients will be reported in a consistent manner. It will help manufacturers standardize information that is provided to practitioners and assist practitioners to compare and contrast the performance of building materials.

Currently, 48 companies and organizations have endorsed the HPD open standard and 30 manufacturers have committed to participating in the 2012 HPD pilot project. This standard could prove to be extremely effective in having manufacturers report more accurately on material ingredients.

A parallel effort is underway by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to encourage material disclosure. It is proposing two new credits on material ingredient reporting and avoidance of chemicals of concern for the next version of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). If such credits are accepted within the fourth version of LEED, it will help create market demand for greater transparency in the building material manufacturing sector. USGBC members have an opportunity through the public comment periods to support the adoption of these credits.

While many of these efforts are in their infancy, a number of other good resources should be consulted in the interim while waiting for manufacturers to provide transparent material disclosure. At a minimum, these three resources will allow for more informed decisions regarding the materials used in future projects:

  • Healthy Building Network’s pharos tool is a database of more than 800 building materials. The site also provides detailed lifecycle information about more than 20,000 of the substances used within these materials.
  • Perkins+Will’s precautionary list profiles 25 substances with supporting evidence of the human health impacts. It cross references the building specification divisions in which these substances can be found.
  • BuildingGreen Inc.’s Avoiding Toxic Chemicals in Commercial Building Projects handbook outlines harmful substances, where to find them in building materials, what should be top priorities for human health effects and how to make decisions about avoiding toxic substances.

Beyond consulting these resources, design professionals need to engage clients and consultant teams in this dialogue on material health. Opening the conversation regarding what can be reasonably accomplished with respect to selecting healthier materials will increase the market demand for greater material transparency. Emerging is a new role for the profession – health advocacy. Human health is inextricably linked to environmental sustainability and is an area that can realize tangible results.

Kathy Wardle is associate principal and director of research at Perkins+Will.

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