‘Nutrition labelling’ for building products

New Health Product Declaration open standard streamlines disclosure of product content
Thursday, December 13, 2012
By Barbara Carss

Transparency, standardization and efficient dissemination of information are underlying principles of a recently released template, known as an open standard, for disclosing the content of building products, materials and furnishings.

The Health Product Declaration (HPD) open standard was developed by a voluntary working group of designers, specifiers, owners and managers, with the sponsorship of U.S.-based Healthy Building Network, to provide support for evaluating products and verifiable backup for making claims about products’ impact on the environment.

“People are beginning to understand the ways our building materials can affect both human and environmental health, and want to understand this better, but there isn’t currently a great deal of transparent data available on what these products are really made of,” says Amanda Kaminsky, sustainable construction manager with the Durst Organization in New York, and a member of the HPD working group.

Version 1.0 was officially launched at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild conference in mid-November. As the moniker ‘open standard’ implies, users will have free access and are invited to provide feedback and suggestions for future updates.

“The HPD is seen as something dynamic that will evolve over time as the industry adapts to the increased transparency it facilitates,” says Kaminsky.

One obvious application of the HPD open standard is to simplify reporting for various certification programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the Living Building Challenge. A single commonly accepted format would eliminate redundant documentation and open the way for greater proficiencies for the providers, collectors and interpreters of the information. The open standard could also provide an easily referenced mechanism for requiring product content disclosure in other standards, best practices, calls for tender and regulations.

“The HPD adds rigour and depth to what some standards are asking for or planning to ask for,” says Kaminsky.

Although this has been a U.S.-led effort, practitioners in Canada are watching with interest. Beyond WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System) requirements for material safety data sheets and oversight of designated materials, chemicals and substances that are restricted or outright prohibited under environmental and/or health and safety legislation, there is little formal monitoring or reporting of product contents. Design consultants are increasingly called on to fill the vacuum.

Mixed agendas
Insiders predict the design, development and property and facilities management sectors will see logical business reasons to adopt the HPD open standard. Consultants might use it to compile and organize information for clients; developers and property managers might use it to guide purchasing and as a marketing and tenant relations tool; or it could be an element of complying with corporate sustainability and responsibility requirements.

“It is not always that difficult to find the information, but it is time-consuming. Every half-hour or hour we have to spend to find out the composition of something is time we might not be able to charge back to our clients,” says Joe Pettipas, senior vice-president and regional manager, Western Canada, with architecture and design firm, HOK. “If this saves time, it saves money.”

It will likely be trickier to get manufacturers on board although, ultimately, their participation is crucial. Some will be reluctant to release information their competitors would be able to see.

“To manufacturers, this is proprietary; you don’t give away your recipe because the competition then understands what you do to make it five cents cheaper,” says Vince Catalli, business development manager with the environmental consulting firm, Golder Associates, and vice-chair of the Canadian Standards Association group’s technical committee on sustainable construction practices.

However, he points to the cement industry’s collaboration to develop a reporting system that provides developers, owners and LEED program overseers with required information about aggregate sources, while keeping actual formulations confidential.

“A lot of industries are having to deal with this now because they already have LEED and other certification programs asking for disclosure,” he says. “It could also be an opportunity to work together as an industry to develop a tool that benefits the industry.”

Market forces are certainly driving manufacturers to be LEED-friendly, which means not only developing sustainable products but providing customer service to the green building sector. If it takes hold as its advocates envision, the HPD open standard would be a convenient template for reporting with, perhaps even more importantly, the certainty that it would be universally accepted.

Market catalyst
Green building experts argue market forces have been a major driver of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) products.

“Fifteen years ago it wasn’t even on the radar,” Mark Lucuik, director of sustainability with Morrison Hershfield Consulting Engineers, observed earlier this year at the Green Real Estate conference in Toronto. “That’s one thing that has changed a lot in the industry – all the materials have gotten better. LEED can probably take a lot of credit for that.”

Similarly, HOK’s Pettipas notes furniture and carpet manufacturers have been largely compelled to disclose their product sources and manufacturing practices to respond to consumer demand and keep pace with market leaders who have become de facto standard setters. Adoption of the HPD open standard – whether truly voluntary or coerced by the competition – could spur better products simply from the scrutiny it would bring.

On the consumer flipside, disclosure is also a mechanism to make purchasers more accountable. It allows them to make informed decisions or, failing that, they cannot deny they had the capacity to make informed decisions.

Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management magazine.

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