It’s Show-and-Tell Time for Building Product Manufacturers

The design community gears up for an all-hands-on deck campaign for healthy products.

“Architects have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals.”

That provocative statement was made by a physician, Dr. Claudia Miller, an assistant dean at the University of Texas School of Medicine, on a panel I moderated on healthy building materials during our second annual firm-wide Green Week.

More than 800 of our co-workers heard nationally recognized leaders discuss everything from the impacts of LEED v4 to the latest in energy modeling software. In addition to Dr. Miller, the panel included Jason McLennan, founder and creator of the Living Building Challenge and CEO of the International Living Future Institute; Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network , and Howard Williams, vice president at Construction Specialties, a global building materials supplier.

Though the panelists—a designer, physician, manufacturer, sustainability activist, and a building certification creator—come with different skill sets and perspectives, their combined knowledge and collective purpose was clear: They made a unanimous call for cooperation and transparency from building product manufacturers. This is exactly the type of collaborative action our industry needs to shift the building materials paradigm from translucent to transparent, and from toxic to healthy.

Architects and designers can leverage their specification power to transform the building product marketplace, suggested Dr. Miller. Like medical professionals, the design community has a duty to protect the public which has the right to know what’s in the products that surrond them. And the specifiers of those products have the duty to select those that minimize impact on the environment and the people who occupy the spaces they create. Doctors can treat only one patient at a time, Dr. Miller added, while architects who specify environmentally responsible products help safeguard the health of a far greater number of people.

McLennan, an architect himself and author of the Living Building Challenge’s chemicals Red List, empathized with designers who want to do the right thing but face some huge challenges when they try. He said he understood that the design community is daunted by the obstacle of sorting through volumes of lists, varying standards, certifications, materials evaluations, and possible greenwashing. “The reality of all of this must seem overwhelming to an architect on a deadline—you shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to specify healthy building products,” said McLennan. “The paradigm is backwards. We shouldn’t have to go out of our way to specify healthy building materials. The opposite should be true.”

Williams pointed out that architects and specifiers have numerous resources at their disposal to ascertain which ingredients should be avoided without having to fully grasp the science. These resources include the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project with its comprehensive chemicals library of more than 22,000 materials profiled; the EPA BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) 4.0 software and the S.I.N. (Substitute It Now) List, an NGO-driven project based in Sweden to speed up the transition to a toxic-free world.

Walsh reminded us that the volunteers of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative are working to remedy this challenge with their HPD Open Standard, a universal format that systemizes reporting language to enable transparent disclosure of building product content and associated health information. The HPD collaborative is comprised of a group of green building industry leaders who spent a year developing the standard, which launched last November.

A month later HKS sent an open letter to manufacturers requesting that they disclose the chemical contents in their products through the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Since then, several other design firms have issued similar letters. The marketplace is taking notice. Manufacturers are reaching out to learn more about our goals.

In discussing concerns over VOCs, halogenated flame retardants and chlorine-based plastics, Walsh explained that “… we’re very early in the science of chemical impact, and the unknowns of the multigenerational impact of chemical exposure on people, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. We’re working toward a labeling-and-certification program that fully aligns with other systems, like the Living Building Challenge.”

While the chemical industry has been reluctant to open up, said Williams, there’s good reason for optimism. With the growing demand for greater ingredient transparency in all we consume and use from all sectors of the building industries, the voices of architects and designers, companies demanding green office space, policymakers, health and green advocates and, most important, consumers are being heard.

“I’ve had some extremely positive conversations with CEOs—there’s a noticeable market shift here and in Europe, especially in retail,” said Williams. He added that progressive companies like Google do not allow their workplaces to include substances on the LBC’s Red List. Early on, he says his firm recognized the advantage of disclosing the chemical contents of its products.

All of us agreed that progress is being made toward improved transparency. And the power of actions taken by architects and specifiers will lead to more rapid change. A holistic approach to the problem among those pressing for the disclosure of product ingredients, consumer demand, manufacturers with credible and realistic answers from their supply chains all contribute to creating safer, cleaner products.

We as architects have the power to seek out and specify healthier building materials. It’s our fundamental responsibility as design professionals to do so. Simply put, 21st century buildings must show a deep understanding of much more than energy conservation. Our buildings need to address the long-term wellbeing of life (human and otherwise) and the environment that supports all living creatures.

Kirk Teske, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal and chief sustainability officer at HKS, a design firm based in Dallas. He is president of the AIA Dallas Chapter. Find Kirk at [email protected], and @KirkTeske on Twitter.

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