What Does a Construction Provider Make of HPD?

From designers to owners to occupants, everyone is interested in making our buildings healthy.

Late last year the Dallas-based design firm HKS sent a letter to their suppliers of architectural building materials, telling them of their heightened commitment to “gather knowledge about the chemical content of building materials.” The firm’s chief sustainability officer and vice president of design/design director, B. Kirk Teske and Dan H. Noble, respectively, expressed hope that their suppliers might already participate in the Pharos Project. “If not, we encourage you to engage in this initiative so that, as partners in the building industry, together we can deliver healthier buildings to owners and users. Manufacturers that provide full, transparent disclosure of their product content are the most helpful to our designers.”

The two execs reminded manufacturers that the newest industry initiative, the Health Products Declaration (HPD), asks for “a voluntary, open standard for reporting product content and health information so that similar products can be compared in a straightforward manner. We request that your company provide HKS with an HPD for your primary products.” Other design firms, like Cannon, are sending similar letters to their suppliers.

To keep track of how the HPD collaborators are doing, I’ve been asking everyone, including a designer and a manufacturer, to talk about their own roles in this potentially game-changing practice of disclosing the harmful contents in products we all live with today.

Here two vice presidents, Steve Clem and Elizabeth J. Heider of Skanska USA Inc.—a leading provider of construction, pre-construction consulting, general contracting and design-build services—talk about their own role in this grand effort to make our built environment cleaner, healthier, and kinder to our planet.

Susan S. Szenasy: According to Skanska’s sustainability page, “Over a year, 58,000 colleagues and perhaps four times as many subcontractors are executing some 10,000 projects for customers in our our Home Markets [the Americas and Europe].” Those are very powerful numbers; they make Skanska a potential game changer in creating a healthy built environment, and a healthy Earth. In this context, how do you see your role as a member of the HPD team? 

Steve Clem: In the traditional project delivery method, the contractor has all of the purchasing power, but none of the authority to take advantage of it. The designers and builders rarely compare notes on the supply chain and how they could work together to create systematic change. This asymmetric pressure on the market causes it to spin around in circles instead of advancing forward. Skanska, as a leading aggregator of green materials data hopes to change this pattern and provide a green feedback loop that offers owners low and no cost environmentally preferable materials.

SSS: There seems to be some trepidation by the development community about taking a stance for healthy building materials. Yet if multinational builders don’t come out in favor of a healthy environment, and a healthy Earth, then our toxic world has little hope of ever achieving HPD’s goals. What’s the Skanska approach to helping turn your own business into an environmentally healthy business? 

Steve Clem: Skanska has built its values, vision, and success around the win-win strategy of green business. We took the step to have our operations ISO 14001 certified globally and have been a clear voice for more stringent regulation for carbon emissions, energy efficiency, and materials sourcing. When we develop projects in the US, they are LEED Gold minimum and are required to achieve one audacious goal; our Stone 34 project in Seattle, Washington is attempting petal recognition in the Living Building Challenge rating system. We believe that the global trend toward urbanization creates a perfect opportunity for a firm with a mission to be the first choice for building sustainable cities to create real market change. In addition, we are broadening our view from green buildings to district-scale solutions for optimum efficiency and feel our suite of infrastructure development, building, and civil offerings provide unique value to our clients.

SSS: In 2006, according to your website, “Skanska started using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as its guiding sustainability framework.” How is this approach reflected in the role you play on the HPD committee?

Beth Heider: The two efforts inform each other. GRI is the triple bottom line of sustainability (people/profit/planet) and Health Product Declarations ask for transparency so owners can make informed decisions. For example, it isn’t sustainable to select the most non-toxic, low carbon, cost-effective material if it is produced by child labor.

SSS: Are there any geographic areas, in all the places of your activity (my guess would be Scandinavia) that you can cite as having a stellar record in using healthy building materials. If yes, where would these markets be, and what are they doing right? Lessons from the field are always useful.

Steve Clem: The most exciting developments regarding materials in the last 6-7yrs have been in concert with the growth of the Living Building Challenge, its Red List, and sourcing radius restrictions.  In the US, we’ve seen this take off in the progressive communities and cities of the Pacific Northwest, which isn’t surprising given that the Living Building Challenge was born in that region. Skanska has invested significant time and effort to identify and catalog materials that meet these strict levels of transparency and has seen a slow, but steady increase in manufacturer’s willingness for full disclosure.  Removing harmful chemicals has become integral to many of our client’s air quality goals and our combined market leverage has suppliers investing in clean product development. The push toward green materials can be a perfect combination of university research, local private industry job growth, and net benefit to the environment. The pace of adoption is accelerating and pulling other, widely accepted standards such as LEED up with it.

SSS: “Our values drive what we do to contribute to a more sustainable world,” says the web page with senior vice president, Noel Morrin, from Skanska, Sweden, looking like the responsible person for the company’s sustainability program. Has the company established, or about to establish, a system whereby field operations in your various locations report back to the mother ship about their use of healthy building materials and practices?

Beth Heider: Noel Morrin is responsible for sustainability globally.  Staffan Haglind is responsible for Green Business. Together they require that each Skanska Business Unit report progress against Green Strategic Indicators – one of which is environmentally preferable materials.  Noel and his team have developed an internal metric, the Green Color Palette, which is used Skanska-wide as the common metric for reporting.  We prepare case studies of exemplary projects.  And we aggregate best practices for internal use in our green tool box.

Other points of view on HPD—The furniture manufacturer, the chairman, the founder of the Healthy Building Network, the concerned health care designer

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