DJC Green Building Blog

Transparency: the new mantra

Posted on December 24, 2013

The following post is by Kathleen O'Brien:

Ten years ago when Alistair Jackson (now principal of O'Brien & Company) and Michelle Long (now Executive Director of BALLE) created the Transparency Institute, they just couldn't gain traction they wanted and needed to make a go of it. "We were ten years ahead of our time," Jackson sighs.  Now, transparency is all the rage. In fact, at GreenBuild recently, I couldn't walk five feet without some reference to the concept.  Most references were focused on product transparency, but not all.  At the International Living Future Institute's GreenBuild Booth, the nonprofit was touting its new "JUST" Label, which applies to organizations transparency.  Organizations of all types and sizes can earn the JUST label when they are willing to report on 22 social and equity indicators related to six categories: diversity, equity, safety, worker benefit, local benefit and stewardship. The JUST Label joins the organization's DECLARE, a "nutrition" label of sorts for building products.

JUST is a voluntary disclosure program where organizations can report on their workplace equity policies and practices.

DECLARE is one of the latest efforts over the past decade to make it easier for building project teams to "do the right thing" when selecting products and technologies. Product certifications, such as those offered by the Carpet & Rug Industry Institute (focused on VOC emissions) and Forest Stewardship Council SC (focused on sustainably harvested wood products) have been one way to achieve this goal; but even there, industry members have been demanding more transparency, wanting to know what's behind the "green" label.  DECLARE requires that manufacturers complete a Health Product Declaration (HPD) that is then publicly available.  The hope is that this label will make it easier for project teams to use the Living Building Challenge, which "red lists" materials and chemicals the ILFI deems hazardous.

Eden Brukman, Technical Director for the non-profit HPD Collaborative was staffing its booth at GreenBuild, where business was non-stop.  Brukman noted a "remarkable uptick in interest in (HPD's) work."  The Transparency Movement (as some like to call it) is definitely experiencing an upswing, and HPD is clearly a key player in this progression.  In addition to offering manufacturers an open standard format for reporting product content and associated health information for building products and materials,  the service is free for all to use, which is certainly one factor in its gaining popularity.

The HPD Collaborative partners with several product databases.  Green Spec was one of the first independent efforts to vet and list products meeting specific requirements.  The Pharos Building Library provides access to HPDs (as do most of the other collaborative members)  as well as a full assessment of health hazards associated with the product and its manufacture, VOC certifications, renewable material content, and renewable energy usage. SpecSimple is more recent, and unlike Green Spec or Pharos, includes advertising.  Another commercial database partnering with HPD includes Green Wizard, which integrates its product library with a proprietary software aligned with LEED credits (WORKflow Pro). I understand from one user that the software program is "pricey" but a good value. GPD's THESource (which also offers advertising) aligns product transparency efforts with BIM and Revit; I attended a GreenBuild presentation introducing  GPDTools (Alpha), a free downloadable add-in specifically designed for the Autodesk Revit users to search, select and annotate building product data (including HPDs) directly.

Transparency has become a byword in the green building industry, where members are demanding to know more about the contents of the building products they use.

Nearly 30 manufacturers at GreenBuild were exhibiting products that are Cradle to Cradle Certified.  Up to recently a proprietary system closely held by its founders William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the Certification has gone public with the founding of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.  Lots of other product certifications were on display as well -- sometimes several for the same product. One GreenBuild attendee complained that the multiple certifications on many product booths were confusing, but my guess is that as the drive for transparency takes hold, two things will  happen, the value of a given certification will be understood more clearly, resulting in a more nuanced weighting of that certification in the prospective purchaser's mind.  Another consideration is the audience for the certification(s): a skilled professional whose license depends on being informed, and the less informed consumer of the skilled professional's services.  My observation, at least at events like GreenBuild, is that professionals are seeking more information, not less. But they want to know the information they are getting is good quality -- and transparency can help them know that.

Transparency is not intended, however, to sort out the certification puzzle. The commonly held view is that manufacturers won't want to reveal damaging information, such as the fact that a given product includes harmful ingredients or was created using harmful processes.  Forward-thinking companies with solid product portfolios (or willing to create them) have done the calculus. This is good for business. Laggards will innovate or lose in the race for transparency.

Kathleen O'Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development and most well known for founding O'Brien & Company, the oldest green building consultancy in the Seattle area.  She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. After 30 years of working in the field, she is now focused on providing leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project, a 501c3 non-profit with a mission to "accelerate life-sustaining solutions in the built environment through emergent leadership principles."

 

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  1. AS a specifier, I feel that the HPD (in particular, but not exclusively) is flawed in two areas:
    1) although it asks for full transparency, it is possible to exclude a high enough percentage of materials to essentially void the entire concept.
    2) and more importantly, the HPD doesn’t easily take into account multiple supply chains of large national/multinational manufacturers. A gypsum wallboard company (for example) may have multiple sources of both gypsum and paper and those sources may have varying components that either do or do not cause concern.
    And example that showcases both of these issues was the Libby Montana mine that produced vermiculite used for cementitious fireproofing. The Libby site was not only producer of vermiculite used for fireproofing by that manufacturer, but as a series in the Seattle Times showcased some years ago, the Libby mine also contained naturally occuring asbestos that was co-incident with the vermiculite. In most cases, the asbestos component was less than 1/2 of 1 percent, but the health hazards were enormous in retrospect. The current configuration of the HPD doesn’t require listing that 1/2 of 1 percent (it can be proprietary information, for example) and the HPD doesn’t account for the fact that that one mine was only one source among several — and the others did not have the asbestos problem.
    Most manufacturers do not allow a vendor to require specific sourcing: I could not, for example, require that my wallboard be manufacturered with gypsum from a specific gypsum mine. The condition that we end up with is an HPD is that is too general to be of use, and not specific enough to be appropriate for one project.
    As you speak with manufacturers who use high recycled content in their materials (plastic laminate manfacturers come to mind) they will often tell you that they cannot adequately predict or sort the stray components that come in as part of their recycled content. Just recently, there was an example of recycled concrete used as aggregate for a project — only the recycled concrete had enough radon in it to set off detectors.

    Transparency may be a Pandora’s box. Although I have no doubt that the intent behind transparency is well meaning, the implementation of this may be far more complicated — and not transparent — than the promoters may anticipate.


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