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October 27, 2016

Healthy buildings start with healthy materials

  • Designers are pushing for more transparency when it comes to what building materials are made of.
    Weber Thompson


    There are millions of building products on the market. A single building can easily include hundreds of materials, both inside and out, and each one of those materials contains a variety of chemicals and is sometimes comprised of multiple material types as well.

    So why hasn’t material transparency been a hot topic in the green building community? Well, it is starting to be.

    The International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge has been a pioneer in breaking down the walls of manufacturers’ proprietary processes and product components through its Declare labels.

    As the market has become more curious about what exactly buildings are made of, manufacturers have started to realize that keeping their product ingredients undisclosed gives the appearance that there is something to hide.

    The Declare label encourages the industry to prove how green they really are, by publicly declaring what is in their projects, thus creating some friendly competition amongst manufacturers to help drive the market. It is important to note, though, that having a manufacturer Declare their product does not mean it is healthy, it just lifts the veil so we can see what’s inside.

    The issue that remains is that there is no one standard control to manage a building’s material health. Without being able to scientifically quantify the sum of a building’s material toxicity, the process of selecting healthy materials remains challenging.

    Photo by Kirsten Clemens/Weber Thompson [enlarge]
    Weber Thompson hosted the kickoff event for the Healthy Materials Collaborative during the 2016 Seattle Design Festival. The event attracted manufacturers, specifiers, end users and other professionals.

    While it has been proven that chemicals like formaldehyde, phthalates and other common toxins found in building products are harmful to human health, the long-term impact on building occupants is not fully known. The risk is present, but varying factors make it difficult to document and quantify the effects.

    The design industry needs to exercise precaution and stop specifying materials with red-listed ingredients when possible, while manufacturers work to prove their products are safe before they hit the market instead of relying on consumers and regulators to prove harm after exposure.

    The full picture

    When looking at the full picture of material health, products need to be analyzed for not just the impact they have on building occupants, but also the effect on the health of those involved in its production, installation, reuse and disposal. Are we asking workers to expose themselves to hazardous work conditions with potentially negative long-lasting effects? By looking at a product’s life-cycle analysis, these important factors are taken into consideration in a holistic manner.

    One roadblock is not always having a healthy material that meets specific performance criteria. For instance, luxury vinyl tile is a widely used flooring that performs well in high traffic settings such health care, retail and multifamily buildings. The negative environmental impact of vinyl has been well documented, but there is not an ideal alternative that can stand up to luxury vinyl tile’s long-term durability.

    Until manufacturers are able to fill this void, designers will be forced to specify materials that are “less bad” as opposed to healthy.

    So, how does one balance healthy with practical and functional?

    One way to accelerate our learning curve is through project work. Weber Thompson is designing a Living Building Pilot project through the city of Seattle — a core and shell office building in the heart of Fremont. In exchange for increased height and floor area ratio, the project team will deliver a Living Building Petal Recognition project, with a focus on three Petals, one of which is materials.

    The process of vetting materials to make sure they do not contain toxins called out by the program’s Red List is one requirement of the Materials Petal. It requires re-thinking how the design team specifies products, as the basis of design requires manufacturers and products to be identified earlier in the project than usual, in order to vet products by contacting manufacturers directly.

    While it is a long road, this process will help us make more informed and sustainable choices in future projects. This is in contrast to simply identifying systems or generic materials and product types, as is common in schematic design and design development.

    Some projects that have gone through this before, such as the Bullitt Center, freely share their as-built product list with the public (see bullittcenter.org). This kind of transparency helps raise industry knowledge, provides support for healthier building products, and in some cases motivates manufacturers to incorporate new less-toxic formulations that were explicitly created for a one-off project into their general product offerings.

    Push for healthy materials

    At Weber Thompson we are asking manufacturers to help make the process of selecting healthy materials a little less complicated. We have sent letters to the vendors (who call on us for product presentations and continuing education) stating our sustainability goals in regards to healthy materials and asking for product transparency and complete disclosure in regards to the products we specify.

    We are opening up a dialog and making it clear that healthy materials are something we value. Our library is also being reorganized and relabeled through the Mindful Materials program, a design industry initiative started by HKS Architects that provides a common platform for manufacturers to communicate transparency and give information on their building products.

    These measures will help our designers make informed choices when specifying materials, and further prioritize healthier materials within our firm.

    We are not alone in this effort. Nationally, the American Institute of Architects has highlighted materials as a core issue, locally addressed in a professional education series at AIA Seattle called Materials Matter (that runs October through February).

    Also at the local level, there is a group of building industry professionals called the Healthy Materials Collaborative pushing for transparency and material health. The HMC is creating a dialogue with a variety of local perspectives on how we can work together to create healthier buildings. Working together with strength in numbers and the weight of some large architecture firms, the HMC can break down barriers to healthy, sustainable buildings.

    Discussing the change that needs to happen to create healthy buildings is not enough. To create healthier buildings, designers must apply progressive materials requirements to building projects, be advocates with product representatives, vendors and manufacturers, and demand transparency. If we don’t, who will?

    Mindi Caulley is the resource coordinator at Weber Thompson. She is a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor and LEED Green Associate with seven years of experience in sustainable design. She is active with the Healthy Materials Collaborative.

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