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Nonprofit calls for accountability in building materials

10.30.13 by Stephen Aiguier

Independent standard picks up where LEED leaves off

In 2012, a federal judge awarded roughly $40 million to about 55,000 people in a class-action settlement involving the companies that made and installed FEMA-authorized temporary housing following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The judge ruled that the victims’ health had been compromised by exposure to toxins present in the temporary shelters. The primary culprit was formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen found in everything from drywall mud to plywood to furniture. This debacle brought the issue of toxic building materials to a head – especially for the architecture and construction industry.

Today's health-conscious consumers, architects and builders are working with ever-more stringent building standards calling for greater accountability around the use of hazardous building materials. The latest LEED rating system (LEED v4) raises the bar for Materials and Resources credits. LEED v4 awards one point to projects for disclosing hazards and providing an ingredient inventory for building materials (similar to a Nutrition Facts label). It also awards one point to projects that utilize hazard-and-exposure assessment tools, such as Cradle to Cradle. The Living Building Challenge goes even further. Project teams pursuing the Materials Petal of the LBC must eliminate certain “red listed” hazardous materials from building projects altogether. The red listed materials have a known negative impact on human health and the environment. Included on that list are asbestos, cadmium, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), mercury, lead and other hazardous chemicals. Exceptions are commonly given to acknowledge market realities that a vast majority of products still contain hazardous materials. By demanding that manufacturers share information about their products, builders become advocates – another goal of the LBC.

The unfortunate truth is that most manufacturers do not report, nor are they required to report, all of the ingredients contained in their products. Some building and other industrial products come with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are meant to report material toxins and appropriate handling guidelines for occupational health. Unfortunately, reviews conducted by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board detect dangerous deficiencies in MSDS. The fact is, we simply do not have access to consistent and transparent information about the chemical composition of building materials. This leaves consumers, developers and builders – including FEMA – with little confidence that the materials they are recommending are truly safe.

With increasing concern about the human health and environmental impacts of building materials, a forward-thinking group of stakeholders came together in 2011 to develop a system that would help manufacturers communicate important data, such as the chemical makeup of their products, in a consistent and transparent manner. The more than 100 stakeholders, including 30 manufacturers, helped create what is now known as the Health Product Declaration (HPD). Some of the early endorsers of the tool included Boora Architects, Cannon Design, Gensler, Google, HDR, Interface, Mithun, Scranton Products, SERA, Yolo Colorhouse, Yost Grube Hall Architecture and the International Living Future Institute. Released in November 2012 at Greenbuild, the HPD v.1.0 is now the U.S. Green Building Council’s default tool for evaluating the health and safety of building materials. It’s also included as an evaluation tool for the next versions of the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and Green Point Rated, and the beta for China's Green Building Initiative, Vision 2020.

It was truly groundbreaking, in that for the first time, builders, homeowners, architects, developers and other stakeholders could make fully informed decisions about specifying, purchasing, installing and using building products. Currently, the HPD v.1.0 is being used by early adopters and industry innovators who are willing and interested in creating a market advantage by declaring the chemical make up of the products they manufacture. Here at Green Hammer, we are pursuing the LBC for a number of projects. We see great promise in the HPD as a way to inform our clients as they make decisions about everything from roofing to flooring to countertops.

Right now, too often, we must go with our gut. The more raw the product (glass, wood, stone, etc.), the healthier it generally is. When feasible, we steer our clients toward natural building materials, but without an ingredients list for each and every building product, we are finding our way in the dark.

If you care about your health, you look at the ingredients contained in the foods you eat. Most people would do the same for the buildings in which they live and work – if they could.

The HPD is an important first step in creating greater transparency and accountability in the built environment. You must start by admitting that you have a problem. You can’t improve upon your products if you don’t know or don’t openly admit what’s in them. The manufacturers who embrace this trend versus fighting it will not only end up with far superior products — they will capture a burgeoning market for healthy building products.  

In the wake of health disasters such as the failed FEMA trailers and the hundreds, if not thousands of other unreported cases across the country, we as an industry must take greater responsibility for our material specifications and purchases. Supporting and engaging with the HPD as a method for making more informed and better decisions about the products we recommend is a small but significant step toward greater transparency in the built environment, which in turn will lead to healthier buildings for all.  

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An edited version of this post appears on the Daily Journal of Commerce's "Innovative Insights" column.

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