When most people think of a green building, chances are they picture solar panels or a rooftop garden. Most efforts to green a building focus on adopting renewables or driving efficiency in terms of energy, water and waste. That's all important for improving the environmental effects of buildings.
For the occupants, however, it's the indoor environment that counts.
To that end, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Northern California branch is spearheading a movement to promote green building as a health concern. Its new Building Health Initiative brings more than two-dozen partners -- including Adobe, Google, Genentech and Salesforce -- together with contractors, architects, designers and unusual bedfellows in healthcare and academia.
They intend to raise awareness about the health effects of the built environment, shifting the market in favor of products and services that not only do less harm but promote human well-being.
"This is about healthy communities for all," said Dan Geiger, executive director of the USGBC’s Northern California Chapter. "This is the first time such a diverse group of companies and organizations have come together to take action on promoting the health and well-being of our communities. We're hoping for sparks to fly when we get together."
Building materials companies Armstrong, Central Concrete, InterfaceFLOR and VIEW Glass have signed on, as well as contractors Webcor, XL Construction and Swinerton; engineering firms ARUP and Integral Group; and architecture firms HDR, HOK and Perkins & Will. Kaiser Permanente, CalPERS and the University of California at San Francisco are involved. So are the City of San Francisco, the Healthy Building Network and First Community Housing. Law firms include Hanson Bridgett and Wendel Rosen.
"By helping to elevate and expand the conversation around health impacts of the built environment, this Initiative is an important step in spurring real industry change and momentum for greater materials transparency and education," said Anthony Ravitz of Google's real estate services green team, in a statement.
'More than LEED'
The effort -- announced Tuesday at an emotionally charged USGBC awards event in San Francisco -- has struck a nerve that green building must expand beyond energy, water and waste issues to foster human health and well-being. Many of the participants signed on within a day or two of learning about the initiative, Geiger said.
“I think everybody sees it coming both from a movement standpoint and a market standpoint," he said. "I think we have a lot of power to change the market.”
At the same time, Geiger said, "It’s not the kind of thing where you can ask, ‘Can you reduce energy use by 20 percent?’ We know the metrics are hard. We’ve got to keep this simple, to ask people to do something that’s going to make a change.”
The Building Health Initiative will proceed in two phases. It starts with the Building Health Challenge, in which participants pledge to promote a conversation about health and buildings as well as to "create market demand for product transparency and healthy places."
For example, Adobe aims to quantify the effect of greener buildings by launching a study of how workspaces certified by the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings affect or improve innovation, creativity, productivity and health.
The second phase will be a two-year program of specific actions and educational efforts. Members of the initiative will meet quarterly and report semi-annually on progress.
"This is about more than LEED," said Geiger of the USGBC. "We’re really trying to expand the conversation.”
The Building Health Initiative follows other recent moves toward reducing the prevalance of harmful chemicals in buildings. One of the big changes in the USGBC's updated LEED ratings, set to launch in November at Greenbuild, is a points system that rewards building projects for reporting potentially toxic ingredients. The shift to LEED v4 is expected to have sweeping effects beyond the building industry.
The USGBC, along with the NRDC and others, scored a victory earlier this month when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law ending a four-decade requirement that builders use insulation laced with flame retardant chemicals. (California's new toxic products law also came into effect in October.)
Elizabeth Baca, a physician engaged in policy to improve buildings, is on the Building Health Initiative's advisory board. "There is a growing recognition in medicine that the built environment has significant health impacts," she said. "Physicians want to understand the underlying causes of their patients' conditions. That's why we ask, ‘Where do you work, live and play?'"
Americans spend most of their time indoors, where the air is two to five times more polluted than outside. Flame retardants waft from insulation. Formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) offgas from paint or pressed wood. Medical evidence increasingly points the finger at a long list of such chemical culprits, despite the difficulty of pinpointing the causes of asthma, cancer or conditions such as Sick Building Syndrome.
"We’ve always been concerned that our work environment is such that we’re supporting our employees," said Carla Boragno, VP of site services at Genentech. "The [Building Health Initiative] is the first time we’ve had a more formal effort to understand in greater detail the impacts [of building materials] on our employees and our overall well-being."
For its part in the USGBC initiative, the biotech firm seeks to understand the potential health effects of materials used in its buildings, to develop a process to request information from suppliers and eventually to create guidelines for selecting materials.
"When we ask our suppliers, they’re going to know it’s important to us, and they’re going to go back and ask their suppliers," Boragno said.
Genentech happens to be working with other Healthy Building participants -- including builder Webcor and architects Perkins & Will -- as it completes a new 250,000 square-foot building in South San Francisco.
For its part in the USGBC initiative, Webcor, one of the largest general contractors in California, is pledging on every new project to present wellness as an option for the owner, taking into consideration factors such as air quality, fitness and mental well-being. It will talk about wellness with industry partners and throughout its supply chain, in addition to applying healthy building standards at its own facilities.
“We’re not forgetting about the environment in terms of other holistic components," said Phil Williams, Webcor's VP of sustainability. "Some people are focused on chemicals of concern. I have to provide good clean air, good clean water, enough air, enough water, electricity. We based our priority upon our physical needs.”
Williams insisted that some kind of wellness ratings system or score will be critical to drive the Building Health effort forward in the years ahead.
“I would hope the commercial real estate and ownership market is ranking buildings on wellness just like they are ranking energy, water and waste today,” Williams said. “Green buildings floundered until we had a ranking system. [LEED] is a very successful model.”
Partners and pledges
The pledges being made within the Building Health Initiative vary according to the type of company or group. For example, building owners, developers and tenants will establish policies to request data on materials, such as HPDs or Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). They’re also charged with trying to promote resources for affordable housing groups.
Architects, engineers and contractors agree to volunteer information about HPDs and EPDs for clients, to develop strategies for LEED v4 and the Living Building Challenge, and to research the health impacts of climate change and transportation.
Building product makers and service providers are tasked with promoting transparency by creating product declarations.
Healthcare groups commit to producing a Healthy Building Summit with the USGBC, addressing social equity issues and educating medical peers about the health effects of buildings.
Law firms are tasked with providing legal expertise to other participants, as well as offering advocacy with environmental groups.
The USGBC's Building Health Initiative is open to new partners. More information is available on the USGBC-NCC website.