The quest to detox the built environment

The quest to detox the built environment

Toxic materials have long been an achilles heel of the building industry. Now, a wave of new efforts focused on transparency could grow the visibility of those efforts.

For all the debate that still rages today over organic food labeling or genetic modification of crops and proteins, the food industry — with all its flaws — is an instructive example of how transparency can be introduced, albeit slowly, to an entire industry.

Way back in 1906, it was considered a win when Upton Sinclair's notorious horror show of an expose on the meat industry, The Jungle, compelled the U.S. federal government to start inspecting dangerous and contaminated meatpacking factories. By the time the 20th century was winding down in 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education had been passed, requiring all packaged foods to bear a list of ingredients.

“Initially, the food industry said that the ingredients they put in the food products we buy at the grocery store were proprietary. The public really pushed back, and they pushed for disclosure," said Rochelle Routman, vice president of sustainability for Mohawk flooring. "We’ve really seen the same thing happen in building products."

From the Environmental Protection Agency list of toxic chemicals often found in buildings to the Health Product Declaration (HPD) or the International Living Future Institute's (ILFI) building materials red list, the issue isn't so much defining materials that pose health and environmental risks, but understanding and acting on that information. Requirements vary widely for participation, and some responses are audited while others are policed in public.

Whichever route a company chooses, transparency also requires a detailed understanding of the building supply chain.

"A manufacturer first has to work with all of their suppliers to understand the ingredients in their products," Routman explained during a GreenBiz webcast on transparency in building materials held on Tuesday, which was sponsored by Mohawk.

She added that even compiling a list of ingredients can take "many years" for a company as large as Mohawk, which employs 30,000 people on multiple continents selling flooring and building materials like wood, laminate, carpet and stone. 

On top of the ever-present specter of stricter government regulations on building materials, the transparency push has been driven by consumers and business-to-business buyers, like architects and designers. Third party programming going beyond traditional certifications or industry standards are another variable for companies to contend with.

The International Living Future Institute, for example, has gone beyond green building to coordinate the Living Buildings Challenge — an initiative the nonprofit plans to expand to other industries this year with a broader Living Product Challenge (PDF).

“We’re trying to push the market as far as we possibly can," said Living Product Challenge Director James Connelly.

Making sense of sustainable building materials

Part of the thought behind the Living Building Challenge and the Living Product Challenge (the latter of which will be officially launched this September at a Living Product Expo in Pittsburg) is the need to evolve the conversation around toxic materials.

Infamous toxics like asbestos, mercury, lead and formaldehyde have long provided fodder for mitigation campaigns that seek to reduce reliance on problematic materials.

Sustainable material evolution
International Living Future Institute
</p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p></p><p>The Living Product Challenge will seek to push materials innovation beyond mitigating ill-effects to advancing sustainability.</p>

Now, ILFI and others are beginning to wade into projects aimed at actually restoring the environment, as evidenced by the nonprofit's own high-profile headquarters, Seattle's six-story living Bullitt Center. The renewably-powered building is actually net positive in energy generation.

With the Living Product Challenge, the group plans to wade deeper into tangentially-related issues surrounding environmental well being, like social equity.

While those initiatives offer particularly forward-thinking examples of efforts to further green the built environment, a range of programs already exist with the overarching objective of increasing transparency in building materials.

As one underlying component of the Living Building Challenge, ILFI also oversees the Declare initiative, described as "the ingredients label for building projects."

The program is intended to streamline the material specification and certification processes by asking manufacturers to fill out a form with product specifications, secure executive approval and pay a fee ranging from $600-$850 per product or product line.

Declare combines self-reporting with open source or crowdsourced verification, rather than a traditional audit.

"It is based on trust of the manufacturers. We also publish information publicly on our website," Connelly said, noting that, "There are many programs with sort of third party verification protocols where nobody knows what’s going on behind the scenes."

Companies also increasingly have at their disposal "open standard ecosystem(s)" associated with Health Product Declaration (HPD) standards, which offer both product designations and membership or sponsorship options. A Manufacturers Advisory Panel currently working on HPDs includes companies ranging from Interface and DuPont to ThyssenKrupp, Kohler and Herman Miller.

Other efforts from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, trade association BIFMA, the GreenScreen chemical hazard assessment and the EPA's ChemView program aim to help companies get a handle on chemicals used in building materials.

Newer upstarts are also increasingly aiming to quantify the value of transparency in building materials.

GreenWizard is one building project management services provider that sells manufacturers integrated packages to both define the sustainability of available materials and then market those materials to would-be customers. Elixir Environment is a related provider offering to help companies develop documentation for material ingredients while "validat(ing) claims of your product's contents and increas(ing) the chances of your building product getting specified."

As the building material ecosystem continues to evolve, the real value for companies will likely lie in marrying calls for transparency and tangible supply chain reform with the tools catering to the sector that prove to be the most useful for manufacturers.

"The more that our programs can work together in a coherent voice, the more we’ll be able to get to market transformation," said Connelly of ILFI.