Google, thinkstep, Flux and their database of building materials' enviro impacts

ShutterstockAksenenko Olga

How many millions of material and chemical ingredients go into our offices, homes, train station, hotels and factories?

Tracking the environmental impact of the building materials has largely depended on building developers voluntarily seeking LEED certification for their buidings. But has anyone taken a step back and examined the environmental impact from sourcing to manufacture to use to end-of-life of the basic materials used in building, regardless of brand?

They are now. An ambitious undertaking by Google, its Google X spinoff Flux, software and consulting firm thinkstep and the Healthy Building Network has produced an open-source database of 100 common building product categories, their ingredients and their environmental and health impacts.

The key thing about the database, Quartz, is that it is agnostic — it lists building products in their generic terms such as linoleum flooring or pipe thread sealants — and does not list manufacturer’s brand names.

This allows for decisions about material use in the early-stage design phase to make "an order of magnitude" difference in environmental and health impacts, said Drew Wenzel, Google’s campus design technical specialist who worked on Quartz on behalf of Google. 

"When you are looking at materials, you end up looking at a lot of materials that are somewhat commodities," Wenzel said. "There’s not a lot of difference in the products that are out there," as in one manufacturer’s drywall or linoleum flooring or welded wire mesh concrete reinforcement versus another's.

But the general product category itself possibly could not be the best choice environmentally or healthwise. Instead of linoleum floors or cement, architects could decide to use some kind of wood, for instance. 

A major goal of creating the database is to inspire innovation.

"We’re hoping we could get a better technology solution" for some broad categories, Wenzel said.

First unveiled at the GreenBiz VERGE 2015 event in October, Quartz will be demonstrated today at GreenBuild in Washington, D.C. where Google also announced $3 million for healthy building materials research. 

The database is meant as a tool for early decision-making that could lead to fundamentally different designs, said Larry Kilroy, the information systems director of the Healthy Building Network.

"That is what people are excited about," he said. "These are agnostic not brand [specific], they are representative products of what you expect a product to be made with."

The model of a database that is open source, searchable and on which new applications can be developed also helps to solve what has been a sticking point about disclosure in the building industry: manufacturers not wanting to disclose proprietary brand information.

And, while health impact data has become more commonly disclosed, this is the first time that environmental impact data has been layered in, according to Heather Gadonniex, vice president of thinkstep, which gathered the environmental impact information. She was director of sustainable building and construction as the project was underway.

Flux, which provides cloud-based collaboration tools for architects, engineers, and contractors to exchange data and streamline workflows, built the database incorporating.

Here is the data profile for cementitious grouting:

The Quartz health and environmental profile for Cementitious Grouting

Increasing calls for transparency

Researchers from Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health tell us that unhealthy indoor environments can impair cognitive functioning (PDF) and remind us that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. And with government estimates that 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions are from buildings, interest in healthful environmental buildings is growing.

Adding to those broader trends, reports of toxins leaching out of materials — such as formaldehyde in Lumber Liquidator flooring as well as flame retardant chemicals in couches turning into gaseous toxins in living rooms — have added to the anxiety and interest in knowing what's in the materials of our built environment.

"Clients have been asking for this," said Gadonniex. 

She said architects, engineers and contractors have wanted to know the material ingredients of building products because thinkstep's clients, in turn, have been asking for information on what a building's inhabitants might be exposed to. Her clients also have been wanting to know the environmental impacts in the supply chain sourcing or manufacturing of materials, wanting to avoid adverse impacts on supply chain communities.

Vivian Dien, the Quartz project manager for Flux, said the building industry has been notoriously private and guarded on the proprietary information on how its products are made. The result, she said, has been "buried and inconsistent data" on what is in various building materials. "We wanted to show the industry how productive data can be" when curated and displayed in a consistent, reliable and opensource format.

The Quartz database, in describing itself on its web site, notes this.

Within the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) industry, it is incredibly difficult for professionals responsible for providing healthy and sustainable spaces to make informed decisions about building products...

The absence of centralized information, poor data accessibility, varying standards, and closed practices makes the curation of data for even a single product a great challenge. The Quartz Common Product Database seeds the effort to bridge a vast knowledge gap within the AEC industry.

Dien said the hope is that Quartz will be used to include sustainability measurements in other building materials performance benchmarks and decisions. Ideally, applications will be written to include the data in Building Information Modeling, an industry tool for digitizing information about a building, its utility connections, heating and cooling systems and so on that is now used for design and construction.

The industry already has LEED-certified buildings and Living Building Challenge-certified facilities. This agnostic database is expected to add to the information available at the very initial stages of building planning to lead, in some instances, to new material choices.

"Information is critical for market transformation towards less toxic and lower-impact materials. With open data, we can design and build better buildings and communities even faster," Quartz states.

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