Sunday, May 29, 2016

Walking the Progressive Path

Wanda Dunaway

The May meeting of the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured an excellent primer on green building product attributes presented by Wanda Dunaway, Director for Education & Government Markets at Shaw Industries. Wanda impressed me as someone who is clearly passionate about sustainability and the duty of the manufacturers of building materials to exercise environmentally responsible processes. Her presentation highlighted the importance of recognizing my role as an architect in driving the use of green building products. She also helped me understand the characteristics of healthy building materials, and brought to my awareness the tools available to assist in the selection and specification of healthful products. 
Many segments of the construction industry have embraced the need to provide transparency, translation, and leadership when it comes to communicating what constitutes healthy building materials. Toward this end, manufacturers have become increasingly sophisticated in bringing together thinkers, creators, builders, makers, and connectors to develop the most effective means to transfer useful knowledge to their customers. After all, informed clients (who include designers as well as building owners) make educated decisions, and it is these decisions that lead to healthy building material specifications. The transactional energy of new and more demanding specifications can powerfully shape the marketplace. 
Wanda stressed how we need to raise discussions about human health and wellbeing to the same level energy efficiency and life-cycle cost analysis have occupied for many years now. All of these factors are capable of bearing dramatically upon the triple (social, environmental, and financial) bottom line. To offer a case in point, she quoted Jane Henley, CEO of the World Green Building Council, by saying even modest improvements to employee health and productivity attributable to the selection of healthful building materials can have a dramatic impact on organizational profitability. From this perspective, healthy building products are not only good for people but good for the balance sheet as well. 
It is important to note the place of material health within the overall context of sustainable building. Material health is but one slice of a larger pie that also includes renewable energy, water stewardship, material revitalization, and social responsibility. The selection of green products has evolved from a time when aesthetics and cost were the principal factors influencing choice, to later when LEED and recycled content were dominant considerations, to today when material chemistry has come to the forefront in our decision-making. 
So, what are the resources at our disposal inside the product transparency toolbox? 
Wanda described a few of the certification tools available for our use. Each of these evaluate the health of building materials by inventorying their ingredients, screening those ingredients, assessing their risks to human health and the environment, and optimizing those with healthful attributes. Wanda summarized these programs as follows: 
  • The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is an independently certified and registered life cycle assessment that quantifies the environmental impact of a product. EPD declarations include information on the environmental impact of raw materials acquisition, energy use and efficiency, and materials chemistry and content. In a nutshell, EPDs describe the effect a product has upon the Earth. LEED awards one point for using at least twenty permanently installed products sourced from at least five different manufacturers that meet EPD declarations conforming to specific disclosure criteria. 
  • Declare is a product labeling program that relies on the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) “Red List” as its primary basis for material evaluation. In creating a Declare label for a product, a manufacturer must disclose all of that product’s constituent chemicals to the designated 100 parts per million (ppm) threshold. There are three compliance levels, which are: 1) LBC Red List free, meaning the product is free of all Red List ingredients; 2) LBC compliant, meaning the product contains some chemicals the ILFI has designated as Red List exceptions; and 3) Declared, meaning the product is not compliant. The Red List represents “worst in class” materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem. These ingredients include alkylphenols, asbestos, BPA, lead, mercury, PCBs, phthalates, PVC, and VOCs (in wet-applied products). 
  • The Health Product Declaration (HPD) is a standard format for transparent disclosure of building product ingredients and associated hazards. An ad hoc, multidisciplinary industry group developed the system with the objective of establishing a standard format to report building product content and associated health information. HPDs are not third-party certified, and do not include optimization or risk assessment; they are merely inventory of the product’s constituent chemistry and its attendant impact on human health. 
  • The Cradle to Cradle Certified program is a third-party eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and future life cycles. It requires an optimization plan to remove harmful materials and practices from the product. Additionally, it is a multi-attribute certification, considering material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. Like the ILFI’s Declare program, Cradle to Cradle also includes a list of banned ingredients or products.
Any one of these product transparency tools may help ensure a project meets sustainability goals by helping us align our product selections with the project’s requirements. In some respects, their output is analogous to the nutrition labels we find on every package of processed food we purchase. 

An example of a Declare "nutrition label."
Nutrition labels on food packaging empower consumers to make healthier and more informed food choices. Of course, the standardized nutrition facts panel on food packaging has its share of critics, who argue it has been ineffective in improving public health and that a one-size-fits-all approach to labeling fails to address the varied dietary needs of different people. Their most damning arguments may be that food labels are too simplistic and therefore meaningless, utilize flawed metrics, and ultimately fail to address the vast complexity of the relationship between humans and their food. It hasn’t helped that nutrition science has proven so uncertain (Is dietary fat good for us or not? What about cholesterol?). 

Are the comparable building material evaluation tools and resources likewise unsound in fundamental ways? 

Some might suggest the real impetus for the trend toward environmental product declarations is a desire to minimize manufacturers’ product liability. Full disclosure does shift a substantial portion of the burden for awareness of the risks for using a particular construction material to the designer or specifier. That being said, architects have always shouldered this responsibility to a large degree. I’m inclined to believe the industry’s motivation for developing the various product transparency programs is first and foremost founded upon the desire to provide conscientious designers and building owners with an objective means to evaluate the healthfulness of manufactured building materials. By doing so, they have done all of us a great service and contributed toward our collective wellbeing. 

Most architects have welcomed the wealth of green building materials standards in recent decades. On the other hand, their proliferation does present us with challenges. Which standards, materials disclosure programs, and certifications are: a) most effective; and b) simplest to understand and implement? So far, I’ve avoided taking the necessary time to educate myself about how to objectively evaluate more healthful, earth-friendly materials technology. Clearly, this has been irresponsible of me. Architects undoubtedly must bear the burden of being informed and upholding the best interests of not only our clients but also our planet. My takeaway from Wanda’s visit with us is the necessity of being as knowledgeable as possible and becoming a change catalyst. There’s a clear path from education to influence I need to follow if I am to truly fulfill my public obligation as an architect. We can and must design for positive cause and effect. 

Big thanks to Wanda for taking the time to join us for our May chapter dinner and meeting!

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