Google is among a growing group of corporate clients, manufacturers, and architects and designers that is pushing for healthier building materials. The company requires its North American building-material suppliers to submit product ingredient information through the Healthy Building Network's open-source Pharos Project.
Google is among a growing group of corporate clients, manufacturers, and architects and designers that is pushing for healthier building materials. The company requires its North American building-material suppliers to submit product ingredient information through the Healthy Building Network's open-source Pharos Project.
With less than a month remaining until the culmination of what my co-conspirator Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, has coined LEEDGAIT—LEED Green Associate Intensive Training—it’s time to admit that our studying has been anything but intensive. I blame it on Breaking Bad, the need to sleep, and, of course, other assignments. Because this week we’re talking about transparency.
Among the “other assignments” was the task of covering a panel Wednesday on healthy building materials hosted by the International Interior Design Association at office-furniture manufacturer Teknion’s New York showroom. The panelists were Tracy Backus, Teknion’s director of sustainability programs; Molly Zinzi, a facilities manager at Google; and Nadav Malin, president at BuildingGreen.
The focus: the design and manufacturing industries’ growing acceptance of third-party disclosure standards and organizations, such as the Health Product Declaration Open Standard, the Pharos Project, the Living Building Challenge with its Red List of unsustainable materials and chemicals, and the Declare product label and database
The discussion—while relevant as more architects require manufacturers to disclose what’s in their products—moved quickly to a sore subject: cost, which is spread along the entire supply chain. To facilitate disclosure, manufacturers must integrate vertically by producing more of the components in their products, or work with parts suppliers who are willing and ready to share their ingredient lists and make real-time changes to meet an increasingly stringent set of sustainability specs. Architects and specifiers must spend more time researching suppliers and learning which multi-syllable chemicals are suitable for indoor use under the various standards. Finally, end-users who care about what goes into their spaces need to make this clear at the project’s kick-off and push their architects to push their suppliers to do the same.
If only it were that easy. While the Health Product Declaration and its group of industry sponsors has emerged as an early leader and collaborator, respectively, among the existing third-party product certification options, it relies on grassroots support for implementation.
Still, the disclosures are gaining traction among high-profile design firms—particularly those that can afford to be a little choosier in the projects they take on—and high-profile clients (leaders in buzzword industries with brands that already incorporate an ethos of sustainability). Zinzi noted that Google’s internal Healthy Materials Program will vet a combined 6,400 products from 2,000 manufacturers to meet the company’s sustainability standards; of that number, 5,000 products have been either approved or not approved (she couldn’t go into the details). Support for these initiatives among the company’s C-Suite is partly to credit for their success, she said, adding that co-founder and CEO Larry Page can occasionally be spotted walking Google’s well-ventilated halls with a VOC meter in hand.
“We understand we’re in a unique position to move the needle,” Zinzi said to the audience of architects and designers. “If you think you’re challenging manufacturers, we are really challenging manufacturers.”
While government agencies such as the General Services Administration are pushing for greener building envelopes and interiors, the private sector will likely provide leverage needed to drive these programs into the mainstream. That’s not only because companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard boast ample—and mounting—square footage, but also because of the products they design and manufacture are used in growing numbers in commercial spaces nationwide. Zinzi told the audience that 80 percent of Google’s facilities in operation globally meet Living Building Challenge requirements.
Architecture firms such as Perkins+Will, SmithGroup, and Cannon Design also are pushing for increased building-product transparency by taking a harder line on submittals and decision-making related to sustainable materials. HKS leads the movement. We reported earlier this month that the Dallas-based firm was the first to issue a formal letter asking manufacturers to provide official material documentation. (Read HKS’s letter and those from other firms that followed suite on GreenWizard.)
Among manufacturers, Interface has been the darling of material transparency since the carpet maker announced its Mission Zero plan in 2006, which included a focus on increased transparency via environmental products declarations and health product declarations. Other higher-end manufacturers, such as Teknion, are also poised to jump in, Backus told the audience—if the market generates sufficient demand. “As a manufacturer, it’s a sales opportunity,” she said. The company owns 80 percent of its supply chain, she said, which includes just about everything that goes into its furniture systems but the lighting and fabric.
Material transparency is working its way into LEED, too. Version 4 includes more detailed requirements for materials and resources, including the acceptance of HPDs in cases such as material-ingredient reporting in new construction. But the question of how lower-profile firms and clients can join in without breaking the bank remains largely unresolved. So we’re putting it to you: Tell us how your operations handle material transparency, be it through manufacture, consumption, specification, or advising. Take the six-question survey below.
Look for the results next week, when Deane will get back to LEED with his thoughts on the Regional Priority category and what he’s learned so far. Keep sending your questions, comments, and arguments for building material transparency to, @halliebusta, or @deane_madsen. Missed last week’s post? Read it here.
[Note: We’re still working on hearing from the USGBC as to how new or reconfigured LEED concepts in the forthcoming v4 update will manifest in the Green Associate exam. Stay tuned.]

Image courtesy of Flickr user brionv via a Creative Commons license.