As founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network (HBN), Bill Walsh has proven that he not only has vision, but that he is more than willing to do something about it. Since its inception in 2000, Walsh and HBN have made their marks in the green building industry. Among their many accomplishments—establishing green building guidelines for health care facilities; demonstrating well-built and green modular homes to the affordable housing market in the Gulf States region; and developing Pharos, the first online evaluation tool for building materials.
But like any true visionary, Walsh remains focused on what’s next, and perhaps more important, how we can get there. Looking toward 2020, Walsh feels there is one thing that will push the building products field forward—and that’s information.
“The age of digital information will dominate the building products field, and [there will be] much more content information,” Walsh says. “What are very complicated tasks now will really be refined and very use-friendly by 2020 so people will be able to get information that is important to them, in the format that works for them, and on a device that is useful to them. I have no doubt that it will be just as easy to find out everything you need to know about a building product as it is to make your own airline reservations today.”
What’s even better is that he sees the information moving far beyond the basic chemical information we are still trying to access today. Specifically, Walsh believes information such as end of life prospects for materials, the natural resource point of extraction, and even conflict minerals will all being available. “We are focused on health right now, but I think by 2020, we will see that social equity issues will be just as prominent,” he says.
Walsh believes that the digital nature of this information will allow it to be embedded into design tool software so that it will be right at the designer’s fingertips. It will also help streamline the entire green building product development cycle, ensuring that the actual execution meets the goals of the original specification. “It’s really difficult to ensure that what you have on site actually meets the originally spec, especially if the original spec was very rigorous,” Walsh says. “When substitutions come into play, it can be very challenging.”
However, Walsh feels that digital platforms will allow people to complete tasks like cataloging batch numbers, pre-approving substitution lists from an environmental and health perspective, and tracking materials from specification to installation on a common platform.
He also expects that there will be an industry and societal coalescence around chemicals that should be reduced and avoided in general use. In fact, he sees building materials following a similar framework as the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program used for pesticides. As with IPM, Walsh sees the building industry using toxic chemicals only for situations where there are no benign approaches. “There will be a bias against them,” he says.
This will also lead to an increased uptake of the precautionary principle, he adds. “I think we are going to see a much more mature use of the chemicals rather than indiscriminate use of the chemicals,” Walsh says. “Overall, toxic chemical use will decline by 2020 in building products.”
The big question, of course, is how do we get there? First, Walsh says there needs to be a standard format for reporting building material content information. Although he hopes that format is found in Health Product Declarations, Walsh says the key is to have a platform that is open and available to everyone within the green building industry, including manufacturers.
He also feels that health needs to be synonymous with green. “A building shouldn’t be considered a green building unless it’s a healthy building,” Walsh says.
Defining a “healthy building,” however, will require the industry to formulate a health footprint for buildings—a concept similar to the energy footprints that exist today. “Right now, too often, the health side of the equation looks only at the occupant health,” Walsh says. “But a green building should not have materials that might be benign to the occupant but were made by slave labor in China or are based on conflict minerals from the Congo.”
At the end of the day, Walsh feels there is no doubt the future of green building will be based on transparency, not only in terms of the materials and resources used to build homes, but also in business practices and company ethics. “Smart companies realize we’ve entered this new age,” he says. “It’s not something you want to be reacting to—it’s something you want to have in the core competencies of your company.”