Tom Lent, the Vision 2020 chair for Materials + Products, is the policy director for the
Healthy Building Network (HBN), which provides information on market and political trends that define the
green building movement. HBN works with builders, designers, facility planners, and product manufacturers to promote healthy buildings through increased product transparency and reduced use of toxic chemicals in building products, and as policy director, Lent was instrumental in developing the Pharos Project, an online evaluation tool and catalog for building material content. The project’s goal is linked closely with HBN’s overall mission to move the construction industry market toward products that are superior from an environmental, health, and social justice standpoint.
How has your background brought you to this point?
I’ve been involved in some kind of environmental work all of my life. That interest developed pretty early on. My first couple of decades were in
energy efficiency and renewables work, some of it on climate change. A lot was with buildings, but not exclusively. I also did some policy work—even a stint with Greenpeace on
climate change, which was a very interesting way to look at the world.
I’ve been working on policy and technical issues for HBN since 2001. HBN started with a relatively narrow focus: identifying chemicals of concern to move them out of production. One of our early efforts was to get the arsenic out of pressure-treated wood. It was a pretty successful campaign that moved the industry to safer alternatives.
What did you, and HBN, do to follow that?
As we continued from that perspective we realized it wasn’t always quite that simple, and that it’s easy to make “regrettable substitutions” where you get rid of one nasty chemical and there are plenty more evil chemicals waiting to replace it, and if you don’t take a more holistic view you can end up moving from one health hazard to another. It’s a big problem and a significant challenge because information about the health hazards of the ingredients that we use in building materials is widely scattered and tends to be buried in scientific journals and arcane government lists that aren’t easily accessible or well-translated to the building designer, who is not a chemist or toxicologist [nor] has the time or billable hours to do the research. So it’s not very easy to make wise choices as a designer or contractor.
We’ve shifted course from our “chemical of the week” type of approach to a more deliberate analytic approach. We’re working now to compile all of the information about what’s in products, and all of the authoritative housing list information and scientific information about what the hazards are, and trying to scale those to create tools to help people make reasoned choices and move toward inherently safer products. That’s the Pharos Project, and the Health Product Declaration that
Nadav Malin wrote about. His article was excellent.
For a long time, LEED has been fairly quiet on materials. But LEED is now taking a much more aggressive stance on health issues, even beyond [HBN’s] particular expertise of materials. They’re looking at health and materials in the built environment, and more broadly beyond that, to walkable communities and things like that. The USGBC Health Summit that I’ll be at is to solicit input about what we should be doing about issues involving health.
What do you, and HBN, hope to accomplish in 2013?
The major focus for us is figuring out how to support this growing interest in materials and health. We’ve been working on the Pharos Project to create tools that help building project teams make wise selections. The challenge is to scale that up—we’re got a relatively modest number of products now, but we’ve got big users, like Google, and the drive that’s going to come out of the [next generation of]
LEED credits, that will create interest in expanding that to the whole building and to a much larger spectrum of products.
This whole concern around health and materials, which has been small scale, is about to become large scale—it’s no longer just a few concerned people, and now everyone who will be looking to get another LEED credit will be interested. So there will be more people with less expertise and a much larger number of products, as well as manufacturers and project teams all trying to understand this field and get the information they need on these products.
We’re working with Google and USGBC, Cradle-to-Cradle, the Product Information Institute, and several other partners, first to do some harmonization amongst the parties that are working on it and then to figure out how to scale up the level of information available, both educationally and in terms of the tools to actually make [product] selections quickly.
Will HBN attempt to list all of these materials and products?
Yes. There’s a large cataloging process for products and for ingredients and all the health hazards. Think of it in two groupings, along with the product content information. We’ve got to catalog and bring them together, then digest that down into actionable user information. It’s an ambitious task.
What obstacles do you foresee?
In addition to scaling and creating systems to manage scale, there are several “biggest” challenges. One is concerns about intellectual property—manufacturers are not accustomed to sharing all of the contents of their products. There’s tension between that and [our] having to know what the content is and being able to assess whether it is hazardous or not. Pharos is not designed to be a “sworn to secrecy” intermediary doing non-disclosure agreements. It’s totally open. But I think the areas where there is competitive advantage are much narrower that the industry thinks, and there are ways around that.
What opportunities do you see?
What we’re finding is that, as we bring this conversation out there, opportunities for cross-fertilization and innovation are getting lost in the secrecy argument. So we’re starting to get the word out to industry about where the challenges are, and we have new opportunities for innovators to come forward with new ideas, whether it’s new chemistry or new design that may solve this.
Going forward, what are you and HPN hoping to accomplish?
If you extrapolate from what we’re doing now, the grand vision is that every product designer has all the information they need to make smart decisions about which products are inherently safer, and they all become toxicologists. My goal goes beyond that to embedding the decision-making where it belongs—up in the DNA of the product designers and beyond them the chemical designers.
What we’re really doing is creating a signal that goes up the products’ supply chain, to make it a second-nature part of how building products, and the rest of the products we use in society for that matter, get designed so that these considerations of inherent safety to humans in the environment is built into the way people design them. It may take a while, but we’re on the road already.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.