Building Industry Goes Phototropic


Like plants growing toward sunlight, designers are reaching for a way to illuminate the unseen health hazards and environmental footprint of building materials.

By Nadav Malin


In 2013, 30 major architecture firms sent letters to all their material suppliers demanding transparency. “We need to know what’s in the products we’re specifying,” claims Russell Perry, FAIA, director of SmithGroupJJR’s Washington, D.C. office. “Our clients have a right to know these things and I’d like to help them find out,” he adds.

As a board member of the newly formed Health Product Declaration Collaborative, Perry was impressed by a letter sent out by the Dallas-based firm HKS, so he called on sustainable design leaders from other architecture firms to write similar letters, threatening to eventually ban products without content disclosures from their material libraries and educational programs.

After joining Perry’s letter-writing campaign, Rand Ekman of CannonDesign in Chicago heard from suppliers who needed help understanding what was behind this new demand and how exactly they should comply. In response, Ekman invited manufacturers to meet with designers from his firm and others for “an open conversation about how manufacturing and design professionals can partner in this endeavor.” The face-to-face meetings created a lot of good will by demystifying the content disclosure process and revealing ways manufacturers could be supported while making the changes needed to comply. Inspired by Ekman’s success, other firms replicated that model in Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

It wasn’t only demand from large firms that motivated product manufacturers to divulge the make-up of their products, however. Public comment drafts of LEED v4 beginning early in 2012 included a new credit encouraging the disclosure of a product’s chemical constituents and health hazards. When the new credit was formally adopted as part of LEED v4 in November 2013, USGBC put some additional muscle behind the burgeoning transparency campaign.

Deep Roots

The push for transparency in building products has a deep-rooted history. Its origins can be traced back to a number of sources, including:


  • The seminal cradle-to-cradle framework developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. cradle-to-cradle calls for all materials to be recyclable endlessly, either through composting as “biological nutrients” or in industry as “technical nutrients.” This goal requires the elimination of toxic substances from both nutrient cycles.
  • Hazard-avoidance credits in the Green Guide for Healthcare, which were subsequently adopted into LEED in a modified form. These credits focus primarily on mercury and other heavy metals.
  • The proliferation of ingredient “red lists” or substances to be avoided within specific programs. The best known example is the Living Building Challenge’s red list, which most project teams find to be the most demanding requirement of the very rigorous program. The design firm Perkins + Will has also been a leader in this area, posting its “Precautionary List” of substances that are to be avoided if possible ( The shift from a list of banned ingredients to wholesale disclosure of what a product is made of is welcomed by leading manufacturers because it provides them with an opportunity to engage their customer in a more collaborative conversation about product choices.
  • Demand from a few influential companies, most notably Google, that directed designers working on their projects to find out what’s in the products they’re specifying and eliminate certain substances.
  • The experience of product researchers at my own firm, BuildingGreen, who struggled for years to obtain the information needed to factor health and ecological toxicity concerns in our GreenSpec screening. This frustration led us to collaborate with the nonprofit Healthy Building Network to create the Health Product Declaration Open Standard.

More than Ingredients

Transparency isn’t just about ingredients—it’s also about the environmental footprint of a product in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and resource depletion. For many years now, some companies have been using environmental life-cycle assessment (LCA) to inform their product development efforts, but until we have consistent rules for what to include in the scope of those LCAs and how to report the results, it’s not possible to compare products on that basis.

The environmental product declaration (EPD) format aims to address those problems by providing a consistent reporting framework for life-cycle assessments that are completed in conformance with standard product category rules, so all products are measured using the same assumptions. The new LEED v4 rating system introduces a new credit for products that come with EPDs.

In Europe, government agencies help manage the environmental product declaration rules, ensuring that there is only one set of rules for each product category. There is no similar government function in North America; however, some competing sets of product category rules have started to emerge, which defeats the goal of creating a level playing field. In partnership with UL Environment, USGBC has stepped in to identify the most robust and consistent rules and to endorse the EPDs that comply with those rules. While some industry players—especially those who backed alternative category rules—are unhappy about USGBC picking winners in this way, it does help prevent chaos in the marketplace.

Choking on Alphabet Soup

The alphabet soup of new reporting formats is not easy, even for the most dedicated specifier, much less designers and contractors with many other priorities. And each new label or declaration represents added paperwork for manufacturers, who are already overwhelmed by the load: “When I hire a person now, it’s for documentation—it’s not to make the product better. That’s a travesty,” says Steven Kooy, global sustainability manager for the office furniture company Haworth.

To avoid scaring off mainstream designers and contractors, the industry must move quickly toward a single, integrated product declaration format that includes content from EPDs, HPDs, as well as information on the impacts of resources extraction and habitat disruption, which are much harder to measure and thus not captured effectively by current reporting mechanisms.

Such an integrated label could, in theory, also incorporate metrics on the social fairness of product. Of mainstream North American players, only the International Living Future Institute has tried to tackle that aspect of a product’s impacts with its “Just” label.

Transparency Everywhere

The building industry is not alone in moving toward being transparent about the make-up of its products. There are parallel initiatives in automotive and electronics—although most of these programs provide information within the supply chain, stopping short of the end user.

No doubt, barriers do still remain. There are still real and perceived concerns about divulging trade secrets and potential liability that comes with more awareness about hazards in the products we sell, specify, and install. However, these obstacles are no threat to the momentum that has been created. Keeping specifiers in the dark about potential health and environmental impacts is no longer the acceptable default. By letting the sun shine on what’s truly inside the products we use, we’ll all be better off