While millions of building products and materials are marketed and sold each day, the people most involved in selecting them for projects – architects, designers, contractors and others – remain largely in the dark about their chemical makeup and effects on occupants and the environment.
Phthalates (commonly used in vinyl flooring and wall coverings), flame retardants (prevalent in foam, plastic and furniture) and other toxins are present in the most common building components. Each has proven to be harmful to human health.
Yet today, many manufacturers do not disclose the ingredients they use, making it difficult for building-industry professionals to help discern bad options from healthier ones. Considering that the average building is comprised of thousands of products, each with a different chemical composition, product specification has become increasingly complex.
In 2015, ZGF architect Melissa Balestri, along with then-ZGF colleague Ed Clark and former ZGFer Chris Hellstern, founded the Healthy Materials Collaborative (HMC) in Seattle to address a knowledge gap in the local architecture, engineering and construction industry (AEC) community. By educating members about industry-recognized chemicals of concern, teaching them methods of evaluating products and working with manufacturers to help establish sustainability priorities, the aim is to create market change locally, regionally and nationally.
The HMC and its members pool learnings, ideas, resources and their collective passions to curb the health and environmental impacts of building materials.
The HMC counts 115 Seattle design professionals from 50 different firms among its ranks, including architects, interior designers, specifiers, owners, sustainability consultants, educators, contractors and an attorney.
For established practitioners, the HMC provides pre-built tools and checklists to make product vetting less time-intensive. For smaller firms with fewer resources, HMC removes barriers to entry through knowledge sharing and support.
Members of the HMC host monthly meetings and co-organize events like the “Green Your Specs” workshops and happy hours to inform the design, vetting and specification processes. Each of these workshops offer attendees a crash course in digital tools and strategies. Also featured are one-on-one consultations with other architects, specifiers, and sustainability consultants.
Lack of disclosure standards
Today, there remains no single standard to measure a building’s toxicity and environmental impact.
While many industries are required to disclose the makeup of the products they sell – the FDA’s Nutrition Facts label requirement is an example we encounter each day – no such disclosure requirement exists for the building industry. The lack of regulations, combined with inconsistent product disclosure practices, has put the onus on the AEC community to exert market pressure on manufacturers and vendors.
Since its founding, HMC members have advocated for greater materials transparency. Shifting the building industry toward the use of healthier, more sustainable materials, they encourage project teams to consider the human and environmental costs of the supply chain.
Newer certification programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED v4 and the Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge incentivizing healthier materials through design credits, but determining which materials comply with what standard remains challenging. HMC attempts to bridge the knowledge gap by inviting competing firms to the same table to pursue a common goal.
By empowering practitioners to more readily vet building products, reduced health impacts can be achieved for building occupants, the people constructing the buildings, the people manufacturing the materials, and the people reusing and disposing the material.
Benefits that go beyond
Along with reduced health and environmental impacts across the building supply chain, using healthier and more sustainable building components can launch new industries and spur economic activity.
Shifting the building industry toward less toxic materials like cross-laminated timber – coupled with new efforts to manufacture this responsibly-sourced material locally – carries the dual promise of rural economic development and environmental resilience for future generations.
Environmental and social sustainability impacts
On average, Americans spend 90 percent of the day indoors, where the concentration of pollutants is between two and five times greater than the levels encountered outdoors, according to the EPA.
Many building products are manufactured in disadvantaged communities, where the health and environmental burdens of industrial activity often fall on residents. Examples include Seattle’s Greater Duwamish industrial land – a couple of miles from the ZGF Seattle office – that has been designated as an EPA Superfund site with dangerous levels of PCBs, arsenic and numerous carcinogens, that originated from a variety of sources. These include industrial shipping, PCBs from paint and sealant in the storm water runoff, and manufacturing facilities (such as those making hardware and rebar). Areas along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, dubbed “Cancer Alley,” is home to more than 150 plants and refineries, including those operated by the most prominent building-materials manufacturers. In both regions, industrial activity is curtailing the lifespans of residents living nearby.
Promoting product transparency and the use of healthier, more sustainable materials can reduce the health impacts on affected communities, thereby promoting social equity.
With healthier products, building occupants breathe cleaner air and the impacts of manufacturing are reduced. And when buildings inevitably meet the wrecking ball decades after opening, their components can more readily be integrated into new buildings.
Below is a half-sheet reference developed by the HMC to aid practitioners in their pursuit of materials transparency goals and education.