Architects and Industry Collaborate on Health in the Built Environment

By Bill Shireman, Future 500

Most of us go about our lives without thinking much about the materials that are used to build our homes, offices and schools. But as we learn more about the impact of the built environment, architects, specifiers and scientists are focusing on materials health to ensure buildings not only provide shelter, but are also safe and sustainable.

This pursuit isn’t always easy. Architects and specifiers want detailed information about building materials and product ingredients to determine they are safe and help to meet sustainability goals. Manufacturers and raw material suppliers must meet the demand for green and sustainable materials by innovating to provide architects, specifiers and builders with products they want and need.

Often, these goals are at odds with one another. How can we satisfy architects’, builders’ and designers’ desire to know exactly what chemical ingredients are in their products, while also encouraging innovation?

A panel at Greenbuild 2016 in Los Angeles brought together three experts – one from the chemical industry, one a toxicologist, and one an architect who leads her firm’s sustainability efforts. The three panelists brought starkly differing perspectives to three key issues: ingredient transparency, life cycle analysis and green chemistry. But through their dialogue, they discovered a fundamental consensus: a shared desire to create safe, sustainable, high-performing building materials.

Ingredient transparency

We began by exploring the unprecedented demand for transparency in almost every industry. Public demand and digital technologies have combined to create a proliferation of labeling, online feedback and new certifications in pursuit of total disclosure. Despite all this information, and perhaps because of it, designers and other professionals still find it tough to answer the fundamental question: Is this product safe?

Paula McEvoy, architect and co-director of the Sustainability Design Institute at Perkins + Will, advocated for full transparency. If architects and designers have the right ingredient information, she said, then they can make the right decisions for their clients.

But David Green, manager of applied sustainability at BASF, argued that real transparency is more than just a list of ingredients in a product. He noted that people often don’t know how to interpret those lists because they lack contextual information, like how much of the ingredient is used in the product, the degree to which occupants are exposed to the ingredient, and for how long.

Simply presenting a list of ingredients can create unnecessary confusion, even when an ingredient is safe in its current use and alternatives are untested, he added. In addition, revealing too much information places intellectual property at risk, which can discourage innovation and reduce progress toward better and safer products.

Toxicologist Meg Whittaker, managing director at toxicology risk assessment consulting firm ToxServices, offered a solution: third-party evaluations.

Services like Cradle to Cradle can provide comprehensive hazard and risk assessment, while also protecting a company’s intellectual property. But these services come with a higher price tag, and don’t always deliver the clarity needed. While current tools are imperfect, Whittaker was optimistic for a solution that could provide designers with the transparency they want while keeping intellectual property safe.

All agreed that third party evaluation systems represent today’s best path forward. Could collaboration be the key to developing a system that satisfies all parties?  As Paula McAvoy noted, “It all comes down to trust.”

Life cycle analysis

When it comes to undertaking a life cycle analysis for a particular product or ingredient, the old example comparing an aluminum can, a glass bottle and a plastic bottle illustrates the complexity and confusion that can arise.

Depending on which set of real-world assumptions we use, it’s practically impossible to determine whether an aluminum can, glass bottle or plastic container is the “most sustainable” package. It all depends on a host of dynamic factors: recycling rates, material and energy sources, usage and disposal practices, among others.

Meg Whittaker confirmed that while life cycle methods are improving, we don’t yet have an LCA framework that is satisfying for designers and architects. A life cycle assessment is a system of compromises, since there is no one metric that is better than another.

In the meantime, David Green offered a solution from his work at BASF: Use equivalencies that allow designers and architects to assess which criteria are most valuable to them and their customers. For example: Illustrate reduced carbon emissions by the number of cars effectively removed from the road. McEvoy agreed this would allow designers to understand the impact of a materials choice without getting mired in the technicalities.

Green chemistry

Green chemistry, or chemistry that focuses on minimizing use and generation of hazardous substances, is the next frontier in materials health. Can we make healthier, safer chemicals an across-the-board practice?

David Green said BASF operates on a guiding principle called “verbund,” which loosely means “highly integrated.” Under this principle, material safety is a reflection of a company’s brand and mission. No chemical is perfect in every respect, but through continuous improvements, manufacturers can enhance utility, safety and sustainability.

While this is one great example of green chemistry finding its way to the heart of the building materials industry, Whittaker pointed out that BASF is ahead of many companies in advancing green chemistry, and the time has come for others to step forward with their own green approaches.

McAvoy criticized companies that value short-term shareholder return above long-term environmental and health impacts.

But in Green’s view, the chemical sector is increasingly understanding that being sustainable and environmentally conscious is good for the sector, and, of course, the consumer.

“What we need to do is change the industry,” to let the principles of green chemistry guide its future, Green said near the end of our session. “Work together, talk together and understand our differences to find the best solutions.”

Moving forward

Chemistry is powerful – it brings matter to life and allows us to have shelter, clothing and food. The chemicals sector and sustainability advocates are partners in this path, though they don’t always realize it. Combining the purpose of sustainability with the power of chemistry is necessary for creating a safe, healthy, sustainable built environment.

I’ve begun to see chemistry as a design science fundamental to any vision of a sustainable future, not merely as an outgrowth of the petroleum sector. Chemistry is the art and science of harnessing nature’s potential to deliver the qualities we need, while minimizing negative effects. When we can communicate openly and establish trust, we open doors to new and better ways to create a safe, sustainable and innovative future.

This spring, more than 150 corporate and environmental leaders, green donors and investors will convene in Dallas, Texas, for the Earth Day 50 Challenge, where we will launch a set of initiatives to protect oceans, forests and the climate.  Our focus will be on harnessing chemistry as a solution and will continue the conversation begun at Greenbuild, bringing people from all sides of the sustainability story together to find a way forward and a common vision.

In my 30 years of finding common ground between corporations and activists, I have found that arguments over transparency almost always stem from distrust between the two parties. I hope this dialogue was an important step in helping to build trust, especially as the movement shifts from risk management to enhancing sustainability.

Bill Shireman is the CEO of Future 500.

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