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Julie Noblitt headshot

New Database Identifies Non-Toxic, Low Carbon Building Materials


“Think beyond your silo. In a world where everything is connected, we need to be too.” –Joel Makower at Verge 2015

What if you were in charge retrofitting the buildings in your company’s massive campus with a mission from your CEO to extend the life of those who work in those buildings by thirty years? That was the challenge in front of Drew Wenzel of Google’s Campus Design Team five years ago. Today, that challenge has resulted in a new resource aimed at making it faster, easier, and cheaper to identify non-toxic, lower-carbon-impact building materials. Quartz is a brand-new, open source database for the AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) industry that includes health and sustainability data for more than 100 different building materials. Created by a unique collaboration between Flux, Google, HBN (Healthy Building Network) and thinkstep, Wenzel and development partners Larry Kilroy, Vivian Dien, and Heather Gaddinoix hope that free access to this data will help building designers and owners incorporate health and sustainability considerations into their building projects much earlier in the design process. For the first time, both life cycle impact and health hazard data are integrated into an open database. I had a chance to sit down with team in charge of creating Quartz in advance of Verge 2015, where the new database was announced in a press release last month in San Jose, California (October 26 – 29).

“All-hands-on-deck” approach

Wenzel, who has been in charge of retrofitting buildings on the Google campuses to meet new needs, found that way too much labor was required in order to conduct basic assessments of the environmental and health impacts of building materials (think, chemical composition of steel beams, doors, and concrete). The data he needed was in too many places, in too many disparate formats. “We were looking into the same materials over and over again, using a lot of resources and not learning a whole lot each time,” Wenzel told me. He needed a better way to get early stage information on health and environmental data to make better decisions at the conceptual stage, at order of magnitude level. A problem this complex required a new approach, one the team hopes will be replicated more often throughout the industry. “We needed an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to solving these problems,” Larry Kilroy of the Healthy Buildings Network commented during our discussion. “We need health people working with technology people working with LCA [Life Cycle Analysis] people. We will get better at solving problems if we get together in non-traditional collaborations like this one.”

Transparent, brand-agnostic information

The database contains rich details on each type of material, relieving project managers of the onerous task of painstakingly mining innumerable material safety data sheets for the information they need. The data is brand-agnostic – that is, it won’t help you pick what brand to buy, but it will help you decide what kind of material your flooring should be made of and why. All data is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Here is an example a profile you will find:

Collaborative model for data curation

The data curation and augmentation plan has yet to emerge, but the Quartz team hopes that the database will grow and improve through collective contributions from the industry. It will be interesting to see whether people do build out this data as the Quartz team hopes. The problem of curation and vetting of the data seemed to be a concern among those assembled at the Verge session where the team presented the Quartz database. That left me wondering: Can building material data follow a “Wikipedia” model where knowledgeable members co-create a valuable body of data? It will be fascinating to see whether the members of this industry will take up the challenge of online collaboration. In the meantime, Quartz has provided the opening bid with an impressive foundation of data. Check out the Quartz database and let the team know what you think by emailing them at the addresses provided on the site (yes, you get to correspond with real human beings, not a database!). Even better, add some data and help create something that makes a real difference in the health and welfare of everyone who spends time indoors and out.   Image credits: Used with permission of Flux.io.
Julie Noblitt headshotJulie Noblitt

Julie Noblitt is a social enterprise strategist, tech-for-social-good geek, writer, and community manager pursuing her MBA at Presidio Graduate School for Sustainable Management in San Francisco.

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