Transparency in Building Materials
How Architects, Certified Industrial Hygienists, and Manufacturers Inform Client Choice BY CATHERINE BOBENHAUSEN
As a certified industrial hygienist, I was recently asked to contribute to the American Institute of Architects’ Sustainability White Paper, “Materials Transparency and Risk for Architects: An Introduction to Advancing Professional Ethics While Managing Professional Liability Risks.” The AIA White Paper suggests ways that architects can meet their clients’ expectations for more information about what goes into their building products. This interest builds on innovations from the 1990s, such as Hewlett-Packard’s Design for the Environment program, which focuses on optimizing environmentally-related characteristics of its products. Similarly, retailers such as Walmart, Target, and IKEA are addressing concerns about the materials in consumer products by conducting systematic reviews of their supply chains and procurement policies. The AIA White Paper presents materials transparency as a growing opportunity for architects and offers strategies for them to communicate with their clients, modify contract documents, and collaborate with technical experts such as CIHs and toxicologists. The context and background in the white paper will help architects engage intelligently with legal staff and answer questions related to this part of their practice.
As explained in the AIA White Paper, architects have always had a profound connection to the materials they specify—for example, by visiting quarries to select specific stones and accessing product samples to feel the finishes they are considering. Architects typically vet products based on aesthetics, cost, availability, and compatibility, and by asking manufacturers which products hold up better over time, how they reflect or refract light, and how they transmit or block sound.
The AIA concluded that architects must develop a more robust understanding of manufacturing and ingredient sourcing processes, to further inform their choices. In this context, CIHs are viewed by architects as specialized consultants to the architect’s client, the building owner. We are capable of applying our training in the discipline of anticipating, recognizing, evaluating, preventing, and controlling health and safety hazards to the emerging field of product disclosure.
Several building product manufacturers have been engaged in the emerging practice of product disclosure.
CATHERINE BOBENHAUSEN, CIH, CSP, AIHA Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, and Authorized GreenScreen Practitioner, is a Senior Consultant with Colden Corporation. She can be reached at (347) 435-3561 or via email.
THE CIH AND PRODUCT DISCLOSURE As CIHs, we can review disclosure documents and related technical data and assess chemical and physical properties to determine the potential for emissions of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, aerosols, fibers, and dusts. We can translate chemistry into plain English for design professionals, and help owners and contractors understand the potential for building products to cause adverse health effects, odors, or poor air quality.
We can work with contractors to address risk to installers, conduct in-field testing to measure chemical exposures against occupational, environmental, and indoor air quality limits, and keep ourselves fully apprised of relevant publications, such as literature from NIOSH, OSHA, and AIHA.
Several of us are experienced in providing detailed technical reviews of product emissions reports, quality control checks of disclosure documents, and comparative analyses of different building products (acknowledging that information about chemical ingredients is just one aspect of what the architect must consider).
We are also familiar with building certification programs such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design version 4, the Living Building Challenge, and the WELL Building Standard, which have been market drivers for evaluation of product ingredients. For example, LEEDv4 has a material ingredient disclosure option, which gives credit for 20 disclosure statements from at least five suppliers.
Building owners and facility managers have a strong interest in occupants’ perceptions of air quality. Odors, irritation, and the perception of poor air quality can create challenges, even in the absence of adverse health effects. Industrial hygienists can help facility managers communicate risks with building occupants who may have concerns.
One means of providing product disclosure is through use of the Health Product Declaration (HPD), which offers a standardized approach for reporting product contents and the associated chemical hazard information. Another is through the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard. In this case, independent assessments of products are reviewed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. C2CPII certifies products and guides designers and manufacturers through a process of continual improvement, reviewing products across five categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A product receives an achievement level in each category—Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum—with the lowest achievement level representing the product’s overall mark.
A third method of product disclosure is through the International Living Future Institute’s Declare Label program, with the disclosure prepared in most cases by the manufacturer. Declare is also the transparency reporting tool used in ILFI’s Living Building Challenge program and Living Product Challenge program, which seek to encourage innovation in net-positive products for health and the environment. MANUFACTURERS AND PRODUCT DISCLOSURE Several building product manufacturers have been engaged in the emerging practice of product disclosure. One such example is MechoSystems, a manufacturer of window shade systems. MechoSystems has integrated Cradle to Cradle (C2C) principles into its manufacturing process, and engages with the Health Product Declaration Collaborative and International Living Future Institute Declare Label with respect to materials disclosure. MechoSystems also increasingly works with vendors who are knowledgeable and forthcoming about their materials and supply chains.
In 2004, MechoSystems introduced EcoVeil, the first Cradle to Cradle Certified shade cloth. EcoVeil was produced without chemicals that appear on the C2C Banned List. (The Banned List contains chemicals and substances that cannot be included in C2C-certified products above 1,000 ppm due to their persistence and bioaccumulation in the environment or irreversible human health effects.)
The manufacturing challenge was to select a shade cloth that could be handled in the supplier’s extrusion equipment and meet MechoSystem’s expectations for durability, washability, and visual performance. Ultimately, MechoSystems decided that a polyolefin core with a thermoplastic olefin (TPO) jacket was the best candidate, using an extrusion process that coated the yarn. At end of life, the core and jacket-yarn components can be ground and re-polymerized into TPO pellets for use in creating new building products.
Recently, MechoSystems eliminated the need for halogenated flame retardants in a new product line, EcoVeil Sheer, which meets the three-part NFPA 701 vertical-burn test. The company pursued two strategies: either investigate ways to manufacturer a flame-resistant EcoVeil without flame retardants, or use another material. Ultimately, they chose to make the new product from solution-dyed monochromatic 100 percent polyester. This material is more translucent than the opaque EcoVeil shade, making it most suitable to residential/hospitality spaces. MechoSystems continues to engage in design innovation for easy disassembly and recycling, with C2C certification targeted early in the R&D phase. LEARNING FROM HISTORY CIHs provide a pivotal role in this emerging market. We can help inform the client’s choice in the context of what the manufacturer can offer. We often function as a liaison with the manufacturer’s environmental health and safety, regulatory affairs, product stewardship, and R&D departments. We help the client or architect develop a deeper understanding of the composition of the building materials and assemblies, the internal testing and reporting methods, and the options for inherently safer material choices.
This is a watershed moment, when we can learn from our history and avoid repeating it—consider the legacies of lead, asbestos, and PCBs, and the unfortunate delay in understanding their inherent health hazards. With greater disclosure of the content of building products, informed choice is possible.