We can move markets

An Investigation in Materials from Perpetual Motion, an installation by Studio Dessuant Bone for the Biennale Interieur 2016, Kortrijk, Belgium. Photo: Courtesy of Studio Dessuant Bone

The more you probe the design process, the more you discover that, though architects and designers have access to a lot of information on the building products they select, they generally know little about the constituent chemistry of these materials. With food or personal care products, by contrast, detailed ingredient disclosure is common, likely influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions. These disclosures over the past several decades have changed buying patterns and created major market segments. While some shoppers blissfully load their cart with peanut butter containing 25 ingredients, others make the informed choice of a product made from just two: peanuts and salt. Both products are perfectly legal, but consumers can at least make a choice based on useful information.

Happily, we have been steadily moving into a building-product economy where designers will have this kind of information and will be able to add it into the complex calculus that is product selection. We can see examples in the industry where shining a bright light on problematic, even hazardous, substances has led the market to change in favor of greener chemistry.

Look at the now-historic example of formaldehyde in insulation. In June 2001, the newly published LEED version 2 flagged urea-formaldehyde in composite wood and Agrifiber products as a substance of concern. Interestingly, this was the first substance specifically identified within LEED for a phaseout related to installer and occupant heath. It led to designers and specifiers paying more attention to formaldehyde in its many uses in building products. In 2003, the Green Guide for Health Care introduced a credit for the use of formaldehyde-free insulation products. By 2007, when the Living Building Challenge Red List targeted added formaldehyde in all building products, many designers and specifiers were already searching for alternative products free of this known human toxicant. By 2013, the early drafts of LEED version 4 began to address a wider range of formaldehyde avoidance, specifically related to insulation.

The response from the market was swift. In 2015, when the Healthy Building Network surveyed formaldehyde releases from domestic residential insulation factories, they saw a precipitous decline in releases by 90 percent between 2005 and 2014. In the absence of state or federal regulation, the correspondence of toxicants being designed out of building products with designers taking interest in avoiding specific hazardous substances represents a virtuous cycle that can be accelerated through material ingredient disclosure.

The cycle of product chemistry improvement runs through several specific steps: inventory (what’s in it?), screening (what hazards are associated with those ingredients?), assessment (where are the greatest opportunities for improvement?), and optimization (how do we develop better products for the market?). Of these steps, designers are most interested in information associated with inventory and screening. This is where the Health Product Declaration (HPD) comes in. Developed in 2011 as an open standard, HPD provides a format for manufacturers to communicate a product’s chemical constituents and associated hazards. While designers can use this information to shun certain hazards — such as formaldehyde — these disclosures, more important, provide an impetus for manufacturers to reformulate their products in light of public disclosure by competitors using cleaner chemistry.

All of us can remember specific health hazards being designed out of our lives through consumer action — individual shoppers making choices one at a time: nitrites in processed meats, trans fat in prepared foods, volatile organic compounds in paint, phthalates in children’s toys, or bisphenol A (BPA) in water bottles. Informed designers armed with disclosure documentation can provoke the same kinds of reforms to building products, leading to the day when we can easily design a building free of phthalates, halogenated flame retardants, BPA, or formaldehyde, to name a few of the most notorious. That day will come when the power of transparency definitively alters the building materials market.

A fundamental difference between this transition and those under way in other parts of the economy is one of our leverage as designers and specifiers. In a $10 million project, we may be specifying $6 million worth of building materials, perhaps more. Our reach is significant. By insisting on the universal use of HPDs and other disclosure tools, we can change the industry where we have the most impact.

This essay was originally part of a ten-part series, published by Architecture Boston called “Turning Points,” which celebrated the problem-solving capacity of design.

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