For decades, sustainability has aimed to balance people, planet, and profits to develop positive, responsible real estate – even as the means and methods to get there have evolved. We have seen sweeping changes in site design, indoor air quality, and energy efficiency. And now we face the next frontier: building materials.

Professionals in wide ranging fields like architecture, development, human resources, and engineering are being called upon to revolutionize how building materials and chemicals are used in the built environment. Thanks to better and increased demand for data, transparency is the biggest trend in the green building certification systems, whether it is in chemical content, embedded energy, or emissions from materials. Architects, developers, and building operators should be ready to provide details about building materials including their environmental impact, and the chemical composition and its impacts on indoor air quality.

We are already seeing greater transparency about building materials from brands including Walmart, Apple, BMW, Kaiser Permanente, IKEA, H&M, Nike, Staples, PUMA, and Levis, which are making efforts to reduce toxic materials from their manufacturing and office locations.

What building materials details should be disclosed?

There have been several major research studies on building materials, including the WHO study on Public Health Impacts of Chemicals, which assessed the risks of chemical exposures. The study identified ten chemicals that pose major public health concerns, and several of them are frequently found in building materials including formaldehyde, perfluorinated compounds, phthalates, and PBDEs.

This study (supplemented by additional major international studies related to health goals in the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN) clearly demonstrates growing global concerns about the known and unknown impacts of chemicals in the environments where we live and work.

Architects, developers, vendors, and building owners are expected to answer questions about the products used in their buildings such as:

  • Do you have transparency reports (EPD, HPD, Declare, etc.)?
  • Do you have VOC emissions tests?
  • Where is your product sourced and manufactured?
  • Where do your raw ingredients come from?
  • Are you working on any improvements?
  • Have you compared yourself against your competition?

These questions tie into corporate reporting frameworks such as the GRI, and real estate reporting frameworks like GRESB.

Examples of successful implementation of these principles in building design

The Frick Environmental Center

Frick Environmental Center building materials
Frick Environmental Center exterior

I had the pleasure of visiting The Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh, PA during the International Living Product Expo. This project is pursuing Living Building Challenge certification, which requires all the materials used in its construction to be Red List free. The Red List identifies chemicals that are potentially harmful to humans and the environment, and the list was developed from chemical hazard lists published by government agencies, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), European Union Commission on Environment (European Commissioner for the Environment), and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.  (https://living-future.org/lbc/materials-petal/) Ensuring that all building materials are excluded from The Red List is challenging because of the numerous building components, but The Frick Environmental Center proves that it is possible through careful selection and appropriate guidelines.

The Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes

Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, exterior building materials
Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, exterior
Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes building materials
Example of indoor signage

The Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes, Pittsburgh, PA (Living Building Challenge, Sites, LEED, WELL)

Another successful example of a building that has already vetted its building materials through third-party rating systems is the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, which is one of the greenest buildings in the world. By focusing on healthy materials and holistic design, The Phipps Center achieved the pinnacle of green design by exceeding regulatory requirements for building materials and chemicals; and outperforming the requirements for LEED, Living Building Challenge, Sites, and WELL.

So where do you start if you want to choose healthy materials? New sources of product transparency declarations and information have emerged in the past few years, and more are being proposed. There are a variety of excellent resources and databases for you to start with on products:

I for one am excited about the greater demand for transparency because transparency and interactions with consumers lead to innovation. Materials transparency represents opportunities for design innovation, competitive advantage, scientific excellence, and environmental and human health leadership. Whether you care about excellence in building operations, wellness, or environmental health and safety, materials are an important part of making tangible progress on your goals, and the better material choices you make today will help everyone breathe easier tomorrow.

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