By Kate Ziele
Kate is a Project Management & LEED Intern at Verdical Group, assisting our Project Management team with project research, analysis, and certification documentation. She is a student at UCLA pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science with a concentration in Environmental Systems & Society, as well as a Minor in Geographic Information Systems & Technology (GIS&T). She holds her LEED Green Associate credential and is actively involved with USGBC-LA.
The average person (understandably) does not give much thought to building materials — as long as those materials provide shelter from the elements and look aesthetically pleasing, all is well. However, let’s challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the materials that surround us, Let’s look beyond the colors and textures and instead focus on the ingredients of those products, the manufacturing process that goes into creating those materials, the impacts of its use and disposal.
Is your pretty eggshell paint off-gassing harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)? Was the wood in your floors sustainably harvested? What in the world is insulation made of? Every stage in a product’s life cycle has an impact, whether that be on the environment, human health and wellbeing, or both.
Packaged food from a grocery store is a good comparison for how we should be thinking about our materials. Packaged foods have a complete ingredients list disclosing the components of the food to the consumer and a nutrition label summarizing the impacts the food will have on the consumer’s health. On the environmental side of things, we are frequently reminded of the carbon emissions associated with our food choices, and restaurants such as Panera Bread are even beginning to disclose the carbon footprint of their meals.
Why not expect the same amount of transparency and disclosure from building materials as we do from food? Though it may not seem like we have quite as intimate of a relationship with building products as we do with food, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors, which means we are coming into direct contact with building products nearly all day, everyday.
Thankfully, the green building industry is already very focused on materials transparency and environmental impact, with the goal of transforming the entire market to demand and supply more sustainable products. Here are a few of the largest green building rating systems that advocate for materials transparency:
- LEED devotes an entire credit category to Materials and Resources and prioritizes low-impact materials through the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) credits, the Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction credit, and the Indoor Environmental Quality Low-Emitting Materials credit.
- The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) includes a Materials Petal as one of the seven petals achievable through the Living Building Challenge.
- The WELL Building Standard incorporates Material Transparency as a Feature in one of its seven core concepts.
All of these credits reward materials with verified disclosure documentation. This documentation focuses on disclosing the ingredients and corresponding health impacts of building materials and/or the environmental impacts of the product life cycle. Here are some of the most prevalent certifications used to achieve material transparency and optimization:
- Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is an independently verified document that summarizes the life cycle environmental impacts of products.
- Health Product Declaration (HPD) is a document that discloses the ingredients of products and the associated health impacts that these products have on humans.
- Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certification is a third-party certification that assesses the environmental and social performance of products, ranking them based on material health, material reuse, renewable energy, carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
- Declare label is touted as a nutrition label for products, disclosing material ingredients as well as information about product sourcing and life cycle.
- Manufacturer Inventory is a complete product ingredient inventory published by the manufacturer.
- Low-emitting materials certifications such as FloorScore, Green Label Plus, SCS Indoor Advantage Gold, UL Greenguard Gold, and Berkeley Analytical ClearChem verify the VOC content of products.
The widespread adoption and normalization of materials transparency is just the first step in the march toward a more sustainable, healthy society and a more resilient, circular economy. Ingredient and manufacturing transparency leads to product optimization by manufacturers and pressure from consumers to create environmentally and socially responsible materials. Architects can specify sustainable products with verified transparency documentation. Contractors can install low-impact materials and work to salvage as many building components as possible during demolition. Consumers and building occupants can demand healthier, more environmentally friendly materials, urging manufacturers to disclose product information and pushing the market forward in an entirely beneficial direction.
Every stage in a product’s life cycle has an impact, and it’s in our hands — all of our hands — to minimize that impact. If you’d like to learn more about how you can get started, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.