Material Transparency, part one

Material Transparency

As the days go by, the global movement towards transparency gains steady momentum. In the design and construction world, the 2012 GreenBuild conference saw the launch of the Health Product Declaration format, the launch of the eagerly-awaited Declare format, and Rick Fedrizzi's spirited defense of practitioners' need to know what chemical exposure comes with material choices.

The Health Product Declaration Open Standard, developed by the HPD Collaborative, provides a standardized format for manufacturers to document and disclose building product content. The HPD can be used as a stand-alone disclosure tool in communications with customers, as a core document in support of Environmental Product Declarations, and as documentation for one of the new LEED V4 MR credits. It is designed to work with multiple reporting formats, such as Declare, developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

Declare is an elegant material documentation label, a product “nutrition label," aligned with the Red List and Appropriate Sourcing Imperatives of the Living Building Challenge. By focusing on a specific list of chemicals that are forbidden from use in Living Building Challenge projects, the “Red List," the ILFI has moved this conversation to the forefront of sustainable design practice.

For years, many have tried various strategies to acquire and manage data on the attributes of building materials. In the end, many of these efforts have been thwarted by the sheer magnitude of the assignment, the rapid pace of change, inability to acquire reliable data, incomplete information, and both blatant and subtle greenwashing. Even when manufacturers have been willing to disclose the contents of their products, their communication with designers and building owners has been hampered by the daunting variety of formats in which the available data has been transmitted. Many industrial partners have defaulted to the Material Safety Data Sheet, a regulated but inadequate format whose primary 

purpose is to document the emissions from manufacturing, not the shipped contents at all. Cooperative manufacturers have filled out endless uniquely-formatted questionnaires from those in the A+D community who have asked for transparency.

Lack of consistent oversight or third-party verification of these reports has led to thoroughly-documented and admirable performance being discounted when compared to selective documentation from competitors. The incentives for disclosure have been a questionable proposition at times. These new disclosure tools have already generated interest in third-party certification, both within and independent of Environmental Product Declarations. This should help develop an even playing field and reward the best efforts of industry leaders.

Yet, it will take years for the full suite of building materials to be fully documented so that design professionals can go directly to aggregated data bases, such as Declare or others that will most certainly pop up in response to the data imperative. Meanwhile, multiple players in the AEC world will continue to chase down the illusive information on product chemical composition. Firms will continue to aggregate their own material data, in their own formats, at huge expense of time and effort. In the past, they've held such research very closely, sharing it only internally, fearing loss of competitive advantage or exposure to some sort of undefined liability associated with documenting the research.

Imagine the wasted effort of vast numbers of project teams duplicating this effort and not sharing the results of their research. Imagine the advances that could be made if the time wasted could be directed instead to the purpose of designing and building higher-performance environments.

Should there be a collective effort to share the -illusive information on product chemical composition? See "Material Transparency" part 2.