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Tools for Green Building Better Data Is the Key to Sustainable Construction

In a perfect world, all buildings would be sustainable and made of materials that foster good health and have minimal impact on the environment.

In the real world, project teams often lack some of the key tools to do so–not the building products themselves, but rather accurate and accessible data about these products.

Although the green building movement has made significant progress in bringing concepts such as local sourcing, use of recycled materials and product data transparency to the forefront, selecting the best materials for the built environment can still be pretty confusing. There are millions of building products on the market, but no central database that curates all of the relevant data on these products for project teams to effectively use for comparisons and decision-making.

Teams frequently end up creating their own private databases to store all this information and documentation. Meanwhile, product manufacturers opt into a multitude of product certifications and green labels–all with different metrics and data formats. Some address health impacts, while others focus on environmental impacts or produce simple ratings that oversimplify sustainability. This further complicates the decision-making process for project teams and presents a huge barrier to enabling a combined performance and sustainability-based decision-making approach.

Motivated by the conviction that information is power and could empower builders, the Quartz Project team, which consisted of members from Flux, Google, Healthy Building Network, and thinkstep, spent the past year researching and modeling both the environmental and health impacts of 100 of the most commonly used building products. The result is the Quartz Project, a collaborative open data initiative that contains information on a range of products from flooring to engineered bamboo, particle board and steel cables. Quartz is free and open for any individual or firm to use as baseline metrics.

The information is presented in a consistent and easy-to-understand way. Every product listed in the database has information on general composition, along with health hazard screening results and life cycle assessment impact results. This makes it easy to compare, analyze and aggregate metrics for products across a range of factors from potential developmental hazard to ozone depletion potential. By addressing the same set of impacts to both human health and the environment in every product, The Quartz Project strives to bring a comprehensive and informative benchmarking sustainability data to an industry that’s long lacked this sort of consistency. The openness of the data also can help builders and designers see beyond individual product components to get the big picture on the sustainability profile of entire buildings or communities.

Today, Quartz has an unprecedented ability to collect, interpret and share large volumes of data. Quartz is making it easy for builders to gain a baseline understanding of building products and make informed decisions about the products they use to meet their sustainability goals. Likewise, building product manufacturers will have a better understanding of how their products compare to others on the market and should be encouraged to make better, safer products.

Ultimately, these critical data tools will foster better collaboration to develop solutions beyond what a single business could do on its own. Open databases can be powerful because there are no limits to how the data is used or by whom.

The Quartz Project is a collaboration of a group of businesses and nonprofits that are all interested in advancing green building practices. The Quartz database currently includes 101 products to browse and download.

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