The term “materials transparency” has quickly grown in importance among building owners, developers, design firms and associations based on the industry’s growing ecological concerns.
Simply put, materials transparency requires manufacturers to disclose the content of building products with the goal of creating more sustainable and healthful indoor environments. To meet these objectives, contractors and construction executives will be seeking additional material information and content reports during the specification and construction submittal process.
However, new trends like this often translate into additional risks. Responsibility, unless clearly contracted, is often not readily apparent when products do not work as advertised or cause unexpected negative impacts.
First, both builders and designers should manage the expectations of owners by making it crystal clear that material and health analyses are most often solely based on the information furnished by manufacturers and their suppliers. If owners require further assurances, they should be urged to seek the professional services provided by toxicologists, environmental hygienists or other trained and certified individuals retained directly by the owner.
With that in mind, the role of general contractors in achieving greater materials transparency is essential. Their early involvement and effective communication with owners and design teams are needed to ensure the successful meeting of sustainable material goals.
Information once considered as “trade secrets” is now expected from manufacturers so better and more informed decisions regarding a contractor’s selection can be made. Standard formats like Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs) are (currently) voluntary open standards that help to maximize the disclosure and accuracy of building product data. Designers can then use this information to make informed specification decisions, while they stand to help general contractors demonstrate compliance with environmental and health requirements. A multitude of informational resources have also been created to assist with the detailed information required by EPDs and HPDs. The resource list at the end of this article is a good place to start.
In addition, there are three predominant sustainability certification organizations that are currently evaluating materials and their content. These include the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the International Living Future Institute and the International WELL Building Institute.
USGBC LEED v.4
The USGBC LEED Rating System is the oldest and most widely known standard in the industry. Recently, the organization increased the Material and Resources credit category in its current version of LEED by adding three credits that deal directly with materials transparency. These new credits deal with:
- raw materials sourcing (extraction or manufacture); and
- materials ingredients (chemical makeup).
General contractors can also use a tool called the Building Product Disclosure and Optimization Calculator to track product details.
Living Building Challenge Standard
The Living Building Challenge (LBC), through the Living Building Challenge Standard, has become the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings. It emphasizes a “regenerative design framework to create spaces that give more than they take.”
Organized into seven performance areas, called Petals, the standard seeks to construct buildings that function efficiently like flowers and create a materials economy that is non-toxic, ecologically restorative, transparent and socially equitable. Its Declare Label assists with material composition assessments, while the organization’s transparency platforms and product databases address product origins, composition and disposal, among other criteria. Also included is a Red List of more than 20 toxic materials that are worst in class and prevalent in the building industry. An LBC project cannot contain any Red List materials or chemicals.
WELL Building Standard
The third major organization dealing with materials transparency is the International WELL Building Institute. The WELL Building Standard focuses on improving human health and well-being in buildings and communities as well as eliminating potential environmental hazards. Its Material Transparency Intent requires that at least 50 percent (as measured by cost) of interior finishes and finish materials, furnishings (including workstations) and built-in furniture have some combination of either a Declare Label, a Health Product Declaration or any method accepted in USGBC’s LEED v4 MR credit. The Contractor’s Letter of Assurance addresses the contractor’s compliance.
Risk is inherent with any new initiative. Green building has proven to be no different given the ongoing specification of products designed and promised to promote sustainability and achieve certifications such as the LEED designation.
While product selection is often the design professional’s domain, it is critical for contractors and project owners to thoroughly understand this industry-wide initiative and accept their responsibility in the process. There is no way around it. There is no substitute for knowledge and the resources available to manage risk, exposure and potential liability.
UL Spot (LEED v4, Greenguard Gold, EPDs, Recycled Content)
SCS Global Services Certified Green Products Guide (Recycled Content, EPD’s, FloorScore, Indoor Advantage Gold)
The International EPD System (EPDs)
SmithGroupJJR HPD Library (HPDs)
HPD Public Repository (HPDs)
Declare Database (Declare)
ASTM International EPDs (EPDs)
Air Resources Board (ULEF, NAF)
Giga Base.org (Multiple attributes)
U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)