Slogging Through the First Season of Transparency

Bill Walsh - April 2, 2012

Mud season has just passed in Vermont. That is the time of year when our pastoral dirt roads, frozen since last November, begin to thaw, from the top down. The frozen underlayer traps the water above, creating mud. Deep, sticky, Prius-swallowing mud. To traverse our "dirt" roads in March you need the right equipment: a four-wheel drive vehicle and high rubber boots, just in case. Otherwise, you will get stuck, wreck your car, and probably your shoes too.

This year's annual slog got me thinking that as the long freeze on information about the ingredients in our building products lifts, we might face the paradox of a muddy road to transparency. Initially, it could be tough going for those who are not prepared for the disruptive impact this newly disclosed information will have on the current landscape of product certifications and LEED credits.

Join HBN discussions about disclosure and transparency at these upcoming events:

AIA COTE Forum, NYC -- 4/3/12

Gulf Coast Green 2012, Houston -- 5/1/12

Living Future 2012, Portland -- 5/2/12 - 5/4/12

Some have already encountered this demanding environment in the Living Building Challenge (LBC) with its Red List of materials prerequisites; the innovative materials credits in the Green Guide for Health Care, carried forward into LEED for Healthcare; and in LEED Pilot Credits for avoiding chemicals of concern. I have heard estimates that materials research on some LBC projects are 8-10 hours per product category. Those were roads less travelled, trail-breaking routes taken by the most adventurous practitioners who adapted their practice to the tougher terrain, see, for example, the Perkins +Will Precautionary List.

Soon, to be competitive, every participant in the green building market will need to adapt: to LEED 2012 credits incentivizing product ingredient disclosure and toxic chemical avoidance; to the Health Product Declaration (HPD) now in pilot with 30 participating manufacturers and 50 endorsing organizations from all over the green building landscape; to Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) quantifying resource inputs to materials manufacturing.

Building owners and their tenants are taking us down these roads. Increasingly, the end user expects not only that a green building is a healthy building for occupants (Why are chemicals avoided in healthy hospitals used in classrooms?), but also that manufacturers will be willing and transparent partners.

Amanda Kaminsky, who represents The Durst Organization, an influential New York City building owner-operator, said of the HPD Pilot Project: "Durst strives to create the highest quality environment for tenants. The deep manufacturer dialogue initiated by the HPD Pilot Project provides a unique opportunity for us to 1) better understand how a current menu of building products can best contribute to this effort now, and 2) exchange feedback with manufacturers to continually optimize product ingredients for both health and performance as we progress."

Google has emerged as one of the green building industry's most influential owner-operators, building or renovating some 40,000 sq feet of real estate per month using a chemical and materials "Red List" that is even larger than the LBC Red List or Perkins + Will Precautionary List. The company dedicates a large team to aggressive materials research in an effort to create competitive advantage by offering eco-savvy employees and recruits not only the healthiest and highest performing workplace possible, but also pride in the values of a company committed to shrinking the global footprint of their building specs. The Googlish scale of their ambition in the building industry (Remember the Alta Vista search engine? Neither do I.) is evidenced by the title of an April 3rd forum hosted by AIA COTE in New York: Healing the Supply Chain: The Google Story. [Full disclosure: I am a speaker on this panel along with Anthony Ravitz who leads the Green Team within Google's Real Estate & Work Place Services group, and Susan Kaplan, Director of Specifications and Sustainability at HLW International.]

The key to success in transitional times such as mud season is to be prepared and have the right equipment. At the Healthy Building Network, we've been preparing for the information thaw, and invite you to join us in upcoming webinars that will show you how the recent upgrades to the Pharos System can help you keep pace with the most demanding clients. Google uses the Pharos Chemical and Material Library to look up the hazards associated with thousands of chemicals found in building products, and you can too. In more familiar terrain, you can accelerate your product evaluations by reviewing hundreds of products in the Pharos Building Product Library, comparing the standards behind various product certification labels, and saving and sharing firm or project materials lists.

Last year, HBN began partnering with GreenSpec, the most reliable source of independent analysis and product recommendations we could find. GreenSpec, like the "I'm feeling lucky button" in your Google search engine (type in GreenSpec and try it!) will get you right to the products they've selected in a given product category. You won't even get your boots muddy.


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