April 22, 2013
By Kirk Teske, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, Principal, HKS Chief Sustainability Officer, HKS, Inc.

"Architects have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals." That provocative statement was made by a physician, Dr. Claudia Miller, an assistant dean at the University of Texas School of Medicine at a panel discussion I moderated on healthy building materials during our second annual firm-wide Green Week.

At Green Week, more than 800 HKS employees heard from nationally recognized leaders, discussing topics ranging from the impacts of LEED v4 to the latest in energy modeling software. The panel featured a powerhouse line-up including the aforementioned Dr. Miller; Jason McClennan, founder and creator of the Living Building Challenge and CEO of the International Living Future Institute; Bill Walsh, executive director of the Healthy Building Network and Howard Williams, vice president at Construction Specialties, a global building materials supplier.

The panelists – a designer, physician, manufacturer, sustainability activist and a building certification creator – come from different fields, skill sets and perspectives, yet their interrelated knowledge and collective purpose to call for cooperation and transparency from building product manufacturers is exactly the type of collaborative action our industry needs to shift the building materials paradigm from translucent to transparent, and from toxic to healthy.

What Dr. Miller suggests is that architects and designers can leverage their specification power to transform the building product marketplace. Since they, like medical professionals, have a duty to protect the public, they have the right to know what’s in the products they specify and have the duty to select those that minimize impact on the environment and the people who occupy the spaces they create. Doctors can treat only one patient at a time, Miller explained, and architects specifying environmentally responsible products are helping safeguard the health of a far greater number of people.

McClennan, an architect himself and author of the Living Building Challenge’s chemicals Red List, empathized with designers who want to do the right thing, yet are daunted by the obstacle of sorting through volumes of lists, varying standards, certifications, materials evaluations and possible greenwashing. “The reality of all of this must seem overwhelming to an architect on a deadline – you shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to specify healthy building products,” said McClennan. “The paradigm is backward. We shouldn’t have to go out of our way to specify healthy building materials. The opposite should be true.”

Williams chimed in, noting that architects and specifiers have numerous resources at their disposal to ascertain which ingredients should be avoided without having to fully grasp the science, including The Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project with its comprehensive chemicals library of more than 22,000 materials profiled; the EPA BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) 4.0 software and the S.I.N. (Substitute It Now) List, an NGO-driven project based in Sweden to speed up the transition to a toxic-free world.

Walsh noted how the volunteers of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative are working to remedy this challenge with their HPD Open Standard, a universal format that systemizes reporting language to enable transparent disclosure of building product content and associated health information. The Collaborative is comprised of a group of green building industry leaders who spent a year developing the Standard, which launched last November.

Last December, HKS sent an open letter to manufacturers requesting that they disclose the chemical contents in their products through the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Since then, several other firms have issued similar letters and the marketplace is taking notice. They are reaching out to learn more about our goals.

The panel spent some time discussing concerns over VOCs, halogenated flame retardants and chlorine-based plastics. Walsh explained, “… we’re very early in the science of chemical impact, and the unknowns of the multigenerational impact of chemical exposure on people, but sunlight is the best disinfectant. We’re working toward a labeling-and-certification program that fully aligns with other systems, like the Living Building Challenge,” said Walsh.

On the manufacturing side, Williams says that while the chemicals industry has been reluctant to open up, there’s good reason for optimism, given the growing sentiment for greater ingredient transparency in all we consume and use from all sectors – architects and designers, companies demanding green office space, policymakers, health and green advocates and, most important, consumers. “I’ve had some extremely positive conversations with CEOs – there’s a noticeable market shift here and in Europe, especially in retail,” said Williams, who noted that progressive companies such as Google do not allow their workplaces to include substances on the LBC’s Red List. Williams’ company recognized early the advantage disclosing the chemicals in its products.

The panelists agreed that progress toward improved transparency is being made. The power that architects and specifiers hold will compel more rapid change. Consumer demand, and a holistic approach to the issue among those who are pressing for ingredients disclosure, and manufacturers who have the answers, or are struggling to get the answers from their supply chain.

Architects have the power and, from my point of view, the responsibility to seek out and specify healthier building materials – it’s our fundamental responsibility as design professionals to do so. Simply put, 21st century buildings must advocate beyond energy conservation and address the long-term well-being of people and the environment.

For more information, contact Kirk Teske at kteske@hksinc.com and @KirkTeske on Twitter.

Posted in Green Places
Tagged benefits of a healthy work environment, Bill Walsh, Claudia Miller, Health Product Declaration (HPD), healthy building materials, Jason McClennan, Kirk Teske, Living Building Challenge