The Living Building Challenge, Materials Petal, calls for Red List-compliant materials, which we detailed in a previous entry. However, as a refresher: Red List guides sustainable building teams in choosing the right products for healthy buildings, taking both inhabitants and environmental protection into consideration. Each material purchased for a job-site contains a material safety data sheet (MSDS), and, on the MSDS, we find the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) numbers associated with each chemical contained in that specific product. Our team has been diligent in making sure all products chosen do not contain any Red List chemicals.

At times, this can prove a daunting challenge, but it leads to a greater good in the end—product transparency and market change. Part of our due diligence, per the LBC, is to write to different manufacturers who do contain Red List chemicals without offering an alternative. The LBC hopes that, with enough transparency, the field will see a great change in the array of products on offer. The LBC’s guidelines to design/construction teams have made it the only green-building standard that holds a stringent set of compliance rules—that is, until now.

During GreenBuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans, the U.S. Green Building Council announced that it will focus on a new LEED c4 credit that encourages and rewards project teams for selecting sustainable and environmentally conscious products. In order to implement this new credit, the Supply Chain Optimization Working Group was formed, approved by the USGBC’s LEED Steering Committee, and launched with the support of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). With building product manufacturers, chemical suppliers, raw materials producers as well as design teams, academics and government agencies on the USGBC staff, momentum is building, as others seek to join (VI—the Vinyl Institute—is the most recent to partner, announcing last week that it will work with the group). The upshot? These changes will help manufacturers in reformulating their products for the construction and design of green buildings.

Crucially, the Materials and Resources (MRc) section lets project teams seek new credits, aiming for greater transparency by reporting on product content. This information, in relation to Credit 115 “allows for a project to be awarded up to two points if conforming products are used.” The first point is obtained provided that 20 products employed on a project come from manufacturers who have produced chemical inventories for those said products. Products from various programs manufacturers already in existence may be used to meet this requirement, the most famous being Health Product Declaration (HPD).

Additionally, the group seeks to advance the LEED v4 Materials and Resources (MR) credit, which encourages using products and materials with provision for life-cycle information (those with environmentally, economically and socially preferred life-cycle impact). Manufacturers of these types of products also will be rewarded, as the group focuses, as well, on methods of developing options within the credit down the line.

HPDs are simple are straightforward in conception, and the steps are simple:

  • Manufacturers go online and provide information about their products
  • An online tool outputs and inventories the products in question
  • In accordance to the HPD Open Standard chemical ingredient information with known hazards, a cross-reference is performed

A secondary point may be obtained through this credit with regard to 1.) The use of a certain percentage of products with ingredients inventoried via HPD (with certain “safe” levels of various third-party certification programs), or 2.) Through the use of products from manufacturers with third-party verification of their supply chains, addressing safe-ingredient handling and reporting procedures.

However, though this is straightforward, HPDs make many uneasy for a few (understandable) reasons. Information overload is a fear, as architects feel it is not in their purview to inspect and then scrutinize the minutiae of each chemical ingredient. Also, pure chemical-ingredient reporting can mislead: Most notably, a harmless compound may contain some chemicals within it that are not permissible. Beyond that, there are concerns over the future maintenance and dispensation of this information in future. Most pertinently, who will regulate, amend and keep tabs on its currency?

The size of a company is also at issue. Manufactures can pursue HPD products for free, but the submission of this information requires expertise that many companies, smaller in scope, may not have. So many third-party groups, already, are being hired by manufacturers to complete HPDs, which often means that this includes the option to certify them. Ultimately, manufacturers may be pressured into third-party certification. There is a cost associated with ingredient-verification: ensuring that ingredients are within the safe levels identified by the programs outlined under this LEED MR Credit creates worries that demand will grow beyond the free, one-point reporting option. Projects may begin seeking products with verified safe-ingredient lists that seek to earn the second point as well. Lastly, company management is a problem: What is involved in the identification procedures at these third-parties? What is the science underpinning the procedures, and further, where is the transparency (a primary concern at the outset)?

So, where does that leave us? The subject itself is still abstruse, and requires some digestion. Product industries are still in the information-gathering phase, learning about the proper requirements as determined by LEED, and what the transparencies entail. One industry applies the LEED provisions faithfully, but many manufacturers now pursue HPDs on an independent track. It is certain that, in the coming days, product-ingredient transparency will merely become a more crucial goal to meet, and a more difficult demand for some to satisfy.