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The Designer’s Dilemma

Addressing the need for greater transparency, an A&D firm created a proprietary rating system to help practitioners identify truly environmentally friendly products.

By Steve Maynard

Addressing the need for greater transparency, an A&D firm created a proprietary rating system to help practitioners identify truly environmentally friendly products.

Project designers regularly face the difficult task of selecting from thousands of products based on their reported attributes. Whether designing a LEED project or simply needing to know what resources are healthy for patients, most of the information designers find about the sustainability of a product comes from manufacturers.

Even if the manufacturer does not "greenwash" the literature, it is unlikely that sustainable information will come in the same form for different products. For example, one manufacturer will give information on the location of manufacturing facilities and recycled content, while another will provide information on sustainable forestry. This makes the challenge of comparing products particularly difficult as designers struggle to gain basic knowledge of sustainability.

While a growing number of standards and rating systems address the environmental characteristics of products and materials, WHR Architects felt the need to complement available data with its own system—to provide more detailed information on building materials, ensure rating consistency, and address the risk of greenwashing.

WHR has long engaged in sustainable building practices, assisting clients in making choices to reduce the environmental impact and cost of their health care facilities and operations. WHR's team of 47 LEED Accredited Professionals coordinates sustainable design throughout the project production and construction process. They have developed a unique set of sustainable design strategies, with processes for measurement and accountability, including how to make the best environmental choice when it comes to selecting building materials.

In order to address the designers' conundrum of multiple product comparisons, WHR set up its own proprietary Product Sustainability Rating System©, which provides an easily legible, consistent measure for sustainable products. The system (or "label") puts the burden on manufacturers to complete a 47-question online survey about their products. The responses are fed into a database and then given a score in seven categories of sustainable criteria. Answers are scored by auto population and are printed out on a label that is then attached to binders in WHR's product library.

The questionnaire was developed to be specific to the needs of WHR's client types—particularly health care, education, science and technology—and is designed to obtain a broad range of sustainable criteria in the following categories: Air Quality, Material Reuse, Material Content, Energy Use, Durability/Maintenance, Environmental Impact, and Corporate Leadership.

The questions not only cover information that would help designers on LEED projects—like recycled content and certified wood content—but go beyond those requirements to give designers a robust understanding of a product's true sustainable qualities. Because each manufacturer is asked the same questions and the scoring is always the same, the system quickly provides a way to measure products next to each other, without having to be an expert on sustainable materials.

The tool is also helpful for clients as they make critical decisions between different products. The different attributes allow them to prioritize what categories are important to them. For instance, air quality and durability/maintenance are particularly important to health care clients, yet balancing product sustainability with maintenance and durability—preserving the environmental benefits of selected products while making sure they are cost effective—can be challenging.

WHR has seen many side benefits to implementing the system as well. Manufacturers are increasingly aware of what WHR is looking for in products and often ask what they can do to make their products more sustainable. One manufacturer claimed that this was "the most comprehensive questionnaire of any firm in the U.S.," and has asked WHR to participate in the development of new products.

Although there are outside systems available for product evaluation, the Product Sustainability Rating System has been beneficial in that WHR can use its relationship with product representatives to get information on the products they use most frequently; and the questionnaire is designed to tailor the information for its clients/project types.

Interestingly, because the WHR library is open to the public, product reps can easily see how their products rank against the competition when they are updating their catalogues. Outside systems such as Pharos are also used to supplement information provided by the internal system, giving designers an even more robust set of tools at their disposal.

The database is an on-going project, with products rated as they are selected for projects. So far, the 10-month-old database contains about 200 of WHR's most used products, but the firm's sustainability team hopes to incorporate more and more products from their in-house library, which contains thousands. For example, designers are now asked to input all interior finishes for new projects to be evaluated. (A test case—an approximately 300,000-square-foot project in Connecticut that is targeting LEED Gold—is using the Product Sustainability Rating System to help the design team evaluate interior finishes.)

Steve Maynard, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, an associate with WHR, serves as sustainability coordinator and as the USGBC project team administrator for LEED projects. A major proponent of WHR's sustainable initiatives and an advocate of ecological and sustainable design issues, Maynard has worked on many of WHR's LEED and sustainably designed projects. His background in design and architecture enables him to work collaboratively with design team members to deliver large, technologically and programmatically complex projects.

WHR Architects is a full service architecture, interior design and technology planning firm. The organization's commitment to critical thinking is balanced by an ingrained empathy that results in both improved project outcomes and positive working experiences for its clients. For more information, visit