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A (Pre)Cautionary Tale About Buildings and Food

As the global building materials system becomes more complex, it is becoming harder to determine the ecological and health consequences of specifying certain products. It’s time to rethink our materials paradigm.

By Robin Guenther, FAIA and Peter Syrett, AIA

As the global building materials system becomes more complex, it is becoming harder to determine the ecological and health consequences of specifying certain products. It’s time to rethink our materials paradigm.

What do building materials and food have in common? Over the last century, food has transformed from something that is grown and harvested into something that is manufactured to last longer, look better, and allow for consistent production on a massive scale—a global, industrial food system. Building materials share this evolutionary trend. Today, building materials are no longer quarried, harvested or gathered from nature; they are formulated, engineered and extruded in factories—a global, industrial building materials system. At the same time, growing awareness of material science and indoor air quality—and its impact on occupant and community health— is placing designers and specifiers in the industrial building materials marketplace at increasing risk, with little guidance and few navigational tools to assist in evaluating material choices.

The State of Material Knowledge and Science
In the pre-industrial era, when buildings were built from our surroundings, designers understood what materials were and where they came from. The ridge beam of a barn came from a nearby forest, a cathedral’s stone was quarried within walking distance of where it was set, and house paint was a mixture of cow’s milk, crushed limestone and pigments from local clay pits. People saw the entire life-cycle of a material from its extraction to disposal. Composite materials (like house paint) had relatively simple formulations. It wasn’t an idyllic world—toxins like lead were commonly used—but it was a transparent world. These days, building material sourcing is much more complex and opaque—designers and manufacturers are confronted with complex chemistry, global supply chains, and an evolving understanding of the environmental, health and social justice issues surrounding manufacture.

Unlike food, which is required to label its ingredients and health profile, building products’ composition and health profile information is hard to find. Product composition disclosure is at the discretion of the manufacturer, and what a manufacturer knows about the components that make up their product is often at the discretion of its suppliers. The layers of opacity can be very deep. This has created a situation where no one really knows what contemporary buildings are made of, much less the ecological and human health consequences of this paradigm.

Research on the ecological and health effects of building materials is nascent, but the public health community has begun to focus attention on this issue. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) established that “there is now sufficient evidence from studies in humans to show that individuals with higher measures of exposure to formaldehyde are at increased risk for certain types of rare cancers.” Formaldehyde is a chemical that is widely used in building materials such as composite wood products, plastics, synthetic fibers and textile finishes.

The broader medical community is growing more aware and concerned about ecological and human health consequences of building material production and use. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that its 60,000 pediatricians familiarize themselves with the potential adverse health effects of chemicals in the environment. In June 2010, Environment and Human Health Inc. (EHHI), a non-profit organization of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts, released a report entitled “LEED Certification: Where Energy Efficiency Collides with Human Health.” According to the lead author, John Wargo, Ph.D., professor of risk analysis and environmental policy at Yale University, “Even the [United States Green Building] Council’s most prestigious Platinum award does little to ensure that hazardous chemicals are kept out of certified buildings.” Perhaps in response to this, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) recently launched a series of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Pilot Credits aimed at substitution of worst-in-class chemicals in a range of interior and exterior materials. This follows on the Living Building Challenge Red List, which targets 25 substances for elimination from building materials.

On a global level, the United Nations Environmental Programme released a study in 2010 linking climate change and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found in some building materials such as polyvinyl chloride. POPs have been connected to endocrine disruption, reproductive and immune systems illnesses, neurobehavioral disorders and cancers. Summarizing the study’s findings, Katarína Magulová, programme officer of the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention, said that “climate change increases the planet’s vulnerability to persistent organic pollutants by increasing emissions and the bio-availability of POPs, and thus the potential for bio-magnification through the food chain, one of the chief pathways of human exposure to POPs.”

Many of these chemicals not only pollute the environment, but have adverse affects on indoor air quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that “many indoor environments have higher pollutant levels of two to five times higher, and occasionally more than 100 times higher than outdoors levels due to occupant activities, building materials and ambient conditions.” This is especially disturbing since, according to the EPA, North Americans spend 90 percent of their lives indoors. A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report titled “Disparities and Inequalities” found that “among the approximately 110 million housing units in the United States, approximately 23.4 million are considered unhealthy” due to toxins and other environmental pollutants.

The Market Response
In the face of these growing concerns, market response is building through a number of programs and initiatives. For building products manufacturers, certification systems such as Cradle to Cradle are “certifying” environmental performance, including toxic chemical reduction, while maintaining product content confidentiality. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools, now rapidly developing, are attempting to assess multiple product impacts, but have been unable to find reliable data on chemical hazards to integrate in these tools. Pharos, the Healthy Building Network’s product assessment database, offers a numeric product scoring system on a range of environmental and health criteria that requires manufacturers to disclose product ingredients.

Material Rules
Developed by Robin Guenther and Tom Lent (with acknowledgement to Michael Pollan)

  • If they won’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want what’s in it
  • Consult your nose—if it stinks, don’t use it
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean building products should
  • If it starts as hazardous waste, you probably don’t want it in your house
  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden (externalized) costs
  • Question the generation of hazardous waste instead of where to use it in your building
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not
  • Question materials that make health claims
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can
  • Pay more, use less
  • Regard “space-age” materials with skepticism


Individual lists of high hazard substances have emerged. The Living Building Challenge Red List includes a list of chemicals to avoid as well as a “watch list” to raise awareness. Last year, the International Living Building Institute announced a DECLARE label, which product manufacturers can use to “declare” the contents of their red list-ready products. The USGBC, in LEED for Healthcare and the Pilot Library, has launched a series of chemical avoidance credits based on the EPA’s list of Chemicals of High Concern. Perkins+Will developed The Precautionary List, which includes 25 substances found in building products for which substitution is warranted. All these “list initiatives” require manufacturers to disclose product composition.

While all these initiatives are positive steps forward, they are all geared to finding the “least bad” alternative from a presumably problematic range of options. In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Bill McDonough poses a greater challenge: “To be less bad is to accept things as they are, to believe that poorly designed, dishonorable systems are the best humans can do.” Is there another way to transform the materials system?

Rethinking our Materials Paradigm
In Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman challenges us to demand “radical transparency” in all products. He calls on consumers (in this case, designers) to demand to know the hidden social, environmental and health impacts of products. He defines Swarm Rules to guide our transformation: first, know your impacts; next, favor improvement; finally, share what you learn. He believes that we can train ourselves to think differently—to develop an innate flight instinct when confronted by a shampoo that contains methylparaben or a garden chair made with endangered tropical wood, for instance. The question is, how?

Can we radically transform our global materials economy at the scale of the local and sustainable food revolution? Environmental scholar David Orr writes, “The sustainability revolution is nothing less than a rethinking and remaking of our role in the natural world. It is a recalibration of human intentions to coincide with the way the biophysical world works.” Can we imagine a materials economy that recalibrates around simple principles of sustainability and health?

At Living Future 2010, Perkins+Will teamed with the Healthy Building Network to develop and present this challenge to the audience: how does the design industry develop the innate flight instinct that Goleman believes is required to shift the building materials economy? Are there lessons this industry can learn from the sustainable food movement? One answer is to develop and learn a new set of Material Rules, just as Michael Pollan has introduced a generation to Food Rules. The initial list of 12 rules, developed for the session, is presented at left in the hope that this transformative journey can begin. The time is now for a new relationship between the built environment and the natural world, and transforming our building products is an important step in reaching that goal.


Robin Guenther, FAIA, LEED AP is a principal and sustainable healthcare design leader with Perkins+Will. Guenther was the principal author of the Green Guide for Health Care; she is currently working with the U.S. Green Building Council to create the LEED for Healthcare Reference Guide.

Peter Syrett, AIA, LEED AP is the New York K-12 education market leader for Perkins+Will. His expertise focuses on sustainable institutional projects, specifically K-12 and healthcare work. He lectures regularly on green institutional design and is a recognized expert in the field.