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The Transparent Revolution

A (quiet) revolution in the building materials industry is slowly peeling back the layers of opacity surrounding these products and helping designers to build healthier spaces.

By Peter Syrett, AIA, LEED AP

A (quiet) revolution in the building materials industry is slowly peeling back the layers of opacity surrounding these products and helping designers to build healthier spaces.

2011 was a year of revolution. Following a wave of protests that swept across the Arab world, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fell dramatically. Angry citizens in Greece and Italy forced the resignation of top officials and pushed the European Union to the brink of chaos, while here in the United States, Occupy Wall Street protestors called for a reworking of our entire financial system to address economic inequality.

All of these events are vivid examples of people collectively demanding that the system change to meet their needs, but not all radical change happens as result of people taking to the streets. Sometimes it happens when people demand to change a fundamental way of life—like how they buy things.

The “buy local” movement is a good example of a radical change in thinking that the environmentalist Bill McKibben has called “a quiet revolution begun by ordinary people with the stuff of our daily lives.” The buy local movement has its limitations, however, because in today’s complex global manufacturing economy not everything can be bought locally or fabricated in one location. Many of our modern materials and products are comprised of multiple ingredients and components that are sourced from all over the world. This means that consumers need another mechanism besides the simple buy local approach to make informed decisions about the potential ecological, social and human health impacts of their purchases. What they need is a more transparent economy.

Marketplace transparency, or “radical transparency” as coined by Daniel Goleman in his 2009 book Ecological Intelligence, removes the barriers to free and easy access to information so that people can understand the ecological impact of their actions. This is drastically changing how business is conducted. In 2011, the best example of this change was not in supermarkets or big box stores, but in the building material and product industry.

According to a 1995 study by Roodman and Lenssen, each year about 3 billion tons of materials are used in the manufacturing of building products worldwide. This equates to about 40-50 percent of the total flow in the global economy. Despite its huge size, the construction material market is largely opaque about material composition. Unlike food and drugs, consumers only know the composition of a building product if the manufacturer is willing to disclose it. There are no regulations that require disclosure of building product content.

In recent years, the general public has become increasingly worried that environmental contaminants may be damaging human health; this has begun the process of peeling back the layers of opacity to slowly reveal more and more information.

The first layer being peeled back is what a product is not, or in other words, what substances of concern are not contained in it. This is the most basic level of transparency. Just like the front of a cereal box that proclaims its contents to be “sugar free,” many manufacturers are labeling their products “PVC free” or “BPA free.” This is helpful information, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what a product is actually made out of.

The second layer being peeled back gives information about how a product may contribute to a green rating system. This level of transparency is analogous to the daily recommended serving on the nutritional label of a cereal box. For example, products are labeled “low VOC” (grams per liter for VOCs are like grams of fat per serving) for the low-emitting material credits under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Like the first layer, this is useful information and is more directed toward human health concerns like indoor air quality, but it still doesn’t tell you what it is.

When the third level of opaqueness is peeled back by a manufacturer, the consumer gets a more detailed understanding of the potential human and ecological impacts of a product, but through the filter of another party. This is often done through a second- or third-party reviewer such as MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle certification. Similar to being certified as an organic food, this type of certification relies on the consumer to trust the certifier, and more importantly to understand what is being certified.

The last layer of opaqueness to be peeled back is the revealing of a product’s composition and ecological footprint directly to the consumer. This means directly and publicly stating what a product is (its composition) and information about its life-cycle. This level of transparency—direct disclosure by a manufacturer—allows a consumer to fully evaluate a product for him or herself.

The strongest and most pointed advocacy for building product transparency has come from within the green building movement. Last June, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) actively began to use its influence to promote building material transparency as a way to better understand and measure the environmental footprint of a project with LEED Pilot Credit 43, which requires project teams to provide documentation that at least 10 percent (by weight) of all nonstructural building products used in a project have either a third-party certification or are compliant with LEED’s list of standards.

Advocacy for building product transparency isn’t limited to the USGBC. The Materials Research Collaborative, a joint initiative of the Healthy Building Network and BuildingGreen, unveiled the Health Product Declaration (HPD) at Greenbuild last October. The HPD is an open standard format that communicates product content and environmental performance with the goal of increasing “the transparency and accuracy of product content and associated health information.” The HPD system makes available key health data about product including the composition, listed in sequence by amount—like a FDA label—to one part per million. The HPD has been endorsed by over 34 design firms, including some of the largest firms in the country. This last fall, the Material Research Collaborative began to sign on manufacturers to start using the Health Product Declarations in 2012.

The testing agency UL Environment (ULE) states on its website that “today’s marketplace demands independently verified environmental claims backed by the highest level of transparency.” To meet this need, ULE launched its environmental product declaration (EPD) program a year ago. ULE’s program is third-party certification based upon ISO 14025 standards, which provides environmental information about a product, including product content in great detail. Like the HPD, the EPD lists a product’s composition in sequence by amount, down to one part per million.

The forward-thinking carpet tile manufacturing company Interface has committed to creating EPDs for its products and revealed its first EPDs this fall at Greenbuild. Interface was joined at the show by another enlightened manufacturer, Construction Specialties, which unveiled the building industry’s first-ever on-product ingredient label. Construction Specialties collaborated with the international design firm Perkins+Will (disclosure: I am an employee of the firm) to develop this label, which gives the complete ingredients of a product, and critical life-cycle and potential human health impact information. Because the product itself is labeled, it differs from the ULE and HPD systems; it allows everybody who handles the product over the course of its life direct access to its human health and ecological information.

The quiet transparency revolution is happening now. A fully transparent building product marketplace now seems inevitable. Naysayers or those who dismiss transparency as a fad should remember the success of Coca-Cola. They have had the ingredients of their “secret formula” listed on the side of their cans since 1913; their profits have risen steadily ever since.


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.