EnvironDesign Notebook: A New Emphasis

With green building on the rise, green chemicals are getting a foothold in today’s designs.

In January 2010, The Wall Street Journal cited a new study predicting that half of non-residential buildings would be green by 2015. Green buildings, which make up about 15 percent of the current building stock, were defined in the study as those that adhere to the LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Rating System—at least in spirit, if not in certification.

As we enter this second decade of the 21st century, we should be encouraged that architecture and design professionals, contractors, communities, governments, and private industry have pursued LEED so consistently—and used it as a platform to take green building from niche to mainstream in a relatively short time. While projects can and do vary in their implementation of LEED, this consistent approach has taught us what to expect of green buildings: energy and water efficiency; sustainable sites; daylighting; and good air quality ... to name a few of the most credit-rich categories.

With increasing confidence and clarity around the rise of green building, perhaps it’s time to revisit the green interior, where a much quieter revolution is attempting to gain a foothold. Materials chemistry, and a deeper understanding of its impacts, may not currently command the same attention as the looming consequences of energy and water consumption, but there are indicators that a new emphasis on the safety of materials has begun.

Progress for healthy interiors came with Indoor Environmental Quality credits within the LEED Rating System, which synthesized an important lesson from the 1970s, when sealing buildings tight to conserve energy also sealed in airborne toxins and resulted in a spike in sick building syndrome. With a synergistic approach to indoor air quality, ventilation, thermal comfort, and energy savings combined in one set of guidelines, LEED gave architects and interior designers a way out of this dilemma. Working with LEED, design professionals have furthered the human health aspect of their projects by specifying paints, adhesives, composite wood, carpet and furniture systems that have low emissions of volatile organic compounds—but only recently have more of these professionals begun to scrutinize these same materials for other restricted substances. It took the draft of LEED for Healthcare for a hard line on chemicals of concern in furniture and medical furnishings to be drawn.

This more robust approach to chemicals—which came out of a collaboration between the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Green Guide for Health Care (GGHC)—lists not just substances that might offgas, but those with potential health impacts in manufacturing, use and disposal. The chemicals of concern listed in the November 2007 draft of LEED for Healthcare and the 2007 Version 2.2 of the GGHC include urea-formaldehyde, heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, lead, antimony), hexavalent chromium in plated finishes, and halogenated compounds (to which chlorinated plastics like PVC and brominated flame retardants like PBDE belong). Even chemicals typically desired for performance attributes—like perfluorinated compounds for stain resistance and antimicrobials for purported infection control—are included with concentration levels to avoid as a way to earn credit in LEED and as self-regulated improvements in GGHC. It should be noted that none of the above chemicals are prohibited in LEED for Healthcare or in GGHC, but screening out one or more of them is rewarded as incremental progress. An organization called Health Care Without Harm has taken this agenda even further, providing tools and resources for environmentally preferable purchasing of alternative materials. Health Care Without Harm also provides an important educational component in its advocacy for a health care environment free of potential harmful ingredients.

It is interesting to look at which aspects of the green movement have been in the spotlight since these guidelines went live in 2007. Gradually, over the last few years, our reliance on fossil fuel and the resulting buildup of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our environment have gone from being understood, as perhaps implicated in climate change, to being indicted as a major cause of global warming. With the possible exception of a rash of stories about BPA (bisphenol A) in polycarbonate water bottles, the last three years have certainly seen more headlines about carbon emissions than endocrine disruptors. While a segment (approximately 16 percent) of the consumer population called LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) have become increasingly concerned in recent years with the accumulation of toxins in our food chain and our own bodies, the average commercial entity is more likely to have had to address their impacts that contribute to global warming, with the greatest impacts coming directly from the energy use of the buildings in which they are housed. Indeed, LEED has shifted its credit distribution to allocate twice as many credits to energy and atmosphere, in a warranted effort to rein in carbon emissions from buildings.

Organizations like the USGBC, Cascadia Region Green Building Council, and Architecture 2030 should be lauded for pouring so much effort into education on the topic of reducing carbon through green building. One wonders what might happen if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took an educational approach to reinvigorate the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

First enacted in 1976 to give the EPA authority to regulate chemicals, TSCA’s language unfortunately guaranteed that a chemical was innocent until proven guilty, with the burden of proof so nearly insurmountable that a toxin like asbestos survived for almost a decade after its carcinogenic affect was known. With aggressive educational outreach, a well-informed public would surely protest this kind of compromise. Watch dog organizations for household toxins, like Environmental Working Group (EWG) or Good Guide, provide this kind of education and drive for transparency in consumer products. By comparison, we have a long way to go in terms of awareness, discovery and replacement of known and potentially harmful substances in our built environments. Until that kind of transparency is up and running for building products, there are experts with strong human health agendas who have the potential to change this situation. Not by coincidence, many of these experts come from the health care side of green building.

For instance, the closest cousin to the kind of consumer advocacy provided by EWG and Good Guide in commercial building is Healthy Building Network (HBN). HBN is closely tied to the health care market, and it has fueled the tremendous progress of a database that will eventually be of great service, not only to that sector, but any type of construction that is intended to support human life. This data base is called The Pharos Project and it is now slowly being populated for a range of building material categories. It will eventually log the human and environmental health criteria pertaining to specific products in an open source format. Pharos recognizes that while eliminating chemicals of concern from products is already a lofty goal, the obstacle to even beginning that process is a lack of transparency; i.e., how does one avoid the use of BPA if there is no requirement to reveal that the product contains BPA? “Transparency first!” is a good battle cry, as it is precisely where much of this process is stymied.

When product development seeks to chart a course that steers clear of various chemicals, it can quickly find that there are too few full disclosures on which to base a direction ... partly because the request for information on chemical constituents has not yet been approached consistently and publicly. It may well be that health care designers and architects will clear up this safety of materials trail for the rest of us, knowing that what provides comfort for susceptible patient populations cannot fail to do the same for the general population—just as green buildings are not only for the Audubon Society. The win-win might ultimately be green buildings that support human and environmental health as the inseparable systems they are.

Carol Derby is the director of environmental strategy for Designtex, a Steelcase company that designs and develops surface materials for commercial interiors. She also serves as the president of the Association for Contract Textiles and is a member of the Joint Committee of the Sustainable Textile Standard, which is currently being developed as an ANSI-certified standard with ACT, GreenBlue and NSF. She can be reached at cderby@dtex.com.