By Jack Stubbs
In cities like Seattle, awareness around sustainable design in the built environment has been increasing over the last several years with the momentum created by initiatives like the Living Building Challenge and the LEED certification that many developers within the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) community strive to achieve.
In the real estate industry, initiatives around product and material transparency began with corporate end users demanding more information about what materials were going into building infrastructure and products, with companies like Google leading the way in the early 2000s. Google’s Healthy Materials Program evaluates all building products and materials through a screening process and uses criteria based on established industry standards to evaluate material transparency.
In 2015, in response to the increasing market demand for healthy materials, product transparency and LEED certification, Google launched Portico, its healthy materials online tool that allows manufacturers to submit product information to get their products approved by Google’s team of architects, contractors and project managers.
And while end users were largely responsible for initial shifts around product and material transparency in the industry, the AEC community, also, is demanding more accountability from those involved in the design and construction process. Within the AEC community, organizations are calling for more accountability from developers, architects, interior designers, contractors and other professionals within the built environment to include more sustainable products in their projects—and to be more transparent about the materials used.
Healthy Materials Collaborative, a Pacific Northwest organization started in 2015, is one such group. The HMC is a organization that advocates for a healthier environment and improved human health through the use of more sustainable materials in the built environment and also provides resources for practitioners and contractors to make buildings healthier for their occupants.
An open-source movement, the HMC is a collaborative effort between a number of industry professionals in Seattle’s AEC community—some of which include AIA Seattle, NBBJ, Olson Kundig, LMN, Weber Thompson, ZGF and Miller Hull—to advocate for more product and material transparency in the built environment. And while the HMC is a locally-based group, trends around sustainability in the built environment are catching on in other West Coast cities as well: the Portland Material Transparency Collaborative (PMTC) is one notable example.
One of the main goals of the HMC is to provide a forum for local architectural and construction firms to begin the conversation about how to build more sustainably in the built environment, according to Chris Hellstern, Living Building Challenge services director at the Miller Hull Partnership and co-founder of the HMC. “The idea [with HMC] was to bring together all of our other architectural colleagues in the city who are essentially doing the same work: trying to advocate for transparency and utilize healthier materials in our work,” he said. “We are seeing that people are struggling…to speak to the manufacturing industry with one voice with all of our product representatives…we can use [HMC] as a platform to educate others, to bring folks along who haven’t really started these efforts yet.”
HMC has been actively involved in the local AEC community as it attempts to educate architectural firms about sustainability issues in the built environment. “We were a part of the last two annual Seattle Design Festivals; we provide events to bring speakers and talk to people through different ways to make changes in their organizations,” Hellstern said. HMC also hosts workshops with the “materials librarians” from different architectural firms in the city and representatives from the manufacturing companies of building materials. “We had them come together and work through understanding product challenges and specific product materials that we’re all using [in the built environment],” Hellstern added.
Most recently, the HMC held a two-part series workshop regarding material and product specifications to help AEC firms become more educated about chemicals of concern and how firms’ strategies can be adjusted accordingly. The organization also supports the Mindful Materials program as well, a national design industry initiative that provides a platform for manufacturers and designers to provide more transparency about building chemicals and materials. According to Hellstern, the HMC is aiming to help architecture firms rework their strategies around material choices earlier on in the process. “We are trying to get each of the architectural firms to have new labelling standards for their libraries…so that as designers go back and pick out their sample materials, they have the new information that they need at their fingertips,” he said.
Currently, in the broader statewide context, the organization helps to influence Washington’s legislative priorities around product transparency moving forward. “Our push now, especially as the legislative session has come to a close for the state, is to work on the legislative priorities for the next session,” he said. The HMC has joined together with other regional groups like AIA Seattle to advocate for the removal chemicals of concern, like PFAs (polyfluoroalkyl substances). While the state’s legislative session is away, HMC plans to meet with district representatives to continue this advocacy.
The landscape around sustainable design and material transparency in the built environment has changed significantly since the first implementation of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) a little over a decade ago, according to Hellstern. “Things have really changed since Living Building Challenge came out in 2006. The process of vetting materials has changed dramatically. That people are now able to now recognize LBC and The Red List as general terms makes a big difference,” he said.
Initiatives like The Red List—which is a catalogue of the most harmful materials used in the building industry, such as alkylphenols, asbestos and cadmium—and the LBC mean that members of the AEC community are now beginning to adjust their strategies accordingly, according to Hellstern. “Now, manufacturing companies have the transparency standards in place and are [trying] to meet these standards, which is a big shift already.”
The narrative around sustainability and product transparency has been shifting over the years as well, as awareness around product transparency in the community grows. “It’s definitely evolving and expanding. A few years ago, most people hadn’t even heard of these materials or concerns,” he said. According to Hellstern, clients, too, are asking for more information and clarity about the materials and products used in the construction of their projects. “We do now have clients coming specifically to ask for [more information]…, and we see these things specifically called out in Request for Proposals for projects,” he said.
One of the broader trends in the AEC community throughout the Pacific Northwest is that designers, architects and developers are in turn starting to broaden their awareness around healthier materials in the consumer products industry as well, according to Hellstern. “This also has to do with the fact that a lot of the toxic chemicals that we’re dealing with in the building industry, like PFAs, are the same that we’re dealing with in the consumer products industry…and the AEC community is starting to ask more about the consumer product industry,” he said. “We want people to understand that these chemicals can reach consumers in two different ways.”
According to Hellstern, this link—between sustainability concerns in the built environment and those in the consumer product industry—is something that is helping the HMC to build a platform from which the organization can spread its message. “[It’s] something we’re utilizing as well in terms of educating people and advocating for policy changes that help to make healthier standards for products and materials,” he said.
And although the Pacific Northwest is somewhat unique and progressive when it comes to sustainability in the built environment, the AEC community is increasingly taking the message around sustainability on board. “We’re in a sustainability bubble in the Pacific Northwest. But at least in this sphere of awareness, people are starting to hear this message.”
One of the challenges involved in regulating the consumer products industry is that there is a lack of oversight about what materials are being used in consumer goods. “A lot of consumer goods aren’t regulated by anybody…a lot of cosmetics and personal care products aren’t regulated, nobody is really checking the chemical content of these products,” he said.
However, this lack of oversight in the industry about consumer goods has begun to shift in recent years, according to Hellstern, especially across the West coast. “States like California and Washington have been leaders and starting to put some laws together now that prohibit things like antimicrobials in soaps and flame retardants in furnitures,” he said. As well, Washington has one of the first and only laws around children’s products: in 2008, Washington’s Legislature passed the Children’s Safe Products Act, which limits the use of lead, cadmium, phthalates and some flame retardants in children’s products. And more recently in 2011, the Washington State Department of Ecology adopted the Children’s Safe Products Reporting Rule, which clearly defines the list of dangerous chemicals that manufacturers must report and establishes reporting requirements.
In the longer-term, over the last decade or so, manufactures, retailers and consumers have become more aware about the harmful chemicals used in consumer products, according to Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, communications director with Toxic Free Future (TFF). TFF is a Washington-based organization that lobbies lawmakers, organizes committees and works with partner organizations to win stronger protections from toxic chemicals in consumer products. “Over the last decade, there’s been a real awakening from manufacturers and retailers to toxic chemicals in products. Whether it’s retailers or policy makers or manufacturers, companies are taking notice and getting rid of some of the worst chemicals [in products],” Sager-Rosenthal said.
TFF is a part of Safer States, a national organization that helps state decision makers adopt more definitive stances on protecting children and families from toxic chemicals where the federal system has failed, according to the company’s web site. Safer States is a coalition of 17 states—Washington is one—that helps state leaders learn from each other. Safer States’ web site indicates how states are leading the way and calling on Congress to improve the country’s awareness around toxic chemicals in consumer products.
According to Sager-Rosenthal, there is a widespread shift occurring in terms of the way that toxic chemicals in the environment are perceived, which is having a domino effect on the mindset of consumers. “I think there’s a growing body of science that shows how many chemicals used in our products and homes that we’re exposed to every day that aren’t good for our health,” she said. “So, as we see more and more studies coming out, media is covering that, and consumers are becoming more concerned,” she said.
In order to help bridge the gap between state legislature and federal regulations, Safer States works with various state organizations, such as TFF to raise awareness about the dangers that consumer chemicals pose. And TFF has had its fair share of recent legislative victories within the state of Washington. In 2016, the organization championed the Toxic-Free Kids and Families Act, a ban on five new generation flame retardants from children’s toys and furniture. In 2017, TFF helped to expand Washington’s chemical reporting laws for children’s products and also convinced the state to move forward with drinking water standards for toxic non-stick chemicals.
And while Washington is in many ways a leader in the field when it comes to passing positive state legislature, these trends are starting to catch on nationally as well, according to Sager-Rosenthall. “I think Washington is a leader on these issues…but we are not the only state. The other side of the country, also, is leading the way on this legislature…New York, California, Maryland [have] passed such laws, as well,” she said.
And Sager-Rosenthal hopes that the positive stances adopted in Washington and other states will set an example and catalyze national action when it comes to eliminating toxic chemicals. “Given the political climate nationally, we’re not seeing a lot of positive action on toxic chemicals,” she said. “But when one state starts to pass these kinds of laws, other states follow. It’s the cascade effect where you see federal legislation around toy issues or manufacturers taking it upon themselves to remove these chemicals from the products, because [this legislation] serves the national, not the state, market.”
Hellstern echoed this sentiment, highlighting how the current political environment is making it more challenging to pass legislation around harmful chemicals. “It’s a challenge in the new political climate where these regulations are being pulled… the EPA was going to have a stricter oversight about these prohibited chemicals…but the efforts around that have slowed during this administration.”
However, the awareness around the dangers that these chemicals pose—within the AEC community in particular—means that positive strides will continue to be made, even considering the current political climate, according to Hellstern. “I think there’s enough of a wave of support amongst people to help make a change and keep things moving in a positive direction. So while people may try to legislate against these restrictions and regulations on chemicals, people are starting to become more aware,” he said.
Ultimately, efforts to advocate for transparency around product materials in the built environment are only one piece of the puzzle, according to Hellstern, who thinks that the burden is on designers to take more concrete steps. “The design industry has a lot of onus on them to help push this movement along. Other rating systems like LEED—which is more globally spread, whose first approach has focused on transparency—have evolved to getting manufacturers used to reporting all these ingredients and designers asking about all of these ingredients,” he said. “Not only do you have to identify and advocate for transparency in all these building products and ingredients, you have to remove them, too. We’re increasing transparency where we can and removing chemicals where we can, which is [a process] all based on scientific data.”