Cross-sector listening is the only way healthier materials will move forward.

The saying “it takes a village” applies to so many challenges we face in the green building industry. Healthier materials are no different. This message rang especially true while Arup was producing Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol, recently published by the AIA. While the guide is produced primarily for design teams, some of the most critical concepts were reinforced when listening to people outside of design circles.

In particular, the Building Health Initiative (BHI) of USGBC Northern California, a cosponsor of the guide, provided a unique cross-sector pool of perspectives. The BHI group consisted of owners like Adobe, Facebook, Genentech, Google, Kaiser Permanente, Salesforce, and the City and County of San Francisco—all entrenched in healthy materials but often taking different approaches. It also included manufacturers like Armstrong Ceilings, Central Concrete, Interface, Shaw Floors, and View, who have spent countless hours working on the materials transparency and research requests from designers and owners. Additionally, builders, nonprofits, government agencies, legal counselors, tool developers, and other healthy building consultants brought their perspectives. Designers included architecture and interior design powerhouses like Perkins+Will, HOK, and HDR, who have been leaders in the practice of healthier materials. Below is some of what we heard.

The Message from Owners

The leading owners need more owners to join them. They need project teams to ask for and prefer better products. More specifically, more of us need to ask for products that have disclosed what’s inside (transparency documents) or, better yet, that have reduced hazardous chemical content compared to the norm. Although each had seen successes in leveraging their own purchasing power, the BHI owners felt that to make better products available and affordable, their ask must be further amplified by a much larger collective of purchasers.

Thus, it seemed education needed to start with convincing others of the importance of material health. We spend 90% of our time in buildings, yet substances deemed or suspected to be hazardous are ubiquitous throughout building products. Unfortunately, history has shown government regulations alone can’t protect us. Many owners expressed the need for their internal teams and consultants to have basic steps and resources for implementation. This gave way to the fundamental framework for constructing a Healthier Materials Plan and a descriptive catalog of tools and programs available to help carry it out.

The Message from Manufacturers

Manufacturers said we need to harmonize our ask. Manufacturers are often asked for all 31 flavors of product certifications and transparency. Understanding the differences among certifications is essential to honing in on those relevant to a project’s objectives and reducing the variety of documents that project teams ask for. But to get to this, project teams first need to be provided with a basic understanding of the array of product programs and rating systems options.

The need for design teams to hold their spec was another clear message. Producing transparency documents and investing in reformulations require significant time and resources. Manufacturers will struggle to see value and continue to participate if there is no reward for this effort.

The Message from Design and Construction Teams

We heard from design and construction teams that owner commitment from the start is the key to holding the spec. Ways to track products through construction are also needed, so when substitutions come in, the design team has something to point to and say, “No, we want that product because we all agreed to these project outcomes.” This worked well on the San Francisco International Airport Terminal 1 project. With HKS and Woods Bagot, we kept a list of which products we were depending on to secure an ambitious number of LEED points from the Low-Emitting Materials and Building Product Disclosure and Optimization credits and checked against this list throughout contractor submittal reviews.

Putting It All Together

One key message was expressed time and again. To see real change in the industry, we have to get others onboard. Not long ago, green building itself was a niche practice. Once more tools and guidance were accessible to average architects and engineers, considerations like energy efficiency and water conservation became the norm and are now part of national green building codes.

Through listening to many perspectives, it became clear: We will make progress only if we work to meet the needs of the whole village. These messages formed the backbone of the guidance we produced in the AIA healthier materials protocol. We hope the Prescription for Healthier Building Materials provides all sectors with a useful place to start.

Frances Yang Frances Yang leads the sustainable materials practice in the Americas region for Arup, a global design and engineering firm. Yang has more than 12 years of experience in green building design, engineering, and sustainable materials strategies across global projects. She is coauthor of Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol