Clients count on architects to make the right choices

Architects design buildings. A critical piece of the design process is selecting our material palette. A key part of the design of a high-performing building is the selection of high-performing materials. Architects own material decisions for a majority of the building products used to construct buildings. And our clients depend upon us to make responsible material selections.

Building product selection is a complicated business. We balance many criteria when selecting materials. Materials must at minimum meet performance requirements, comply with budget restrictions, and conform to aesthetic goals or guidelines. They also need to meet maintenance requirements and follow code requirements regarding the health, safety, and welfare of the building occupants.

Performance metrics typically come first—the roof needs to keep the water out, the floor needs to be durable. But health/safety/welfare concerns are critical, too. Many architects followed the coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire in the U.K. recently. These types of tragedies are devastating, and American architects work hard to assure that a similar event won’t happen here. In the U.S., most jurisdictions have adopted the International Building Code that has restrictions on cladding, and the requirement that cladding systems meet the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 285. This is a basic requirement that building cladding systems will be non-combustible.


“Everything in our environment has the potential to get inside of us.”

Anne Hicks Harney, Founder, Long Green Specs


What Else Do You Need to Know? 

We are familiar with flammability, but what other dangers lurk? And what other selection criteria can influence our building product selections? In the last few years, the concept of material transparency—understanding the environmental and health impacts of materials—has gained interest and traction in the American market, but unlike flammability issues, no regulations are pending to help architects navigate these waters. We need to find our way using the tools that already exist.

Material transparency is about gaining a full understanding of what a material is made of. When we talk about transparency, we think in terms of two impact categories— environmental and health:

  • Environmental impacts are about negative impacts to our earth and environment.  These are disclosed in three categories: Atmosphere, water, and earth. Under atmosphere, the primary impact is global warming potential and embodied carbon. Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide emitted during the extraction, manufacturing, construction, use, and end-of-life phase of a product’s lifespan. A material with a lower embodied carbon has a lesser effect on the health of our planet.
  • Health impacts are all about understanding what ingredients are in our building products and minimizing the use of toxic ingredients. According to Michael Braungart, close to 50% of the chemicals found in mother’s milk are sourced from building materials. Everything in our environment has the potential to get inside of us (and be passed on to our children), and it is because of this basic fact that we need to be vigilant about the building materials that we use.

If we’re going to improve the environments we design, the critical first step is disclosure and demanding manufacturers tell us what is in the products we’re using. Many tools already exist to find this information, from EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) to HPDs (Health Product Declarations). EPDs can be found in many places, including UL Spot and GIGA Origins

Make the Ask

I want to stress the importance of making the ask. The market is being saturated with declaration documents because architects such as myself have been requesting this information from manufacturers for years. There are many CSI categories that now have high-performing product choices that all have declaration documents. Once that happens in a category, no architect needs to settle for specifying a product that doesn’t have information disclosed. Manufacturers understand that—there is nothing like market pressure to make real change.

If architects stop specifying lesser materials, they will be dropped from the marketplace.  That is what we need to do to improve the environment in which we live. We owe to ourselves to improve our environment.

Anne Hicks Harney

Anne Hicks Harney has more than 30 years of experience, with an emphasis on providing high-quality design imbued with a solid technical foundation and a sustainable emphasis. As the founder of Long Green Specs, she provides sustainability focused construction specifications and building science expertise to architectural firms across the country. She is the chair of the AIA Materials Knowledge Working Group  and has been a member of the USGBC Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Group since 2014. In 2016, Harney was elected to the AIA College of Fellows and was named a LEED Fellow by the USGBC.