New "Ingredient" Label for Buildings Launches at Greenbuild

Unhealthy homes pose a threat to millions of Americans. These dangers can include chemicals like Bisphenol A, formaldehyde, VOCs and PVC in building products. Ironically, efforts to make homes more efficient have resulted in trapping more of these chemicals inside.
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A few years ago at Greenbuild, USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi held up a box of animal crackers, showed the audience the list of ingredients, and pointed out that nothing like that exists for buildings -- despite the fact that they're full of toxic chemicals, and we spend most of our time indoors.

Well this year at Greenbuild, two companies are aiming to change that.

Construction Specialties (C/S), a leading manufacturer of commercial architectural products, and Perkins+Will, one of the preeminent sustainable design and architecture firms in the country, have teamed up to do something no building product company has ever done before -- create a label listing all of the product's ingredients.

The label, made of pressed aluminum, will be affixed to C/S carpets at first; then extended to a whole range of commercial building products, and hopefully adopted by other manufacturers as well. It will be industry's first building product transparency label detailing the complete make-up of a product, highlighting critical lifecycle information and potential human health impacts.

In addition to listing the product's ingredients, the label points to a comprehensive website so anybody buying, using or disposing of the product can easily find all the relevant information they would need to make informed decisions about the health of the product, its lifecycle impacts, and how to responsibly care for and dispose of it, including:

•General Product Information: manufacturer, warranty period and product websites
•Product Content: Recycled Content, Content Source, Final Manufacturing location, and whether the product is Rapidly Renewable, FSC Certified and contains VOC Content
•Ecological Benchmarks: Water Use Intensity, Energy Use Intensity, and Carbon with space to define whether Renewable Water or Energy were used
•Packaging: packaging contents with room to define whether materials are Virgin, Pre-Consumer or Post-Consumer
•Design Process: whether the product was designed for reutilization or in a closed loop process
•Recyclability/ End of Use: whether recycling assistance is offered, whether there is a Want Back program in place and space to define the recyclable components
•Other: space for manufacturers to insert notation about care, maintenance, replacement, etc.

Seems like common sense, right?

But as Peter Syrett of Perkins+Will pointed out when we spoke last week, "Over 2000 years ago Greek physicians knew lead in paint wasn't good for people, and we kept it in paint until the 1970's. But we live in the information age, and the building product market is the last frontier of transparency. If we don't know what a product is made of, we don't know the health implications of it."

Why is this important? Because indoor air quality (IAQ) is often much worse than even our polluted outdoor air, and we spend over 90% of our time in buildings. (Think about it, how many days do you spend more than 2.4 hours outside?) Unhealthy homes pose a threat to millions of Americans. These dangers can include chemicals like Bisphenol A, formaldehyde, VOCs and PVC in building products. Ironically, efforts to make homes more efficient have resulted in trapping more of these chemicals inside. The Healthy House Institute's 2011 QuickGuide to Indoor Air Quality says, "Often, the most reliable method of protecting yourself from unhealthy exposures in the home is simply to make sure harmful materials and contaminants are not present."

With this Building Product Transparency Project said Curt Fessler of C/S, "We hope to expand the conversation about manufacturer behavior and material health, recognizing a building product's associated impacts on people and the environment."

"Our goal is to encourage more manufacturers to adopt this belief that we're obligated to improve the buildings we spend our time in, and do it in an environmentally responsible way by disclosing more about our products," says Fessler.

C/S is going to post and share the label template, to make it easy for other manufacturers to follow their lead. Fessler estimates most manufacturers already have 75% of the information needed to label their own products.

The effort grew out of a "Precautionary List" developed by Perkins+Will in 2009, to highlight chemicals listed by government agencies as having negative health issues and the classes of building materials where they might commonly be found.

But the challenge was that until now, it was impossible to tell which products contained these chemicals. As awareness of toxic chemicals has increased, there's been a shift in the marketplace, and many products now advertise they are PVC-free or VOC-free. "But we need to move past description by omission," says Fessler.

In other words, instead of saying what's not in building products, it's time for the industry to be honest about what's inside the carpets, paints, resins, glues, insulation, flooring, and furniture that we're all exposed to day in and day out.

Peter Syrett says, "I have kids, and when my 6-year old was born I was obsessed with Bisphenol A products, but most stores had never heard of it. Now with my 3-year old, the awareness is everywhere. People are thinking about it, and there's serious momentum." The same is true with low-VOC paint says Fessler, "four years ago it was hard to find, and now there's many more options."

A lot of drivers are pushing in this direction, say Syrett and Fessler. From the USGBC's LEED credits for material transparency, to green chemistry initiatives, Cradle-to-Cradle certification, the Healthy Buildings Network and the EPA, "this is the direction the industry is moving."

As a sustainable design firm, says Syrett, "The best possible outcome of this project would be if it helps manufacturers seek out these things and avoid them. Because then, as architects, we could go back to thinking about buildings instead of chemistry."

And it would help the rest of us who live, study and work in buildings to breathe a little easier as well, knowing that after two-thousand years we've finally got enough sense to make buildings that aren't poisonous.

The label will be on display at this year's Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Toronto, Canada, October 4-6, 2011 at the Construction Specialties booth #1523.

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