The Rise of the Building Products Transparency Movement

I wanted to start off today by talking about hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs, that American staple of ballparks, summer cookouts and competitive eating contests. I actually picked some up the other night opting for some beef franks with no artificial flavors or coloring. I didn’t bother to check out the nutrition facts or scrutinize the ingredients list to see how (un)healthy they are, but I could have. Unfortunately, I can’t do the same thing for the building products that were used for the construction of my house or the office building I work in. All of that is changing thanks to a movement that has been steadily gaining momentum over the past few years calling for building products transparency.

This movement was spawned by the emergence and growth of the green building market in the construction industry over the past 15 years or so and the need for architects and specifiers to be able to identify building products that are healthy, sustainable and environmentally friendly. Based on the sheer number of available and ever-growing transparency tools, building declaration types and programs it’s clear that building products transparency is here to stay which is a good thing for all parties involved in the construction industry. Architects will be able to make informed decisions when specifying products and materials, manufacturers will be able to better market their products and allow owners and occupants to know how healthy and environmentally friendly their buildings are. It will also push manufacturers to innovate and develop more eco-friendly and health conscious products.

The two most well-known and widely used building product declarations are environmental product declarations (EPDs) and health product declarations (HPDs). An HPD is a standard format developed by the Health Product Declaration Collaboration for transparent disclosure. HPDs focus on disclosing a building product’s list of ingredients and their health effects. HPDs are emerging as the de facto standard for the construction industry in the United States due in large part to a letter writing campaign from major AEC firms requesting manufacturers to create HPDs in order for their products to be considered when selecting and specifying building materials.

Environmental product declarations focus on the environmental impacts of a building product throughout its lifecycle. EPDs provide a building product’s environmental data based on its life cycle assessment (LCA). The standards for creating an EPD were developed by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) and manufacturers must adhere to specific Product Category Rules (PCRs) based on what category their product belongs to. A LCA focuses on a building product’s environmental impact beginning with the extraction of raw materials to processing and manufacturing to distribution and use to maintenance and repair and finally ending with disposal and recycling.

Building rating systems are also acknowledging the importance of building products transparency. The latest version of Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, LEED v4, has credit points available for building product disclosure and optimization. One of the requirements for the Living Building Challenge, which is administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), is that projects cannot contain any of their Red List materials or chemicals with some exceptions based on limitations of availability. In order to help identify Red List Free and Red List Compliant products the ILFI has established their own building products transparency label program called Declare.

Another building product declaration making headlines lately is the recently announced product transparency declaration (PTD) which was developed by the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), a non-profit trade association. PTDs are focused on an exposure based analysis of material ingredients to both installers and building occupants and whether or not warning labels are required based on human exposure for the final product.

The fact that there are a ton of transparency tools and declaration programs and standards available is a good thing for now since it provides a variety of avenues for manufacturers to pursue in order to provide transparency. The competition among these declaration formats will force them to continue to refine and improve their standards. It will be interesting to see if all of these declarations will last as it seems unlikely that manufacturers will be willing to create five or six declarations for each of their building products and architects won’t want to have to sort through all that data contained in multiple declarations. Unless another contender enters the market it appears that HPDs are likely to become the industry standard for construction in the United States based on the amount of support it has garnered from the AEC community. I think a combination of elements from EPDs, HPDs and PTDs should be used that focus on LCAs, health exposure levels and material ingredients. Regardless of how it all plays out building products transparency is quickly transgressing from a movement to a requirement in the construction industry where creating building products declarations will soon become standard operating procedures for all building material manufacturers and suppliers.

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