Let’s Be Clear: A Brief Guide to Material Transparency

by | June 30, 2016 0 Ideas, Sustainability

Transparency is hot right now. And for good reason. Exciting new developments like the mindful MATERIALS Collaborative, which provide access to transparency information across a variety of manufacturers and products, are continuing to foster discussions between manufacturers and the design community.

During this year’s Hospitality Design Expo, Alison Bane and I presented on Transparency as part of NEWH’s Green Voices series. Alison is SERA’s Director of Interiors and I’m a project designer and longtime member of SERA’s in-house sustainability group.

Here are some highlights from our discussion:

First, why are we as designers concerned about transparency?

Pervasiveness of Chemicals
Flame retardants, vinyl, materials red list chemicals – it is very difficult to construct a building without anything hazardous; and consumers are beginning to understand how pervasive these chemicals are – from the built environment to clothing, food and even our bodies.

Body Burden
The fact is many of the chemicals we want to avoid are in all of us right now. We understand some of the long-term effects of those chemicals, which are only slowly coming to light – abnormal fetal development, asthma, infertility, etc.

Consumer Awareness
Consumers are demanding to know what’s in their environment. The health and technology sectors’ ability to analyze the effects of that environment on the human body is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Professional Organizations / Institutions
States and other agencies are now requiring more information. The AIA has also recently released guides to incorporating transparency into construction documents, contracts and legal documents.


What tools exist today?

Ten years ago, the tools were simply not there. Designers were beginning to learn about the make-up of our environment but the information was provided in piece-meal. The evolution toward the disclosure of material components has been filled with both successes and failures, but has ultimately resulted in a robust set of tools we rely on today:

  • Healthy Building Network – A nonprofit founded in 2000 to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in building products as a means of improving human health and the environment, often acting as an instigator and think tank
  • Building Green – A green specifications and product search engine
  • Pharos – Brought to you by the Healthy Building Network, a product evaluation tool whose main strength is the chemical library, a hazard database
  • Declare – Born from the Living Building Challenge, a “nutrition” label
  • Cradle to Cradle & the new Material Health Certificate – A product certification from William McDonough + Partners
  • Environmental Product Declaration – Environmental impacts and life cycle assessments
  • Healthy Product Declaration 2.0 – Transparency related specifically to health hazards and toxicity
  • Living Building Challenge – Tiered building rating system with very high standards, a Materials Red List and a systemic approach toward buildings
  • LEED v4 Now encouraging (though not requiring) material ingredient disclosure
  • mindful MATERIALS – Looking across different certifications, mindful MATERIALS is industry- not manufacturer-driven and seeks to make the selection of products that embrace transparency easier. (Launched nationally this month!)


If you support transparency in building materials, what can you do to help?

Letters, letters, letters
Start writing letters to manufacturers about the importance of transparency. Use the power of your individual firms’ commitment to the transparency dialogue to make an impact on manufacturers.

Begin to integrate transparency into your specifications and even your contracts (that’s what we’re doing at SERA!). As manufacturers and designers become more conversant with what is in the built environment, we should codify and protect ourselves by being very clear about the need for transparency.

Pick your one thing
Transparency can be an overwhelming topic. Narrow your focus, pick a chemical or product type you’d like to concentrate on, and try to make progress in that one area. This can be project based and/or client directed.

Grass Roots Local Collaboratives
Get involved in your local area professional organizations (like NEWH, IIDA, AIA) and join forces with other groups already working on transparency initiatives. Or start your own local group such as the Portland Material Transparency Collaborative.

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