The Future of Materials Selection: Project Pharos

Bill Walsh | November 09, 2006 | Tools

Pharos ProjectNo topic in the green building movement triggers more debate and dissention than building materials. We can't even agree about wood. As more green labels are introduced, green building professionals find themselves more confused than informed. This is about to change.

For the better part of a year the Healthy Building Network has challenged leading thinkers in the fields of architecture, materials analysis, and environmental and health policy to propose a materials evaluation system that works for the entire green building community. What they've produced we have named the Pharos Project, invoking the elegant design and technological advance of the great Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Pharos Project is conceived as a navigational aid for those seeking building materials that are good for people and the planet. The Pharos Project introduces three firsts into the materials evaluation field. It is the first materials evaluation tool that is:


Pharos is the only materials evaluation system that provides users with a 360 degree view of what is known—and not known—about products and materials. No other label or certification process will evaluate more criteria, or give you more confidence in making an informed choice that reflects your professional judgment and values, and those of your company and clients.


Pharos is the only open-source materials evaluation system. No other system will give you a greater array of tools to separate fact from opinion, weigh independently verified data against uncorroborated estimates, and distinguish signal issues from distracting side issues.

Consumer Driven

No other label or certification system will match Pharos' commitment and ability to involve architects, designers, specifiers, and purchasers in evaluating products and materials and setting standards. As a result, you will be able to get the information you want, how you want it. An easy to read label will summarize product and materials impacts. Comprehensive documentation can be downloaded from the Pharos database. Our on-line community keeps everything current, and establishes community standards for dealing with vexing issues such as contradictory, incomplete, or inconsistent information.

The Pharos Project is built upon a concept brought to us as an ink sketch on a cocktail napkin by Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council.[1] The sketch has been steadily refined into a vision of a label that will be elegantly designed, information rich, professionally rigorous, and transparent even in its limitations. Most critically, he envisioned a graphic system that set forth an ideal to which all material specifications might aspire, rather than establish a finite, ephemeral definition of "green."

We asked one of the most experienced materials analysts in the country, Jack Geibig of the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products & Clean Technologies, to contribute to this ideal a perspective rooted in a decade of consulting with product manufacturers and performing certifications for leading green labels. His commitment to the accurate and transparent application of data introduced a level of rigor and complexity that made us wonder whether the Pharos ideal was an impossible dream. Then we found experts in the field of open source digital technology who assured us that if we could dream it, they could help us—meaning all of us in the green building community—build this tool.

The communities that have brought us Mozilla Firefox and Wikipedia are teaming up with the communities that dream, from cradle to cradle, of biomimicry and living buildings. The future of materials selection begins on November 14, in Denver, at GreenBuild Booth #18. It will be what we make it.

Please join HBN for Green Chemistry: The Next Plateau for Green Building Materials at the upcoming Greenbuild Expo in Denver. On Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. in room 503/504 of the Denver Convention Center, conference attendees will have access to three of the world's most influential green chemists: Dr. Paul Anastas, Director of the Green Chemistry Institute; Dr. John Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts; and, Professor Terry Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry.


[1] At the time McLennan was a principal with BNIM Architects. The Cascadia Region Green Building Council Board had endorsed the Pharos Project, but it is not a project of the USGBC.