Powerful New Open Data Project Gets Rave Reviews

Rebecca Stamm | October 16, 2015 | Tools

Now in our 15th year, the Healthy Building Network has been busy as beavers, felling more obstacles, building more useful infrastructures, with more partners, than ever. In the coming weeks, we will be unveiling many of these initiatives with Healthy Building News readers and the world at large.

Front and center among these is a collaboration called Quartz, led by Flux, a team of technologists born at the Google[x] research lab in 2010, now operating independently. Flux's vision to minimize the impacts of the building and construction sector and improve communities mirrors HBN's 15 years of work to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in building products.

Last year, Flux organized the Quartz project to solve some nagging data challenges facing designers who seek building materials with the least human health and environmental impacts. Quartz leader Vivian Dien describes these challenges as inconsistency, incomprehensibility, inaccessibility, and closed practices. Flux partnered with Google, HBN, and thinkstep, a global leader in life cycle analysis, to overcome these challenges by creating baseline product content summaries, and related health hazard evaluations and life cycle analyses (LCAs).

HBN plunged deep into this opportunity to research the composition of building materials from the concrete mixes used in foundations to the membranes used in roofs.  Drawing from the research methods and data mines of our transparency flag-planting Pharos Project, we created a rigorous methodology for researching the most common components, materials, and chemicals present in building products.

Using publicly available information, HBN identified and quantified the most common substances currently present in these products. We cross-referenced each substance with 35 authoritative lists of health hazards like carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption. The end results are 100 "Common Product Profiles" that are detailed and precise, down to the parts per million or even lower for substances of highest concern, all of which will be released later this month as open source data. These profiles will enable project teams to compare content and hazards for specific products against a typical baseline, accelerating and improving product evaluations, while manufacturers can use these summaries to differentiate their products.

While not yet officially launched, the Quartz project won wide acclaim from participants at two recent influential conferences, last month's Living Products Expo in Pittsburgh and last week's LCA XV conference in Vancouver. 

In Pittsburgh, green building practitioners enthused about the long-awaited merger of life cycle and health hazard analyses, using a common methodology, into open data sets that will be easily incorporated through APIs into any system that wants them, like transparency tools and architecture and design firms' internal networks. They understood the transformational nature of this endeavor.

In Vancouver, you could see the wheels turning as many LCA practitioners were already starting to envision how they could use the data specifically for their own applications.  There is a thirst for this data in the construction industry. 

The Quartz project is a great contribution to the green building world, and all occupants of buildings that will be designed by people using its data to assess the relative benefits and harms presented by material choices.  It has been an honor to be on this collaboration. We can't wait for its launch, to incorporate its data into HBN's Pharos Project library, and to see how others convert our findings into action.

Next on the Quartz tour: Join HBN's Chief Information Officer Larry Kilroy, thinkstep Director of Sustainable Building and Construction Heather Gadonniex, Google Campus Design Technical Specialist Drew Wenzel, and Flux's Vivian Dien at the Verge conference later this month in San Jose. Their presentation, Open Data, Collaborative Action: The Scalable Approach for Designing Healthier Buildings, takes place Wednesday, Oct 28th, 1:45-2:45 p.m. PST.

For the latest developments, follow @quartzproject on Twitter, and sign up for updates at https://flux.io/quartz.

During GreenBuild, stop by our booths to learn more about the Quartz collaboration and meet with researchers. Flux booth - #3712, thinkstep booth - #1000, HBN booth - #2622.