As I was writing this month's column on the confusion designers face sorting out building materials safety standards, The Washington Post published an article on the issue titled "It takes some research to know what to avoid when building a healthy home." Author Katherine Salant, defines the problem spot-on: "...in the United States, there are no statutes requiring that toxic ingredients in building materials be pre-tested before they are marketed. Government action can be taken only after the material has been shown to be harmful."
Healthy building-minded design professionals deal with the ridiculousness of this policy on every project and, as Salant points out, it contributes to the oft-false notion that green materials are more expensive. Design teams and contractors agree that the added cost of some healthier alternative materials is due in some measure to the research time necessary to find and verify health related information.
Take a moment to read Salant's article; it focuses on the Living Building Challenges' Red List of specific toxic chemicals and materials and defines the frustration of sorting through the toxic soup. Limited to just 15 items, the Red list is intimidating but manageable. California's Proposition 65, which lists over 850 chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, is downright scary. How many are in building materials? The Pharos Project compares chemicals found in building products against a database of over 20,000 different chemicals and materials. But still, it's impossible for the layman to know.
Factor in over 300 product ecolabels, with many more being added each year. Designers, and consumers for that matter, have to make increasingly complex and convoluted decisions. Manufacturers and businesses must weigh many different issues when making their choice of what ecolabels to get for their products, including cost, ROI, and credibility of the label.
They make a significant financial investment in choosing the "correct" ecolabel(s) and therefore spend time evaluating a myriad of options, weighing the pros and cons, and meeting with the various certification organizations to hear why its program is better than the others. All of this is eventually reflected in the product's cost.
What we need - really need - is a transparent, understandable standard format for defining and reporting product content and associated health information of building materials.
We have it! Or at least the very encouraging and exciting beginnings. The Health Product Declaration (HPD) Open Standard, as reported by Bill Walsh in this space last December, "creates a means for sustainability leaders to more easily make informed decisions about the products they purchase and their impacts on human health, and to reduce the burden on product manufacturers juggling multiple types of information requests and reporting formats."
The HPD is not yet ready for widespread use - it's still in its pilot phase - but has been endorsed by 45 organizations - architecture and design firms, building owners and developers, construction firms, workflow management software developers, and non-profit organizations.
Work continues by the HPD Open Standard Working Group. Check out the website, learn more, join in, and whoop for joy.