Materials transparency: Exploring the opportunities and risks
Material transparency refers to an advocacy movement that promotes requiring manufacturers to disclose the ingredients and their potential human health effect, environmental impacts, or social equity in manufacturing and recycling or disposal. Those materials attributes are then compared and prioritized based on client values and project goals. The idea is that, as the building industry understands the impact of their products, they’ll invest in research and development to optimize out harmful substances while maintaining product performance standards.
Requiring materials transparency encourages product manufactures to divulge the contents of their products to allow for assessment of the potential lifecycle, health and environmental impacts posed by their use. Product content information is useful for making choices based on the impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle. This need for disclosure has many manufacturers reconsidering their formulations, redirecting their supply chains, and creating less-hazardous alternatives to existing products.
Recognizing the movement and the professional response
The movement to disclose the contents of building materials—and their potential health and environmental impacts—has been growing, as some clients express a concern that certain substances be eliminated from consideration. In addition, USGBC’s current LEED rating system includes optional credits for collecting product environment and health information. Other rating systems and voluntary standards for the design and operations of buildings reference Health Product Disclosures and other specific requirements. Thus, for clients that care about such third-party validations, the existence of disclosure information becomes important.
The movement received additional support in 2017 when AIA updated a 2014 policy statement to address and encourage materials transparency. AIA’s pronouncement states that the architect should be environmentally responsible and that, because building materials “significantly affect human and ecosystem health,” knowledge of the lifecycle impacts of building materials is “fundamental to the art, craft, and science of architecture.” AIA’s position on materials transparency suggests several ways that architects could respond to ethical imperatives for materials transparency; AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct includes an obligation that members should be environmentally responsible and advocate for sustainable buildings.
AIA’s policy statement also recognizes that the materials transparency movement represents an opportunity to give design firms a competitive advantage, tap their “thought leadership,” and stimulate design innovation.
Addressing the service and risk through contract language
Absent specific contract language, the design firm’s involvement and reliance on the manufacturers’ disclosure documents will be judged in relation to the standard of care for the professional services performed. The question to be addressed is whether the actions and services of the design firm were consistent with what is generally accepted as being within their professional expertise and training. Design firms, of course, can negate the protection of the standard of care by contractually agreeing to provide an alternate level of assessment. The contractual obligation might extend to services the firms are incapable of providing.
AIA assembled a special AIA Materials Risk Task Group to work with the Materials Knowledge Working Group and AIA Contract Documents team to develop guidance or model language so that the duties of the architect are clearly articulated and, therefore, limited. That language is included in B503-2007, an AIA Contract Document; it addresses the potential use of environmental and health product disclosure documents in providing architectural services.
AIA's Contract Documents suggest increased communication and specific language to reduce the design firm’s potential liability associated with materials transparency. But while a carefully crafted professional services agreement can clarify the role of the design firm, it cannot, by itself, protect against third-party claims. And when health and environmental aspects of building products and materials become an increasingly important factor in the specification process, the likelihood of a third-party claim increases.
Clearly communicating the services provided
It is important to minimize a firm’s business risk, and to assist it in avoiding professional liability claims related to disclosure of information that an ingredient in a product might be harmful. In this case, the potentially harmful ingredient is present in the product whether it’s disclosed or not. By disclosing these ingredients, many architects fear that end users will sue for damages based on the disclosure information, although the ingredients have always been present. Product content and composition is only one factor that a design professional considers before recommending the use of a product, material, or system. Project owners have to be made aware of the considerations that go into the specification process. Design firms cannot—and should not—allow their clients to assume a design professional can step into a role more appropriate for a materials scientist, toxicologist, industrial hygienist, or other professional who can evaluate or verify manufacturer-provided information on the environmental or human health aspects of a specific product.
With proper knowledge, contract language, and client communications, design firms can promote the evolution of safer products through materials transparency disclosures without increasing their professional liability exposures or business risks.
For more on this topic, download AIA’s white paper on materials transparency and risk for architects.
This article originally appeared in the Practice Management Knowledge Community's Practice Management Digest for April 2017.
Kevin J. Collins, Assoc. AIA, is a senior vice president with Victor and a senior leader of the firm’s Construction Industry Group.