Understanding the implications of your materials selection
Material selection is a core service provided by architects, but that process is far from simple. We are learning more every day about how even the most seemingly innocuous decisions we make about materials can have environmental, health, and social consequences that ripple across continents and can last for centuries.
It’s natural for designers to evaluate a material’s impact while a product is serving its useful purpose in a building, but that only accounts for a portion of the complete life of the product. All materials impact human health and the environment at every life stage, from extraction, to manufacturing and construction, through its useful life, and on to recycling or disposal. For example, knowing whether a manufacturer recycles water to save resources and reduce the potential of contamination to a neighboring community may affect our decision to specify that product instead of another seemingly equal competitor.
Of course, considering all the potential outcomes of every decision can become a daunting — even overwhelming — task. But there is a path to navigating this complex landscape: transparency.
What is materials transparency?
Knowing where our materials come from, what’s in them, how they were made, and how long they’ll persist in the environment beyond the life of a building gives us greater control over our projects and product decisions. It lets us work with our clients to set priorities and discover opportunities for innovation. And developing novel uses of less harmful materials can open up new markets and efficiencies. Through an array of labeling and disclosure programs and initiatives, we are learning more and more about what goes into the materials that make up our projects — empowering us to utilize a more thoughtful design process.
Understanding the “hidden” costs of materials
The cost of any material goes well beyond the price tag. For any materials selected, there are a range of potential costs associated with the environment, our health, and social or economic equity. In many cases, there can be a delicate balance in the trade-offs among those costs — which is why having access to as much concise information as possible about materials is essential.
We know that if we use sustainably sourced lumber, we can help protect the long-term health of forests. Factoring in transportation distances allows us to account for greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing which companies use low-impact manufacturing processes can help us choose between two materials that otherwise perform similarly, allowing us to minimize embodied carbon, improve water quality and increase resource efficiency. Understanding materials throughout their life cycle — for instance, whether they are highly durable, and whether they are easily recycled or will linger in a landfill indefinitely — is another consideration. Tools such as environmental product declarations (EPDs) give a wealth of information that enable us to see the impact a product can have on the environment, whether during manufacturing, active use, or when it no longer can serve its original purpose.
Over the past few decades, substantial progress has been made in eliminating or greatly reducing exposure to materials with a direct, negative impact on building occupants’ health — such as asbestos, lead, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). But as we learn more about the possible health effects of the building materials we incorporate into our designs, an increasingly complex picture emerges, in which we must also consider health impacts from the manufacturing and construction process, and end-of-life disposal. A growing number of tools and disclosures, including Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Declare labels, are increasingly providing valuable information to better assess the overall effects on human health from a variety of materials.
While the Materials Matter initiative is most broadly associated with health and environmental impacts of materials, those factors can also heavily influence social and economic equity issues. “Fenceline communities” adjacent to factories or landfills can be affected by chemical emissions, noise, and other operational byproducts, and are often vulnerable to taking on a disproportionate share of negative economic, health and environmental impacts. Programs such as International Living Future Institute’s Just label or B Corps classification can help us identify manufacturers that lead in social equity through factors such as minimizing effects on the air and water quality, and the corresponding health, of nearby communities.