How materials transparency affects your practice

As we seek to more effectively prioritize our health and the health of our planet, the need for better built environments has becomes increasingly important. Design professionals are being tasked with a significant undertaking: understanding materials’ health, environmental, and social impacts, working to minimize these impacts by optimizing material selections.

Our role in selecting better materials

Architects and designers have a little-recognized yet influential role in reducing negative human health, social, and environmental impacts by way of better building product selection. Architects can reduce the impact on people and the planet by selecting innovative and responsible materials from manufacturers that practice transparency, or, go further by optimizing products through eliminating harmful substances and practices.

Materials transparency refers to manufacturers disclosing the environmental, health and social impacts of their products. This disclosure can be done in many ways, with both third-party verified certification documents, and with self-disclosure tools. The important thing is for building product manufacturers to disclose clear information about their products. Once manufacturers understand industry transparency priorities, they can optimize their products by phasing out harmful ingredients and processes.

As more and more architects and designers ask for product disclosure information, manufacturers are encouraged to create better products, enabling permanent, far-reaching improvement in building manufacturing standards. As architects and designers have more data, they can make better, more informed decisions. With this added knowledge, we can all influence the building product marketplace.

Moving markets and meeting client demand

As architects demand more and more transparency in materials, we are influencing market transformation. But it can also give you and your firm a competitive advantage. With more clients showing interest in occupant health outcomes, architects and design professionals without materials transparency experience are at a disadvantage.

Taking action

Specifying better, healthier materials is important, but we’re not materials scientists—so where do we begin? The materials transparency landscape is complex. How do we know what information is most relevant?

A familiar starting point might be the tried-and-true metrics of recycled content, regional materials, and minimal volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. These single-attribute metrics are still relevant, but they aren’t as comprehensive as multi-attribute systems that consider numerous metrics often centered around the entire life cycle of the product, from extraction through end of use and into reuse or disposal.

For a more complete picture, one key consideration is whether a manufacturer promotes transparency. Does the manufacturer disclose ingredients or publish a Health Product Declaration, Environmental Product Declaration or Declare label? Other considerations go beyond simply disclosing information: do they reduce impact and optimize performance through certification programs such as Cradle to Cradle (C2C) or the Living Product Challenge? And beyond optimization, building standards such as LEED, Living Building Challenge, and WELL offer various frameworks for measuring and reducing materials’ impacts at the project level.

Developing a plan

Integrating better building materials into your design process must be intentional. While the plethora of materials transparency information and processes can seem overwhelming, establishing a process for project priorities, subsequent goals and tracking mechanisms makes the task more manageable. Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol, slated for release by AIA later this year, includes guidance for creating a healthier materials plan. This resource focuses on establishing values and goals around material transparency, developing targets with relevant metrics, and determining project roles and responsibilities.

Managing materials risk

Practitioners are often concerned about whether we’re taking on more risk when requesting additional transparency documents from product manufacturers. What if a client sues us for specifying a product with toxic substances, for example? While making healthier and more environmentally conscious buildings could reduce risks for occupants, there is some risk associated with seeking and retaining information on product contents. Designers should provide clear and consistent communication with clients by explaining intent and process. It’s important to avoid claims of “healthy” buildings and guarantees of data accuracy. Lacking training as materials scientists, architects must also be careful not to take on the responsibility and undue risk of interpreting disclosure documents.

Reference our Materials Transparency and Risk for Architects Whitepaper for a summary of potential risks and mitigation strategies. Luckily, much of the risk for architects and design professionals can be avoided through tools architects already use, such as clear contract language and professional liability insurance. Navigating this dichotomy and intelligently integrating it into the design process can advance your practice and our collective well-being.    

Putting words into action

Undoubtedly, there is much more information to gather and synthesize to make materials transparency common practice, but it is not far from reach. Whereas the environmental and health sections of the Materials Matter resource page focus on why we should care about the relationship between environmental and human health issues and building materials, along with resources to guide practitioners, the Impact on Practice tab focuses on simplifying the transition to making materials transparency an integral part of your design process.

Design professionals concerned about some of our profession’s—and our world’s—most complex issues have an opportunity to contribute to solutions, starting with prioritizing products and materials that perform well physically and aesthetically and are safer for humans and the environment.

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