Although the term “green building” tends to bring to mind images of clean, modern structures or even iconic edifices like the Empire State Building, a growing trend recognizes the importance of the effects of buildings and their materials on the people who live and work within them. As the IMRE Green IQ Team found at Greenbuild 2011, the intersection of sustainable building and human health has never been more important or recognized in the industry.
In part, this trend can be accredited to highly publicized cases of disease and health problems caused by exposure to chemicals in building materials like asbestos, which have drawn public attention to the danger of such toxins in recent decades. From production to use and disposal, some building materials emit dangerous chemicals that, over time, make their way into the bodies of the people who live and work around them. The Healthy Building Network identifies a number of chemicals in commonly used building materials, such as formaldehyde, PVC, polyurethane, mercury, lead and even substances in preserved wood, that have detrimental health effects and are increasingly found within human bodies.
Today, the movement toward chemical-free buildings is being advanced by three parties in the building arena: certification systems that provide incentives for reducing harmful chemicals in buildings, architects and designers who create demand for products that meet the specifications of the certification systems, and building product manufacturers that develop the materials to fit the bill.
Certification Systems: As part of the update to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system in 2012, the system will offer a pilot credit for avoiding chemicals of concern when specifying building materials. The Safer Chemistry pilot credit is worth one point toward LEED certification and can currently be used in new construction, schools, healthcare and commercial interiors. Pending the success of this pilot credit, the reduction of harsh chemicals in building projects may be integrated in a future edition of the LEED rating system.
Architects & Designers: Architects and designers are becoming educated and empowered by resources like the Precautionary List, a database of chemicals commonly used in building products that have potential to harm human or environmental health. The list was launched by the architectural design firm Perkins+Will in 2009, and serves as a resource for architects and designers who wish to eliminate building products and materials with harmful chemicals from their projects. The firm has since expanded the list into a larger Transparency Site that also includes a list of asthma-inducing substances and flame-retardants with toxic ingredients.
Building Product Manufacturers: Driven by the incentives of certification systems and demand among architects and designers, building product manufacturers are innovating new products and developing technology that helps to not only reduce the harsh chemical content of building products, but also make them more sustainable overall. Take, for example, Iowa-based manufacturing company ReWall, which manufacturers building materials made from 100 percent recycled products while eliminating glue, water and chemicals from the manufacturing process. ReWall recycles some 2 million tons of polyethylene-coated cups and cartons that would otherwise enter U.S. landfills every year, and employs a manufacturing process that uses 86 percent less energy than the process used to create its competitor product, drywall. With the incentive of specification by green-minded architects and designers, companies like ReWall will continue to push the bounds of technology to improve product performance and reducing negative impacts, driving green building to new heights.
As the details of building products become more accessible and transparent, especially through resources like Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), the building community will be emboldened with the knowledge necessary to make informed product selections that support healthier buildings and environments. The buildings of the future will support a healthier environment and healthier people, all while reducing negative impacts on both.