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    Credit: Justin Metz

Louis Kahn famously asked what a brick wanted, but it might better serve us if we knew what the brick was in the first place.

The building industry’s pivotal role in global greening underscores the need for information transparency. Billions and billions of tons of material in the global economy are tied directly to the manufacturing of building products. Yet the identity of these materials remain a mystery throughout much of the supply chain to most consumers. Reliable data at all levels of production and consumption are essential to improving their performance.

“Materials are not what they used to be,” says Michael Bell, a Columbia University architecture professor who chairs the school’s Conferences on Architecture, Engineering, and Materials. “Materials in some senses are becoming continuous stratums of amortized risk.”

In other words, the chemical stuff that makes up our physical things is often well-researched in its raw form, but barely understood in terms of its life span. That fact doesn’t bode well for an architect interested in the health, safety, and welfare of society at large—namely, for all architects. As life-cycle thinking becomes more prominent in design, architects need to know more about materials than their strength, appearance, and cost. They need to be aware of the production processes, recycling potential, and associated ecological and environmental hazards that may lurk beneath the surface. Diving to this depth of material culture, so to speak, creates a premium for detailed chemical information.

Popular design and building standards have revealed a certain amount of information already: LEED, the EPA’s Design for the Environment program, California’s Safer Consumer Products Regulation, the Cradle to Cradle certification of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, assorted “red lists” such as that of the Living Building Challenge, and other standards highlight material hazards and viable alternatives. At the same time, the material supply chain has grown unprecedentedly complex.

Innovation in production processes means that novel materials are capable of broader functionality. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA’s Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, for instance, would be inconceivable without Agilia, an extremely fluid concrete that can be poured in a single shot without vibration to smooth it out. If vibration is eliminated from the curing process, it stands that Agilia might have a much broader range of applications. In addition, increased overseas sourcing means less control for American specifiers, raising serious questions for architects: Are the suppliers compliant with standards? Are they fully aware of what’s entered a product upstream? Is the bill of materials (BoM) accurate?

It’s also important to be critical of greenwashing. A product may be labeled “VOC-free,” but knowing that it contains no volatile organic compounds isn’t the same as knowing what it does contain. What do those contents do to bodies and environments? Accidents (lethal and nonlethal) do happen.

With or without advanced chemical training, architects face a bewildering field of overlapping standards, and must navigate a research base that experts describe as vast, uneven, and ever-changing. Structured databases are needed to allow users to evaluate data and make informed choices. Organizations that are creating online tools to help fill this niche include Perkins+Will (P+W), which opened its free Transparency database last November; the Pharos Project, an open-source evaluation system launched in 2006 by the Healthy Building Network; and SciVera, a private business-to-business venture which marshals the expertise of board-certified toxicologists to evaluate research and help all participants in supply chains match value systems with BoM information, even when that information is proprietary.

P+W’s Transparency (transparency.perkinswill.com) is the first free database of substances commonly found in building materials which are either known or highly suspected of being detrimental to the health of humans and the environment. P+W contends that it is appropriate to apply the precautionary principle when selecting and specifying products and materials in light of the potential lasting impact of such materials on the users of facilities it designs. Rather than use products which contain these substances, in keeping with the precautionary principle it will seek out alternatives in an effort to counter reported health effects and protect the health of future generations. P+W’s Paula Vaughan, AIA, and Diana Davis, AIA, cite a 2005 Environmental Working Group study, “Body Burden: the Pollution in Newborns,” which found that out of 287 foreign substances in umbilical-cord blood from Red Cross samples, 250 were directly tied to building products.

“From a healthcare standpoint,” Davis says, “our clients have typically been more focused on what microbes materials encourage and harbor than about the inherent health or toxicity of the product itself. We’re just now starting to be able to provide that additional level of sophisticated knowledge about materials.”

Perkins+Will’s sustainability specialists have developed lists of common asthma triggers, flame retardants, and documented or highly suspect carcinogens. Transparency fills a unique void for architectural practice in between a dearth of centralized information sources specifically for design professionals and the reluctance to “do full scientific research every time we were specifying carpet,” Vaughan notes. Davis and Vaughan also endorse the Pharos Project (pharosproject.net), begun by the advocacy group Healthy Building Network in 2000 as a broad collection of related product information congruent with other organizations’ research, such as BuildingGreen’s GreenSpec environmentally preferable products list. Pharos emerged from the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge, a certification program that centers on materials research, New Urbanist planning principals, biophilic theory (à la E.O. Wilson), and social-justice goals. In terms of materials, Pharos centralizes multiple third-party product-certification systems, compares their levels of analytical rigor, and specifies 16 substances or substance categories that must be addressed for a building to meet its standard.

Pharos compiles one of several so-called “red lists” of harmful materials to be avoided, which tend to overlap and, in aggregate, confuse more than clarify. The Healthy Building Network has one; so does Google; and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is trying out the idea with its new Pilot Credit 11 on chemical avoidance. What makes Pharos stand out is its red, yellow, and green ratings, which help decode and filter the complications of multiple standards.

There’s a language barrier between different parties in the product chain, in other words, but there are also a lot of blind corners. SciVera (scivera.com), a three-year-old Charlottesville, Va.–based company, might have the solution. SciVera is the partnership of urban planner and management consultant Joseph Rinkevich and board-certified toxicologist Thomas Osimitz. Their Web-based SciVera Lens analytic tools have begun attracting attention in design and construction for their ability to provide material information inexpensively and in two scalable ways: SciVera Lens provides a platform to companies for efficient collection of product material and chemical data while also automating the toxological risk-assessment and reporting process.

Architectural materials and products, Rinkevich says, represent an important growth area for SciVera, which already documents materials in automotive interiors, toys, and electronics, as well as specialty chemicals. The company’s expansion into outdoor equipment and household goods is under way. This may seem like a lot to take on, but the materials and chemicals assessed in one domain frequently appear in another, Osimitz says.

The firm has also begun integrating a material-tracking system used in the Chinese toy industry, raising the possibility that the SciVera Lens system could interface with building information modeling (BIM) systems in the future as well. Both Osimitz and Rinkevich say that such a step is technically feasible.

SciVera can respond to evolving research faster than list-based approaches. “Lists for most part are developed on the basis of science that usually occurred five or 10 years ago,” Osimitz says, “so they are lagging indicators of safety to humans and the environment.” SciVera incorporates red-list information into its software—it’s useful stuff, after all—but tracks potential interactions as well.

“Because we’re primarily a science-based team, as opposed to a data-based team, we have a group of toxicologists that review the current literature and asks, ‘Does a given chemical have the same kind of properties as another chemical that is already on a red or restricted substance list?’ ” Osimitz asks. “We allow people not just to see the current picture, but to give insight into the likelihood that chemicals not currently on restricted lists could be included on such lists down the road.”

SciVera’s procedures are designed to address two of the pervasive problems with existing chemical-assessment processes: incompatibility and lack of credibility. For data compatibility, SciVera’s Web-based platform enables companies to easily and securely import product and material data for assessment. SciVera ensures credibility by disclosing to its customers all details of each assessment.

But the company’s approach is also well-suited to emerging technologies and newly developed materials, about which there are many proprietary information and intellectual property concerns. SciVera gives suppliers two options: They can either provide full chemical information or, for those who want to keep their cards closer to their vests, they can generate and communicate to their customer (the manufacturer) a Pharos-like red, yellow, or green assessment result.

Less than a mile away from SciVera’s operation, the GreenBlue Institute has been making similar strides. James Ewell, who directs the chemicals program at GreenBlue, a nonprofit co-founded by William McDonough, FAIA, and chemist Michael Braungart, has been managing the organization’s CleanGredients database for preferable ingredients used in chemical-intensive products. He concludes that all of the available hazard-assessment resources available to specifiers are useful, but at the end of the day, environmental risk-and-benefit evaluations require weighing the results and are therefore judgment calls.

“Pharos is nice because right now it’s asking useful questions about other life-cycle metrics that architects are interested in,” says Ewell, who also emphasizes that SciVera’s flexible and scalable products could make it “the Intel Inside [program] of any company wanting to obtain in-depth toxicity information about the materials they are using.”

In the event that material hazards have legal ramifications, plausible deniability isn’t a realistic stance. Being on top of research creates opportunities to take protective measures before regulatory compliance is needed. “If the information’s out there, you need to know about it—and the sooner the better,” Osimitz says.

“Architects are always concerned with liability, and there might be things they’d rather not know,” says Columbia’s Bell. But for any resource that could make plain the properties of building materials, Bell adds, “I would assume architects will flood to a site like that.”

“I’ve found in all the companies we’ve dealt with—and we have been very fortunate to deal with first-rate companies,” Osimitz says, “they realize that lack of knowledge does not mean lack of responsibility. And that quality data are always friendly.”