In my Material Performance in Sustainable Building class at the University of Minnesota's College of Design, I task architecture graduate students to design a Do-It-Yourself Ecolabel, an assignment I launched last year.

Like many ecology-minded individuals in the building construction field, students in the class typically bemoan the absence of a reliable, comprehensively applied label that conveys the environmental impacts of building materials. Labels such as Environmental Product Declaration, Health Product Declaration, and Declare have come a long way, but are still far from the kind of widespread application seen in the Nutrition Facts food label, for example.

I'm pleased to present this year's labels with added explanatory comments. The students' objective was to design a new label that could be applied to a wide variety of building products, with strong evidence of "Four C's" of evaluation: Clarity, Concision, Credibility, and Comprehensive application. Based on this collection, it appears that the students care a lot about recycled content, the simplification of complex data, and providing links to digital content.

Everyday Building Product ecolabel by Tiffany Chen, Ben Partridge, and Jessica Wang.

Everyday Building Product ecolabel by Tiffany Chen, Ben Partridge, and Jessica Wang.


Everyday Building Product ecolabel by Tiffany Chen, Ben Partridge, and Jessica Wang. This label evaluates a variety of material criteria, including carbon footprint and energy use, on a scale from 0 to 10. The best performers are tagged with a photo of a healthy flower, and the worst performers are tagged with a dead one. This label also informs the consumer how many miles material resources have traveled from the harvesting site to the manufacturing plant.

Karmaterial ecolabel by Derek Gallagher, Anna Mahnke, and Sara Marquardt.

Karmaterial ecolabel by Derek Gallagher, Anna Mahnke, and Sara Marquardt.


Karmaterial ecolabel by Derek Gallagher, Anna Mahnke, and Sara Marquardt. This label focuses on material recycled content and recyclability, with clear points awarded to each, including products whose manufacturers employ take-back programs. The label actually persuades us to think differently about products, imagining them entirely within a closed-loop system.

Building Assessment Resource ecolabel by Lucas Glissendorf and Derek Kieckhafer.

Building Assessment Resource ecolabel by Lucas Glissendorf and Derek Kieckhafer.


Building Assessment Resource (BAR) ecolabel by Lucas Glissendorf and Derek Kieckhafer. The "BAR" label utilizes bar graphs for five common material criteria, thus employing a common data visualization strategy as a material measurement tool. Like Edward Tufte's "Sparklines," the BAR label could be employed within inline text at font resolution.

Decisions Ultimately Easy ecolabel by Laurel Johnston and Zhezi Yang.

Decisions Ultimately Easy ecolabel by Laurel Johnston and Zhezi Yang.


Decisions Ultimately Easy (DUE) ecolabel by Laurel Johnston and Zhezi Yang. The DUE ecolabel looks beyond common environmental criteria, including considerations for manufacturer green practices. Its leaf shape clearly conveys material pluses and minuses that fall in positive and negative scales, respectively.

  • Green Grade ecolabel by Ben Kraft and Oleg Kozlovskii.
    Green Grade ecolabel by Ben Kraft and Oleg Kozlovskii.

Green Grade ecolabel by Ben Kraft and Oleg Kozlovskii. Green Grade applies Energy Star-type evaluation to Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability material data, giving a letter grade to the top 25 percent of performing products. One question that came up in discussion: should all products be graded or just those receiving As and Bs? (Would manufacturers tolerate receiving a D or F, for example?)

Planeteer ecolabel by Nicholas Kramer, Mark Nordall, and Eliot Olney.

Planeteer ecolabel by Nicholas Kramer, Mark Nordall, and Eliot Olney.


Planeteer ecolabel by Nicholas Kramer, Mark Nordall, and Eliot Olney. The height of simplicity, this label riffs on two familiar icons, the recycling logo and planet earth symbol, to provide more information about recycled content in products. The more green arrows, the greater the quantity of recycled material. The color of the globe is based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recycled content guidelines: a blue planet surpasses the recommended EPA standard within a product category, and a red planet falls below the standard.

Seal of recycled content ecolabel by Chris Massey and Eliot Spronk.

Seal of recycled content ecolabel by Chris Massey and Eliot Spronk.


Seal of recycled content ecolabel by Chris Massey and Eliot Spronk. Similarly elemental, this seal is granted to only the top 10 percent of products, based on their quantity of recycled content. A green icon indicates a product with recycled content that is more than half bio-based.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.