I had half-convinced myself that making the solo drive to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., to attend Greenbuild was mitigated by the fact that I own a Prius. But then I saw this tweet from USGBC founder and CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, congratulated the USGBC staff members who had spent two days cycling the 250-mile journey, and removed all thoughts of redemption from my mind.

This kind of dedication brings me to my first impression of this year’s event: heightened engagement and commitment by attendees. Sure, today’s agenda was filled with LEED workshops and topic-specific summits—the show officially begins on Wednesday—so the people who attended today’s marathon sessions in topics are up to their arms in sustainability. They’re the party loyalists who queue up to vote in the primaries. After failing miserably at navigating Philadelphia’s one-way streets and circling my hotel for 15 minutes, thus increasing my carbon footprint, I made it to the end of the Materials & Human Health (MHH) Summit’s opening session. I’m sure Ken Geiser, co-director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, gave a great presentation based on what I caught, which includes this paraphrased nugget: because people will spend 90 percent of their time with the products that architects specify, the profession must have a target in mind and make informed and deliberate material selections, for which suppliers will have to become participants in the process. 

Collaboration was evident in the first MHH breakout session I attended, which was "Product Ingredients: Tools for Material Health." The presenters—Tom Lent from Healthy Building Network, Lauren Heine from Clean Production Action, and Stacy Glass from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute—managed to segue smoothly from presenting their respective tools and methodologies to name-dropping each other’s tools and methodologies. At one point, I’m pretty sure that Lent fit  Healthy Product Declaration (HPD)Pharosthe GreenScreen Method, and Cradle to Cradle certification all in one breath.

That session’s takeaway for me was that the organizations behind the third-party verification systems have not only realized that the bevy of reporting standards was deterring already wary manufacturers from participating in the process, but also that by integrating and building off of each other’s systems, everyone benefits. By unifying the protocols, the organizations signal to manufacturers and users that everyone’s on the same path to green products, Lent says. 

Lent also poked fun at the existing process of completing an HPD by asking who in the audience had actually tried and enjoyed the process of filling out the spreadsheet template (answer: one person in a group of roughly 200.) He then announced that the HPD Collaborative had launched an online and streamlined application process for completing the protocol the day before. The process was developed by the HPD Collaborative and seven product sustainability assessment partners, including NSF International, PE International, and UL Environment.

At the International Summit’s Luncheon Plenary, I had a taste of Philadelphia’s locally harvested cuisine along with Fedrizzi’s signature zeal as he announced the launch of the Global Coalition for Green Schools by the Center for Green Schools at USGBC and the World Green Building Council.

Back at the MHH Summit, the Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) training session raised some tension among the audience members, about a third of whom were manufacturers. Presenter Steve Baer, a senior consultant at PE International, was questioned frequently on the accuracy of the data and databases used to generate the LCAs and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that he presented as tools to inform designer decisions. The audience’s incredulity “may hurt,” he said half-jokingly, “but it’s a good discussion to have here with 170 people in a room.”

Stephanie Carlisle, environmental researcher at KieranTimberlake, also demonstrated the just-released Tally, a tool and Revit application that inputs and analyzes the environmental impact of products in projects that are still in design.

Audience engagement was again strong in the closing session, "How Information Improves Performance." USGBC senior vice president Scot Horst, LEED, moderated the panel, which comprised John Knott Jr., executive director, HPD Collaborative; Sara Greenstein, president, UL Environment; and Tim Cole, head of sustainability at Forbo Flooring Systems. Members of the audience eagerly weighed in on several questions Horst posed, including how to get manufacturers to buy into product transparency—“cost and stakeholder demand,” Cole said, to which the audience generally agreed—and whether product transparency was here to stay. The latter issue received a confident yes from panelists while about two-thirds of the audience demurred.

Horst ended the session by asking the panelists to envision a world in which material transparency was achieved and then directed one final question to the audience of half product manufacturers and half product users: “Who thinks a future in which we all want to live is possible?” he asked. And, regardless of the frustration and uncertainty that had been expressed throughout the day, nearly everyone raised their hand.