AIA Knowledge
Illustration: Lauren Nassef

In architecture, the word “transparency” might be used to describe the effect created by a certain type of glazing or the social effect generated by an open floor plan. Today, architects, contractors, environmentalists, and others are broadening the definition of transparency to also apply to building materials—demanding that suppliers reveal the ingredients and processes that contribute to their manufacture and identify problematic substances, such as formaldehyde or plasticizers. For many industry observers, this movement toward responsible sourcing (and, indeed, greater sustainability) is both a welcome sight and a long time coming—but it also has a long way to go.

When everyone has a powerful search engine in their pocket—and when politicians and celebrities are only a tweet away—we expect greater access to companies and manufacturers as well. It’s an “open source” trend that feeds into the tenets of sustainable design, which has always relied on some level of disclosure. In the earliest days of the LEED system, for example, credits were awarded for products that claimed a certain amount of recycled content, and it’s now commonplace for architects to specify locally sourced or low-emissions products.

It’s more complicated, however, to determine the chemical composition of a building product, or what level of exposure risk is tolerable for certain users, or how many acres of forestland were destroyed when a product was made. Trickier still are social concerns such as whether unethical labor practices were involved, or whether a particular manufacturing sector has a net positive or negative impact on a local economy. Now that LEED v4 also rewards transparency and responsible materials sourcing, architects can feel like they also have to be experts in chemistry, ecology, manufacturing, and other disciplines.

Thankfully, architects and sustainability leaders are working to make it easier for the profession to make such sourcing decisions. One longtime leader in this effort is the Cradle to Cradle Certifiedtbvxwqvqdqrqdrafwyrvtdqcrzqtbbcdf program founded in 2005 by MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), which certifies products in categories including material health, material reutilization, and renewable energy use. Similarly, the Living Building Challenge calls on designers to use materials that are “nontoxic, ecologically regenerative, transparent, and socially equitable,” prohibiting products that contain certain “Red List” materials such as asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, mercury, and phthalates, among others.

Encouraging openness in materials— especially as related to healthy design—has been a focus for some time at the AIA. The Institute entered into a partnership with the International Well Building Institute in April and plans to conduct a series of workshops to promote the WELL Building Standard, which sets requirements for occupant health as it relates to air, water, nourishment, comfort, and other considerations. As with LEED, greater understanding of building products will be a necessary element in meeting the WELL standard.

Also in April, the AIA released its first-ever white paper on materials transparency and risk, produced by the organization’s Materials Knowledge Working Group. “Materials transparency & risk for architects: An introduction to advancing professional ethics while managing professional liability risks” focuses on five main points about materials transparency: sharing information is key; transparency presents business opportunities and competitive advantages; these practices do present some risks to firms in terms of legal liability related to product disclosures and other risks; increased transparency can help mitigate those risks; and the AIA has resources to help architects with sourcing and transparency.

Similar efforts are happening elsewhere. BuildingGreen offers a range of product resources for architects, including curated lists of preferred sustainable products. “There is now a societal expectation that information shouldn’t be hidden,” says Nadav Malin, president of BuildingGreen and a frequent contributor to professional development efforts sponsored by the AIA, the U.S. Green Building Council, and others. “A couple decades ago there wasn’t that expectation. Now product information is becoming easier to find and much more available, so the conversation can move from how to get the information to how to understand and interpret it.”

Malin outlines four areas of consideration for determining whether a product is environmentally preferable: upstream environmental impacts; health-related impacts; societal impacts; and habitat and biodiversity impacts. “We understand the typical designer is not an expert in these things,” he says. “There are so many transparency formats, and they tend to be pretty segmented. … What we’re hoping to see, and hoping to bring about, is more reintegration of all of those things, so it’s not just a trade-off.”

It is helpful at this stage, Malin adds, that LEED has recognized transparency is a goal in its own right, separate from how sustainable or preferable a product might be. “Regardless of how good or bad the product is, you get the credit for transparency,” he says.

This work has been aided by the launch of SmithGroupJJR’s Health Product Declaration (HPD) Library

in October 2015, a searchable database of detailed product information. (HPDs are standardized documents that manufacturers use to disclose building product content.) Completely free and available to the public— including competitors—the library contains 1,100 HPDs so far. Clearly, transparency is catching on. Greg Mella, FAIA, a vice president at SmithGroupJJR, who was recently named a 2016 Living Building Challenge Hero, estimates that 80 percent of the HPDs in the library have been released in the past 18 months, with more coming online every day.

SmithGroupJJR is now working on the massive MGM National Harbor resort and casino project just outside Washington, D.C., and has used that position to ask for more HPDs. “We’ve always taken the attitude that we’re all in this together,” says Mella. “Materials transparency is not about competition. It’s about pulling together to harness our collective buying power.”