PDX Professionals Push for Better Materials Choices and Healthier Buildings

May 25, 2016

By Susan Gust

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” said Aristotle. That is how many designers are feeling about sustainable design and more specifically materials transparency, just one aspect of sustainability. I remember a time, not so long ago, when sustainability seemed like a much simpler pursuit, as the first architect at a 45-person firm to become LEED accredited in 2004. At that point in my career, LEED was the pathway to a sustainable building in my eyes. Today there are so many places to go for information and so many different types of project certification to pursue that it makes my head spin. In the face of all this complexity, it is such an inspiring time to be a designer with an unrelenting concern for the health and wellness of building occupants. I am currently pursuing accreditation for the WELL Building Standard and excited to find that more clients are requesting selection of Red List-free materials than ever. Designers have the momentum to push manufacturers to not only divulge material content but to replace any harmful chemicals with more healthful alternatives.

Often we do not have full control of what product representatives leave in our materials libraries, and management is both challenging and time-consuming. HKS Architects first announced their mindful MATERIALS library labeling initiative at the Chicago Material Chemistry Workshop on March 12, 2015, as a means to make product ingredient information in library materials easier to access.

The HKS labeling system served as a catalyst to unite a group of building industry professionals in Portland who wanted to implement this system at their respective offices. It quickly became obvious that PDX was full of individuals with a passion for materials transparency, and the group began to meet regularly to share experiences, ultimately forming the Portland Materials Transparency Collaborative (PMTC), a voluntary group dedicated to integrating full disclosure of material content as a performance benchmark in the way products are developed, designed and integrated into the built environment. The primary goal is to stimulate market transformation and community engagement with a unified regional voice for the implementation of material transparency into everyday practices.

Manufacturers are increasingly being asked to disclose material content. As specifiers, we have the option to avoid using products produced by manufacturers that refuse to disclose their information, thus steering the marketplace away from potentially harmful ingredients. The PMTC plans to invite manufacturers to meetings several times a year in order to create an open dialogue with them. The goal is to stimulate and guide market transformation rather than just avoiding those products deemed as harmful.

Additionally, the PMTC has identified a need to help each other educate our colleagues and clients about the importance of such a market transformation and to understand the different forms of disclosure already available. We know that other industry professionals are feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and hope to make things easier for others to understand. Together we will collect information, share resources, discuss examples of successful pursuits, and determine how to best incorporate these ideas into our project process.

Though still frustrated in cases where information is lacking and difficult to obtain or just stymied by the sheer infancy of the pursuit, I am excited to be part of a united front that ultimately aims to push the industry toward production of healthier materials. Currently, the PMTC has representation from designers, specifiers, and manufacturers and is open to those who have a common passion for the evolution of materials transparency. Please join us!

I invite the reader to share any thoughts or common struggles in the comments section.

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Susan Gust

AIA, LEED AP ID+C, WELL AP

Associate