“In the absence of scientific consensus, an action merits precautionary treatment if it has a suspected risk of causing harm to humans or to the environment.” -The Precautionary Principle
These days, the imperative of sustainable design invokes the health of ecosystems more readily than the health of individuals. Fossil fuels expended, old growth forests cut down, carbon produced in manufacturing: the environmental stakes are well known. But the biological implications of the choices we make in constructing our buildings and cities are harder to come by. The shocking medical realities of a malignant substance like asbestos have led to surprisingly little public information about substances that may be damaging, if only we had sufficient data from consistent testing.
To redress this lack of information, the architecture firm Perkins+Will went about creating a free, online database – called Transparency – of building materials that contain substances known or suspected to be harmful to health. The database is geared towards the consumers who most often specify what materials should be used in a building project: architects and interior designers. The firm based their listings on a careful, two-year review of scientific papers and government research. The goal is to “encourage the building product marketplace to become more transparent from extraction to end of life for all points of contact, from manufacturers to de-constructors, so that people are further empowered make informed decisions about specifying, maintaining and disposing of the products in their buildings.”
In the interview below, Peter Syrett, Associate Principal at Perkins+Will explains the development and applications of Transparency, reflecting on architectural responsibility, the nature of scientific certainty and the role of buildings as instruments of public health. –C.S.
Tell me about Transparency.
Transparency is, first and foremost, a concept. We’ve applied this concept to the development of an online tool to help consumers or anyone else understand the total footprint of a project or a product in ecologically- or socially-responsible terms. The classic example of this type of thinking is, “What’s the environmental footprint of my lunch? Where does it comes from?” If it’s sourced locally, it has a lower embodied energy than if it’s a piece of beef from Argentina with a higher embodied energy. The point is to try to understand the implications of your actions as a consumer.
How does the tool work from a consumer’s point of view?
As a consumer, your power is at the point of purchase. In order for you to apply that power, you need to understand, at the point of purchase, what you’re buying. That’s the idea of transparency. At the point of purchase of a building product, the specifier or gatekeeper of that purchase is often the architect or designer. And so it is up to the architect or designer to understand the ecological composition of a carpet or a window system or a cladding system outside a building.
In essence, right now, as an architect, you’re blind when you buy something. You are privy to a product’s price, you are privy to how it relates to certain building codes – how it would combust, etc. You may be privy to some of the manufacturing process, but not all. And you may be privy to some of the composition of the product, but not all. But you are unable to make a comprehensively informed decision on your purchase. Transparency is about being able to make informed decisions, to compare in a meaningful way multiple things next to each other and understand the ecological implications of your purchase. Daniel Goleman writes about this in his book Ecological Intelligence, and so we are seeking to apply that logic to the building product world.
When and why did Perkins+Will see the need to establish this service?
This is an issue that some of my colleagues at Perkins+Will and I have been wrestling with for a long time. Over a decade ago, I was working on cancer center and we decided that we wanted to make it carcinogenic-free. We thought, somewhat naively, that this would be a straightforward or self-evident process. It wasn’t. We simply couldn’t get the information.
And so we locked onto this idea of finding ways to make the information available. How else can we make sure that we’re making things in line with our values? If the building materials in a cancer center are possibly carcinogenic, clearly that’s against the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.
Do you see the information and materials listed as part of a growing database?
As I see it, there are two ends to the spectrum. There’s understanding what the implications of substances in buildings materials are — that’s our precautionary list, our list of asthmagens and asthma triggers, and our list of flame retardants – and then there’s understanding what the materials are made of in the first place – that’s our work with construction specialists to label a product with lists of its components. With those two ends, you have the clarity of knowing what’s actually in the product and also a detailed back-up to help sift through what government regulators think may be harmful to humans or environments. Our databases are living lists: substances come on and off the market; regulations change; other governments are doing their own testing (the impact of the European Union’s chemical policy will obviously be important to materials specifiers in the US, for example).
What are some of the other ways the information is categorized on the site?
If you go the website, transparency.perkinswill.com, you can search by health effects; you can search by division numbers according to the Construction Specifications Institute (like concrete, masonry, metals); you can search by substance name. There are several ways to search, for example, if you are concerned about respiratory issues in particular.
We started in 2009 by releasing our Precautionary List, a list of substances that, whenever possible (and it’s not always possible), should be avoided. We soon realized that there are big holes in the knowledge base, particularly opaque sections of the material market. Flame retardants, for example: there’s virtually no information out there. So we hired a researcher from Berkeley, Dr. Arlene Blum, whose team did some original research. Asthma triggers are another important area about which very little information is compiled. Eleven people in the world die every day from asthma, and 30,000 people have asthma attacks.
Speaking of the precautionary list, the website invokes the “precautionary principle.” Could you explain what that means?
The precautionary principle comes from the Wingspread Conference, which was a gathering of scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists in 1998. Its primary concern was with climate change. The principle essentially states that in the lack of scientific certitude on a topic or an issue, one should choose a more conservative position rather than assuming that there’s nothing to worry about. That’s what we have applied in our compiling of the existing information about material safety. In other words, if you worry about the consequences of your acts, and if you are given a choice and you don’t know scientifically whether something is good or bad, then is better to err on the conservative rather than a purely rational position based on the limited testing that’s been done.
Science has never been about certitude. Once one scientific question is answered, there is always another question to be asked. And in the global climate change debate, we’ve seen people use that fundamental structure of science against what the Nobel Laureates agree is pretty clear evidence about climate change.
Of course, science will continue to explore human health and substances. But it may not clearly come back to the lay population, like myself, in a way that can be applied without a huge amount of additional research. The issue is not so much the lack of scientific study, it’s the lack of people’s ability to digest the information that’s out there. Both sides of the fence agree on that.
I’m interested in what you were saying at the beginning about a comprehensive understanding of the footprint of products and materials, from extraction to disposal. Is that sort of full life cycle, supply chain, systems thinking different from the ways in which existing regulation or standards view material safety?
Yes and no. In essence, the regulatory framework that governs what goes into building products relies on the permitted substances listed in the Toxic Control Substances Act of 1976, which lists about 82,000 substances. Of those, about 600 appear on an EPA watch list, and of those only 200 have been tested and only five have been banned. In other words, the substances in our building products are pretty much unregulated and unmeasured. So the burden is on the consumer to know what might be harmful, and yet it’s so opaque that it creates a central contradictory proposition. In terms of regulation and the market, the government isn’t looking at this terribly well. And for many reasons, we don’t really know what the products are made of. So it’s a real quandary. That’s why the concept of transparency is so important.
The food industry presents a good model for us. It’s a much more transparent industry in terms of content. Take, for example, a company like Coca-Cola. It has been able to maintain its top secret formula while still listing the primary ingredients on the can so a consumer can decide if she wants to put that in her body or not. So I don’t really buy the proprietary argument that more information infringes on intellectual property. If there’s a chance that BPA is harmful to infants, then of course I want to know that my baby’s formula is BPA-free.
Which raises the question, how has the construction industry reacted to Transparency?
Very well, I would say. This past year has been the year of transparency, in a way. Initiatives launched at GreenBuild; the Environmental Product Declaration process developed by UL Envrionment that recently came out. I think these efforts show that the thinking around this path is beginning to change and hopefully in the near future we’ll see broader adoption by the whole design committee. After all, one of the reasons to share this information is to begin to move the whole market. It doesn’t help if we have all this knowledge and research and silo it. We encourage our peers, firms large and small, to use it. The more people use it, the better the whole industry will be — and we hope that our peers have other knowledge that they can begin to share. Maybe there’s a whole other way to think about this profession, to think about resources, to begin to get the greatest leverage out of our collective experience.
How do you personally define responsibility in architecture?
A long time ago, people understood the importance of building for their own health. It was more immediate because buildings were shelter and therefore survival. I believe that buildings are essential to public health, I believe buildings are instruments of public health. And to that end, I want to make sure that I make environments that are healthy and allow people to be healthy and thrive. And that means understanding what they are made of.
Unless otherwise noted, all images by Marcelo López Dinardi.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.