BUYER BEWARE: Perkins+Will's new transparency website provides an expanding database of information on potentially harmful substances in building products, with specifics about health hazards and alternative product solutions. Products that can aggravate a person's asthma, or claim to be flame retardant, get special notice on the site.
Perkins+Will BUYER BEWARE: Perkins+Will's new transparency website provides an expanding database of information on potentially harmful substances in building products, with specifics about health hazards and alternative product solutions. Products that can aggravate a person's asthma, or claim to be flame retardant, get special notice on the site.

Perkins+Will, a leading architectural design firm, believes that knowledge is power when it comes to providing home buyers and builders with more information about the content in materials used to construct homes.

Earlier this month, the New York-based firm launched what it's calling the first free, universally accessible Internet database that identifies "precautionary" substances in building products that are either known or suspected to cause harm to humans or the environment.

This site is part of a broader movement toward greater transparency about the built environment that proponents hope will become the inevitable next stage of the sustainable evolution.

"The angle we're coming from is transparency in environmental claims: asking why a product is green," says Jennifer O'Connor, a group leader of the Energy and Environment Group within the Buildings Systems Research Program of FP Innovations, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based institute that serves Canada's forest products industry.

"People are looking to suppliers to understand that they need to reduce their [carbon] footprint," says O'Connor. "We flag issues for them." For example, if a manufacturer claims its products include recycled content, FP wants the producer to specify how much, as well as the amount of energy used to create that content and whether the "green" finished product is itself recyclable. And gathering data to provide that information might also lead suppliers to re-examine their processes and change to eco-friendlier practices, like switching to biomass from kilns for drying wood.

For the past year in the United States, Underwriters Laboratories' UL Environment division has been providing third-party verification and certification for companies seeking to obtain environmental product declarations (EPDs), the International Organization for Standardization's life-cycle assessment-based tools for communicating the environmental performance of a product or building system.

Paul Firth, who manages UL Environment's EPD program operations, says that the U.S. Green Building Council has been moving toward declarations to be included among its LEED protocols. "And our phone conversations have increased" with product manufacturers, users, and other interested parties as a result. "This has been happening in Europe for a couple of years, and industry leaders are already working on this, so it's only a matter of time" before this level of transparency becomes more common in the U.S., he tells Builder.

In 2009, Perkins+Will came out with its first Precautionary List of 25 potentially harmful substances that were found in building products. Since then, the firm has continued to expand that list, and the new database includes three other portals: for asthma triggers and asthmagens, flame retardants, and a media site that offers a library of sources and white papers.

Whenever possible, Perkins+Will places substances on its precautionary list based on governmentally published scientific papers. However, the firm does not require scientific consensus, only that a substance is suspected to cause harm to people or the environment.

In defense of that methodology, Peter Syrett and Chris Youssef—Perkins+Will's associate principal and healthy materials expert, respectively—explain that their firm's goal is to open a dialogue between users and manufacturers, and to offer product alternatives. "We want to open people's eyes, and we're hoping to shock them," asserts Syrett.

Youssef says his firm doesn't confine its list to substances found harmful by American-based research, either; he points specifically to REACH, the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their usage, as one important source on which Perkins+Will relies. Another foundational touchstone for the Precautionary List, says Syrett, is Daniel Goldman's book "Ecological Intelligence," which according to Goldman's website "reveals the hidden environmental consequences of what we make and buy, and shows how new market forces can drive the essential changes we all must make to save our planet."

"The burden is on the producer to be more forthcoming" about what's in its products, says Syrett. Both officials also believe the precautionary list lifts some of the opacity that surrounds the content of building products, and places more responsibility on users to educate themselves "and take a closer look at the consequences of their actions."

A common retort made by suppliers to past calls for transparency has been that consumers' demand for it is a mile wide and an inch deep. For example, in the early 1990s the Forest Stewardship Council's attempts to create a marketing identifier for wood products harvested to its protocols never really caught on with the public.

But consumers have come to expect content labeling on food, which has been around since 1913. And it doesn't take a lot of imagination to envision a progressive retailer such as Ikea someday adding more comprehensive content information to the description tags for the furniture it sells.

So Perkins+Will, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania-based building products manufacturer Construction Specialties, developed a label that details the content of that supplier's products. Syrett and Youssef seem convinced that consumers will eventually demand content labeling on building materials, especially for those products that affect indoor air quality, which is of particular concern to a broad swatch of homeowners.

O'Connor of FP Innovations agrees that content labels are coming for building products. Indeed, can labeling be far behind for UL Environment, whose parent's "UL" stamp has long been the most recognizable validation of reliability for electrical products? In fact, UL Environment recently launched TerraChoice, an environmental "science-based" marketing agency that helps clients in North America "convert genuine environmental leadership into winning strategy, communications, and positioning."

Among TerraChoice's services is its analysis of clients' products to ensure their credibility and protect them from accusations of "greenwashing"; in other words, keeping them off the radar screens of watchdogs like FP and Perkins+Will.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: New York, NY.