As an industry, green building is on pace to double every three years in large part due to the growing adoption of green building standards such as LEED, Living Building Challenge, and Well. This year’s Earth Day campaign theme is “Environmental & Climate Literacy,” and Integrated Eco Strategy is on the case to shatter a myth or two in the interest of improving understanding of how choosing healthy building materials benefit not only our environment, but can contribute immensely to the wellbeing of people.

Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors. Alarmingly, in the majority of cases the indoor air quality is far worse than it is outside. In the 1990’s a Presidential and Congressional Commission report identified indoor environmental pollution as one of the greatest risks to human health and in the same decade “Sick Building Syndrome” became a recognized health condition linked directly to poor indoor environmental quality.    

What’s making us sick? In a nutshell: toxic chemicals in building materials and furnishings (i.e. paint, carpet, office furniture) that off-gas volatile organic compounds that our bodies absorb through into the air we breathe and surfaces we touch. Unsurprisingly, these same chemicals also have negative environmental impacts during manufacturing and/or at end-of-life stages. In the Living Building Challenge program these chemicals of concern are called “Red List” ingredients, and are – with limited exceptions – banned from inclusion in any building product or material.

Will it Cost More?

So, common sense says that if you examine every single product going into a new building for harmful ingredients, and buy only the healthiest items available, it will cost more, right?

Well, yes. And no. Yes, if only the base costs of materials are considered. No, if the health and productivity of the building’s occupants are entered into the equation. The question we think building owners should be asking is: is it worth saving on initial construction costs if it means sacrificing the health and productivity of employees?

An industry rule of thumb is known as “2/20/200”: the annual cost of energy for a building per square foot is $2; constructing a building costs $20 per square foot annually (with sourcing healthy materials a relatively small percentage of that); and the yearly cost of salaries and staff of people who work in the building is $200 per square foot. The big building bucks are in people.

Our specialty at Integrated Eco Strategy is helping Living Building Challenge projects overcome one of the largest hurdles in the design and certification process: researching and selecting building materials that are Red List free, a tedious process in an industry where transparency about product ingredients is not the status quo.

Building to green standards like the Living Building Challenge does raise up-front costs. However, the payback on these investments are substantial, and provide a staggering array of benefits to the wellbeing of the building’s occupants, which translates into increased cognitive function and overall physical and mental health.   

The COGfx Study, MacNaughton P, Allen J, Satish U, Laurent J, Flanigan S, Vallarino J, Coull B, Spengler. 2016. The Impact of Working in a Green Certified Building on Cognitive Function and Health. Building and Environment DOI:10.1016/j.buildenv.2016.11.041

In a study from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, results showed that average cognitive performance of management-level employees were between 61% and 101% higher in green buildings. The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported similar findings in  a green building workplace the UK in which a study documented a 40% fall in sick leave, 11% gain in typing speeds and 10% to 20% reductions in headaches, colds and flu, fatigue and concentration difficulty. An estimated 6.2% improvement in productivity of employees equated to $300,000 in salary cost.

Green buildings are not only better for the environment, but can help occupants to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Similar findings abound – the increased initial construction costs of green buildings can pay huge dividends in the long term, benefitting people, profit, AND planet.

 

One of our Healthy Building Materials Specialists wrote this piece to answer the question. Here is a description of material vetting work – a knight’s tale if you will:

In a field that is constantly changing, no two correspondences are the same. There are a host of factors that influence the vetting process. Manufacturers’ familiarity with Living Building Challenge (LBC) requirements, their level of skepticism towards green building, and the stringency of proprietary confidentiality are just a few of the aspects that color a vetter’s interaction with the maker of a potential LBC product, not to mention the fact that an individual’s workload dictates where on a priority list filling out a never-before-seen Integrated Eco Strategy disclosure form falls.

As vetters, we reach out to manufacturers incognizant of their knowledge of even basic green building practices, and as such, we must teeter upon the line between condescension, as may happen in the instances when a manufacturer has worked with LBC many times prior and does not need the details spelled out, and presumptuousness, as can happen when a vetter proceeds in the process at full speed, leaving the manufacturer in the dust of our assumption that they are familiar with the work we do. In both cases, frustration mounts and clouds the necessary information that needs to travel between both parties for the process to continue efficiently.

To illustrate some of the disparate vantage points from which manufacturers participate in the approval process, here is some anecdotal illustration:

Manufacturer One

Here we have a manufacturer that is familiar with LBC, and has an exhaustive list of ingredients in hand, ready to be sent to a vetter in need. This process is often completed in a few email exchanges, sent in quick succession with few questions, beginning with an initial inquiry from the vetter and culminating with a rapid response from the manufacturer. If the product in question is “Red List” free, the product can be entered into Red2Green and marked as pre-approved without further ado.

Manufacturer Two

Here we spin a different, darker tale, one that includes more minute explanation and arduous secondary and tertiary correspondence. It is a harrowing narrative threading through trials of unresponsive contacts, vacationing engineering staff, and suspicious protectiveness of proprietary information. In these cases, we lay bare our green building philosophy before those who hold our desired information in hopes that they may sympathize with our cause. We reassure them that our respect for confidentiality can be compromised by no competitive force. We must hurdle faithfully over the chasms of missing ingredients, and often we must retrace our steps when we find that the information that has been bestowed upon is ambiguous or opaque. And, in the monstrous face of a “Red List” ingredient, we must leave no exception unturned; we work tirelessly with manufacturers to see that their miscellaneous hardware, wire coating, and trace chemicals are allowed through our stringent filters so that these filters do not become road blocks on the path to a greener world. At the end of our journey, we may find ourselves put upon with defeat, left to search the tumultuous hills of products for more LBC-compliant solutions.

However, we may also be lucky enough to see the clouds split and the sun stream through, illuminating an unconventional path to approval, a path that winds all the way to a magical land of healthy building and regenerative design.

IES is excited to be a partner in Binghamton University’s (Binghamton, NY) first Living Building Challenge project, called Nuthatch Hollow.

Ashley McGraw Architects has designed the 2,500 sf environmental classroom and research facility on the grounds of a 70+ acre nature preserve. In pursuit of full petal certification, as well as the goal of being Passivehaus certified, the project seeks to engage the wider community: students, faculty, staff and the community in the ongoing design process. In fact, students are at the heart of the materials discussion: investigating preferential materials for inclusion in the project specifications, and even making product recommendations when their research leads them to new materials and manufacturers. IES trained students on the LBC materials vetting process, and soon members of the university will begin to use Red2Green for their materials petal documentation and product research.

For more info on the building see:
Binghamton University  
Architects: Ashley McGraw 

Our first LBC project, The Class of 1966 Environmental Center at Williams College, has achieved Petal Certification.

The project successfully completed 3 audits and proved Net Zero water for 12 months. This project achieved certification in these six petals: site, water, materials, equity, beauty & health.

We couldn’t be more proud to have been the LBC consultant on the project. Congratulations Team!

 

Meet Matt Root. He will be our Boston based project manager.

Matt Root. Senior Project Manager.

Matt comes to IES from CLEAResult, an Austin, Texas-based energy efficiency consulting firm, where he led a multi-disciplinary team of mechanical engineers, building-enclosure experts and building scientists. His experience includes serving as a Home Energy Rating System rater and then as a LEED for Homes Quality Assurance Designee.

Welcome, Matt.

IES is a “Just.” company, providing transparency in our overall operations and a commitment to our employees and community. Just. is managed by the International Living Future Institute.