Perkins+Will Canada Shares the Facts on Material Transparency and Building Health

Presentation to University of British Columbia staff calls for the need for market transparency

Food manufacturers are required to publish the ingredients that go into our food products so consumers can make informed choices about what they eat. So why do we know so little about the products in the buildings where we live and work? As a result, we are unaware of the effect these building materials have on our air quality and health. Perkins+Will is closing the knowledge gap on what goes into the building materials they specify. As more consumers demand this information, design and construction companies are asking the questions and manufacturers are sourcing answers, investigating the composition of their materials and seeking transparency.

The conversation on material transparency began in 2009 with Perkins+Will’s New York office launching the firm’s transparency website, a publically available tool that allows designers to make educated decisions when choosing healthy materials . The database is the result of over two years of review of third party published scientific papers, which identify precautionary substances known or suspected to cause harm to humans and the environment. This research is based on the Precautionary Principle, the idea that 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 intent of the list 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 designers and consumers are further empowered make informed decisions about specifying, maintaining and disposing of the products in their buildings.

Perkins+Will is applying the Precautionary Principal wherever possible on materials specified for the projects they design. The firm recently completed the Vancouver Parks Board’s VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre and the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, both projects leading the way in sustainable design and certification. Specifying healthy materials and extracting information on material ingredients from product manufacturers required an in-house team of researchers. The mandates for these projects resulted in many lessons learned as healthy materials were incorporated and the transparency principal applied. The information obtained throughout the design and construction of these facilities will be carried to future projects, developing a portfolio of transparent manufacturers.

Based on this recent experience, Kathy Wardle, Research Director and Associate Principal for Perkins+Will is leading a discussion on Healthy Building Materials at the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. She and her team will explore the four basic steps required to promote product declaration and transparent industries as well as sharing the tools available to learn more about what goes into our buildings and the pollutants we consume indoors. Kathy’s team is eager to disseminate this information. In March 2012 the team delivered a similar presentation to the Board of Vancouver Coastal Health.

“Change in the material supply chain will gain momentum as consumers demand greater accountability from material suppliers. As a firm, we are proud to advocate for material health and share this valuable knowledge with others in our industry,” says Kathy. “Leveraging purchase power will bring about change faster than if we keep this information to ourselves.”

Historically, building product manufacturers haven’t had incentive to disclose the chemical composition of their products. But if large institutions and corporations advocate similar regulations to those we have for the food industry, product declaration will become a recognized standard. When companies like Google get involved, their purchasing power will influence great change and Perkins+Will is confident that by educating local universities and businesses they can drive the healthy materials evolution.