Building Materials: What’s In This Stuff?

Chris Pyke, PhD
Introducing a series of blog posts from USGBC Senior Research Fellows exploring our understanding of the chemical constituents of building materials.

We’re surrounded by stuff: fixtures, furnishings, paint, sealants, wallboard, windows, doors, and wiring to name a few. It seems reasonable to ask a fundamental question: “What’s in this stuff?”

While it may seem reasonable to ask, it’s surprisingly hard to answer. We are accustomed to a more-or-less interpretable list of ingredients on all manner of consumer products, from fruit loops to insecticide. However, asserting an interest in the chemical constituents of buildings materials is something new.

“Today, we generally don’t know the details about the ingredients of common building products.”

Today, we generally don’t know the details about the ingredients of common building products. We don’t know what fraction of a material is potentially toxic or carcinogenic. We don’t know where it may come from or what its environmental impact may be. The absence of this information contributes to a pervasive market failure: we are unable make rational economic decisions or manage risk in the absence of information. Simply put, we are flying blind.

The first step in addressing this market failure is to understand what’s in the products that we use to create our homes, schools, and places of work and recreation. This seems simple, but, in practice, it gets tricky. Many manufacturers want to protect their “secret sauce.” Less obviously, it’s not always easy for manufacturers to be sure of all the ingredients that end up in their products because chemical manufacturing and supply chain management are complex businesses.

This begs a few important questions, “Is it possible to know what’s in this stuff? How confident can we be in a “list of ingredients”? How can we actually interpret a list offered by a manufacturer or third-party laboratory? How much does uncertainty about material constituents matter?”

In the following blog entries, we’ll get a reaction from our cohort of Senior Research Fellows:

Is It Possible to Provide an Inventory of ‘All’ Chemicals in a Product?

Envisioning a Perfect Building Material

Chris Pyke, PhD
GRESB, Chief Operating Officer, helping lead a global team using data and transparency to drive positive change in the real estate industry. Learn more on and