Green Chemistry Innovators Help Advance Dialogue around Safer Building Materials

Ashley White, PhD

Through the LEED, Materials, and Health Initiative, USGBC has been advancing dialogue around the challenges and opportunities associated with material ingredient disclosure and elimination of chemical hazards in the building sector.

Last week USGBC held a workshop on Advancing Safer Materials in the Building Products Sector, in conjunction with the 9th Annual Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) Innovators Roundtable held at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The connection with the GC3 Roundtable, which attracts a wide array of manufacturers, retailers, scientists, designers, NGOs, and other organizations, allowed a robust dialogue around barriers, opportunities, and the support and education needed to transition to safer products.

The workshop opened with talks from Ken Geiser (Professor Emeritus at University of Massachusetts Lowell) and Ashley White, two of USGBC’s Senior Research Fellows, framing the need and opportunities for safer building materials and particularly how the LEED v4 rating system can help drive that change. A panel discussion providing case examples of companies successfully transitioning to safer materials followed, with contributions from Amanda Kaminsky of The Durst Organization, Dan Sawyer of NatureWorks LLC, and Valerie Andersen of 3M’s Electronics and Energy Business Group. The panel was moderated by another USGBC Senior Research Fellow, Joel Tickner, Associate Professor and Director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production.

“Two of the biggest issues identified were a lack of data on material ingredients and health-related attributes, as well as an over-abundance of certifications…”

Small group discussions, which allowed participants to engage with one another in depth, were the highlight of the workshop. Participants cited a number of technical and market challenges to advancing safer materials. On the technical side, two of the biggest issues identified were a lack of data on material ingredients and health-related attributes, as well as an over-abundance of certifications – each with its own requirements and assessment process. On the industry and marketing side, innovation requires significant investment and a scalable technology. One of the issues discussed was the hesitation or inability by early adopters of new products to accept the risk that might be associated with technology that has a limited track record of performance in the field.

The most exciting part of the day was when the discussion turned to solutions and opportunities. The workshop participants saw opportunities in harmonizing certifications and assessments, improving tools and databases containing chemical hazard and product information, sharing best assessment and purchasing practices, and forming coalitions around common goals. These coalitions, trade associations, or professional societies might have the “strength in numbers” required to influence ingredient disclosure, sponsor product assessments, and prioritize next steps for the industry.

The group also highlighted the importance of consumer demand for change, driven by better education around chemical hazards, as well as better communication across the supply chain – designers and end users communicating their needs to researchers and product developers, and industry doing a better job of communicating product improvements to specifiers.

This workshop was one in a series of events USGBC has been convening around materials and health. Resources from this event can be viewed here, and video footage from many previous events can be viewed on our YouTube channel.

Future events will address many of the topics brought up at this workshop such as challenges and opportunities in innovation and how green chemistry and advancements in materials data and tools can help advance safer materials. To be notified of future events, some of which allow remote participation, sign up here.

Ashley White, PhD
Senior Research Fellow at USGBC and Materials Scientist. Working to improve our understanding of the health impacts of building materials, increase materials data transparency, and incentivize the use of non-toxic ingredients in building materials. Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Cambridge.