Healthy Building Materials Research

Building Products Material Vetting: Looking at product health, hazards and sustainability.

With today’s options for building materials, picking the right product can prove difficult, even if you know what you are looking for. This article will examine the changes happening in the building materials industry and provide guidance on selecting products that will meet the goals of your project.

In recent years, the increased awareness in sustainable design has broadened industry wide concerns with the health hazardous of building materials. As with past products contained harmful chemicals such as asbestos, PCBs and formaldehyde, building designers understand that not all products are created equal, and many products are not fully vetted for human and environmental health effects until years after they have been installed in millions of buildings. So as health concerns continue, understanding what chemicals are in our building products is moving up on the priority list and becoming just as important as knowing what is in the food we eat. Many programs and certifications have evolved to evaluate products for chemical composition, environmental and human health which are helping to allow professionals to cross compare products.

In the last ten to twenty years, the Passive House (Passivehaus) standard and energy efficient design strategies have made airtightness a greater priority to achieve higher levels of energy efficiency. However, with a tighter building envelope, there is less natural air leakage and less fresh outside air coming in. We need tight envelopes to maintain comfortable temperatures, while minimizing heating and cooling output. Though one of the problems with building tighter is that many of the products we put into our buildings, are full of harmful chemicals. Once installed, many chemicals off-gas into the building and contaminate the indoor air. Where older leaky buildings allowed for these chemicals to flow out of the house, newer buildings must now integrate efficient mechanical air ventilation strategies in order to reduce chemicals and improve indoor air quality while still maintaining interior temperatures. In addition to building energy efficiency, increased concerns for overall human health and wellness are playing a big part in moving the building materials industry into a realm of greater transparency and concern for what exactly goes into each product. So if we can easily select products that don’t contain known chemicals of concern, or maximize the use of natural ingredients, less concern needs to be paid to what might be in the air of our home or office.

With millions of building products on the market today, it’s often difficult to know where to start. For do-it yourself-ers and smaller builders, what’s available at Home Depot and Lowes typically determines which products get used, with little regard for material health or sustainability. For commercial and larger scale projects, the search for the perfect product can seem almost infinite. Every day more products become available, and there is a overabundance of differnt claims of sustainable and healthier products: PVC free, NAUF, GreenGuard Certified, recycled content %, FSC, FloorScore, low VOC, etc. . There are literally thousands different criteria which get applied to products, which continue to make product comparisons more difficult. Material selection has never been a quick and easy process, but with all the additional requirements, certifications and health concerns it is quickly becoming an almost impossible task for architects and developers to be sure they are selecting the best of the best. It seems at this point, understanding building product hazards and sustainability criteria could be a university major all in itself, so the items below will simplify the process a bit to give you a better understanding of the factors at play, so you’ll be able to set realistic goals for your project.

Material Health vs. Sustainability:

Signature Sustainability has recently been providing full material product vetting for a developer in New York City. The scope of the project consisted of a full review of material sections of the specifications. Focus was given to products that have direct interaction with building occupants, such as flooring materials, counter tops, wall and ceiling materials in addition to several other more indirect products like caulking, shop applied coatings, flame retardants and adhesives. The main goal of the client was to provide a building that was considerably “healthier” than that of a standard building. Through the careful vetting of product health and sustainability criteria, we assisted the client with reviewing materials and recommending the products with the least hazardous chemicals and greatest environmental certifications or manufacturing processes.

Although we looked at both health and sustainability, the client wanted health criteria to be priority over sustainability. When attempting to select the best product in a material category, there were times when we needed to consider health criteria over sustainability in order to meet the client’s goals. When reviewing gypsum board, we knew that there is typically a large amount of recycled content, which met the project’s sustainability goals. The unfortunate discovery, is that the recycled content in gypsum board is far more hazardous than natural gypsum. (A side note: most gypsum wallboard on the east coast uses FGD (Fuel Gas Desulfurization) as replacement filler for natural gypsum. FGD is a process used to remove sulfur dioxide from fossil fuel power plants, and the material collected in the scrubbers now makes up a large portion of the recycled content in much of the east coast gypsum board. Gypsum from the west coast however, is typically natural gypsum and thus free of any FGD material.) Some research suggests that synthetic gypsum is not harmful, while other reports state that mercury and other metals are present in the product. So, in order to align with the client’s goals of improved building health, we needed to select a product with as little recycled content as possible. In this case, a product with no recycled content was actually the preferable choice. The hope is that the industry progresses, manufacturer’s will provide products meeting both health and sustainability criteria, rather than having to forgo one or the other.


Material Hazards:

In order to help to weed out products with harmful chemicals and push manufacturer’s to meet higher thresholds of material health and sustainability, many certifications and standards have evolved to make identifying products easier. The problem with so many certifications is that it can often be an overwhelming task to determine what programs apply to the material and which certifications are most effective at ensuring material health.

There are now hundreds of material health attributes to consider, some of the more popular are:

  1. VOC content (grams per liter g/l) – Standard in evaluating paints, coatings, sealants, adhesives. Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals which easily become vapor and “off-gas” chemicals into the air.
  1. Building Product Certifications:

a. FloorScore – Flooring Products, adhesives and underlayments

b. Declare Label – Living Futures Institute Certification (all product types)

c. GreenGuard Gold – Many Material Categories

d. Green Screen – Chemical Hazard Assessment

e. CRI Green Label & Green Label Plus+ – Carpet, Carpet Pad, adhesives

f. Cradle To Cradle – Environmental Life Cycle Analysis

g. Cradle To Cradle – Material Health Evaluations

h. SCS Indoor Advantage – Building Products, Furniture

  1. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): documents that provide additional environmental product life cycle analysis information and global warming potential information.
  1. Health Product Declarations (HPDs): documents, which indicate the percentage and type of chemicals used in production along with associated hazards. (expanded beyond what is covered in MSDS or SDS)
  1. SDS & MSDS (Safety Data Sheets & Material Safety Data Sheets) – standard building product health criteria and emergency information.
  1. Typical Chemicals of Concern:
    1. Mercury
    2. Lead
    3. Flame Retardants (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs))
    4. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
    5. Chlorinated Pesticides
    6. Phthalates (PVC)
    7. Formaldehyde
    8. Anti-microbials
    9. Fly-ash or FGD
    10. The Red List (Living Futures Institute and Declare Labels) this list includes a preselected list of chemicals of concern. These chemicals are banned from use on Living Building Challenge projects.
  1. Indoor air standards: CDPH 01350 – California Department of Public Health sets standards for environmental and public health considerations. Some key elements focus on indoor air criteria used by GreenGuard and other certification programs as a baseline for improved indoor air quality standards.
  1. Database: Pharos Project – “combines manufacturer transparency and independent research to provide in-depth health and environmental information about a wide range of building products.”

Material Sustainability:

With so many levels of health and sustainability criteria to consider, selecting the right product can seem daunting. How do you ensure you select the most sustainable product for environmental health, in addition to making sure you don’t select a product that might contain known carcinogens, while also ensuring the product will earn you credit towards LEED, WELL or Living Building Challenge or meet your general project goals? You may want to dive in and do the research yourself, but be sure to take that time into consideration. Hundreds, if not thousands of hours can be spent researching products in order to determine what is available and what meets your project’s requirements. Signature Sustainability well versed in building materials vetting and understand the importance of selecting the least hazardous and most sustainable products. It may be wise to make a list of the products you are most concerned with and start there.

When looking at the environmental sustainability of products, the best products tend to be from manufacturers that provide transparency about what goes into their manufacturing process. If there are no harmful chemicals in a product a manufacturer shouldn’t’ be worried about disclosing what is in the product on a Health Product Declaration (HPD). If the manufacturing process limits transportation, uses recycled or rapidly renewable products the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) will indicate as such.

Some of the current standard sustainability criteria of products:

  1. FSC WOOD – (Forest Stewardship Council): sustainably harvested wood, invoices should indicate a Chain of Custody number (COC).
  1. Recycled Content – varies from pre-consumer (post industrial) and post-consumer (pre-industrial). Ask your manufacturer what makes up the reused material.
  1. Biobased content – many products are manufactured using waste from the agriculture industry. Materials that are derived from biomass resources. (Organic materials such as crop residues, wood residues, grasses and aquatic plants.) The USDA has created standards for “BioPrefered” products. More information in the link.
  1. Rapidly Renewable – products which are able to regenerate in less than 10 years
  1. Product Transparency: HPDs and EPDs – these documents provide product disclosure for health and environmental criteria provided by manufacturer’s and third party testing agencies.
  1. Local Products – products manufactured as close to the project site are beneficial in that they support the local economy as well as reduce distances required for transportation, cutting down on total life cycle carbon emissions.
  2. Energy Star – Energy Efficient Appliances

In closing, there are always choices to be made with regards to a specific project goals and needs. Currently, the industry is undergoing a important shift towards improved wellbeing and sustainable criteria. As the demand for products that meet enhanced levels of health and environmental standards increase, manufacturers will continue to shift their focus to modifying their products to follow suit. It is important to call your manufacturer representatives and speak with them about what your project is looking to do and what type of documentation and criteria you are looking for. Many of our conversations with manufacturers have been beneficial to educating them on changes in the industry and allows them the choice to pursue new methods of product creation and chemistry. Communication is key toward getting the product supply to catch up with the demand for better building products. Material vetting may always be an overwhelming task, but product databases like Pharos, certifications and transparency should help to make it easier in the years to come.


If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out:


Permaculture – not just another “buzz” word.

In today’s fast paced world, with new ideas and technologies constantly evolving, it seems as though we just move from one buzzword to the next, hoping to find a saving grace in the next best thing…. “going green”, “sustainability”, “passive house”, “net zero”, “net positive”, “resiliency”, “regenerative”… Especially in the green building world, it always seems as though there is something better, something a little newer, just around the corner. There will always be room for improvement and new ideas, but maybe much of that knowledge we seek, is right in front of us, and we’re just too busy looking for the next big thing..

People get excited about a new strategy or idea and I think that’s why certain words stick, like sustainability. Although the dictionary definition of sustainability doesn’t fully encompass all the changes that need to be made, and really only focuses on “sustaining” but not “repairing”, “thriving” or “regenerating”, it’s clear that the current movement has taken to use the word to encompass all of this and more. The Sustainability Movement is in motion encompassing all industries worldwide. It’s clear that this movement is beyond just a buzz word.

So, if you are like many, who enjoy a good “buzz” word, one of my favorites is Permaculture. Permaculture is a term used to describe a design methodology, which can help create a more “permanent” form of “culture”. The term was coined by an Australian by the name of Bill Mollison in the 1970’s. Bill and his colleague, David Holmgren worked together to create a design philosophy which pulled from native cultures, time tested strategies, current technology as well as many other brilliant ideas. One of these brilliant ideas is to gain a full understanding of the system you are working with, from inside and out. For instance, when creating inputs in a system’s design, you would want each input to have more than just one use, or yield. This idea is known in the permaculture world as “stacking functions”. So, any one input, would always provide two or more outputs. A simple example might be that you have a problem in the garden with pests, instead of spraying toxic chemicals, you decide to get some ducks instead, since ducks love to eat bugs. The ducks then eat the bugs and solve your pest problem. But, ducks also provide fertilizer through their waste, and they produce eggs for food. So as many of us in the permaculture world like to say… “The problem is the solution”. Instead of spraying a pesticide to kill the pests, you took time to observe the system, and gain a better understanding of what input might make the system function more smoothly. This idea of careful observation and other strategies were pulled together by David Holmgren. Holmgren came up with twelve key design principles for Permaculture, which we can use to address many issues currently found in society in order to design a more resilient, regenerative and permanent way of life.

The twelve principals are:

  1. Observe and Interact
  2. Catch and Store Energy
  3. Obtain a Yield
  4. Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
  5. Use and Value Renewable Sources and Services
  6. Produce No Waste
  7. Design From Patterns to Details
  8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
  9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
  10. Use and Value Diversity
  11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
  12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

This video is from David Holmgren’s permaculture principals site. More on these can be found here:

So why do we need Permaculture?

Permaculture includes tools to address food, buildings, society, culture, the environment and more. Currently, the majority of our food is produced through the use of large scale agriculture processes which require huge amounts of chemical pesticides, toxic fertilizers and tons of oil in order to maintain production. The agriculture practice known as “mono-culture”, is where one crop is grown in vast quantities over hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland. The one crop “mono-culture” not only strips the soil of nutrients, but is highly susceptible to disease and pests because there aren’t any buffers or edges to stop the spread of a disease or insect. You essential have one microclimate for miles and miles with no diversity. This makes for a very weak system. In addition, the agriculture industry is one of the largest contributors to climate change, pollution and destruction of natural ecosystems. Modern agriculture is not resilient, and when inputs run out, the system falls apart. Have you ever thought of what might happen if oil wasn’t readily available? Your local grocery store wouldn’t be restocked because the delivery trucks rely on oil. The warehouses where they pack and ship the food rely on oil, and almost all of the farmers growing the food rely on oil. You have one input responsible for all the outputs. The current reliance on oil is far from resilient and quite disturbing when you think of the true fragility of the system. Permaculture allows us to address the current flaws with the food system and make it more resilient and far less reliant on oil.

What if there was a way to eliminate the need for constant inputs and create regenerative systems that (with minimal inputs) could sustain themselves and improve the soil? Prevent the need for pesticides? Or could be done on a level that reduced or eliminated the need for fossil fuels altogether? Permaculture can help us design for resiliency and it doesn’t only apply to growing food, and like I said before, it can also be applied to buildings, people, communities and regions. Through permaculture, we can bridge the gap between the needs of humans and the environment and design with intent to minimize negative impacts and maximize yields.

Within Permaculture, buildings, nature, landscapes and communities can be seen as one. Permaculture brings a sense of wholistic design, which incorporates elements of sustainability, biomimicry, biophilia, renewable energy and regenerative design to in order to mimic natural systems, maximize yields and create a truly resilient living environment. By looking beyond just the four walls, ceiling and floor, buildings can clean water, harness sunlight, grow food, provide habitat and adapt to changes in the environment. Instead of growing lawns, we can grow food. All your hard work in the yard on the weekend could end in more food on the table, lower grocery bills, less spent on gas for the lawn mower and happier people! Did you know studies have shown that those who garden are typically happier? (See article here)  Imagine neighborhoods where grocery stores were much smaller and only reserved for specialty items? What if the vast majority of food came right from the land in your neighborhood. The idea of Permaculture isn’t just a utopian dream. It’s happening. People all over the world are studying Permaculture and transforming their homes and neighborhoods one plot at a time.

As the push to “buy local” grows, and people’s awareness of the need increases, it makes more sense to grow food close by, and move towards resilient food sources. Much of the food we eat here in the United States is grown in the mid-west and California, so if you live in on the east coast, the majority of your food is traveling thousands of miles to get to you. So, if food is local and plentiful, there is less reliance on shipping food from far away places and the food system becomes more resilient. This same concept can apply to buildings as well.

Buildings can now be designed to produce more energy than they demand, so they essential can become energy providers to buildings close by. What if all roofs captured and filtered rainwater and were covered in solar panels? It is possible to design human environments that work with nature and are truly resilient. It helps to determine how to “stack functions” during the design process. In addition to protection from the elements, roofs can capture water, grow plants, provide a space of relaxation, produce energy, etc.  In order to get to true resiliency and a regenerative culture, we will need to change our idea of what is beautiful and what is important, as permaculture designs won’t typically look like the straight lined buildings and English style gardens we are used to. As we push to design more resilient buildings, we’ll find ourselves slowly changing our design priorities and I believe designs will maintain beauty, but become much more practical.

We are just now realizing the potential for permaculture and other strategies in the grand scheme of addressing climate change and the many other problems with our society’s current operation. As we push to improve our current system, there is much to be learned and a long road ahead. The key to making change, is education and knowledge sharing. When possible, keep your findings open source and let others learn from your mistakes so they can move over those hurdles and discover new obstacles. If information is made available to everyone, we will have the tools we need to create a future that works with natural systems, instead of against them. Our schools at all levels need to start offering classes on permaculture, gardening and to get children excited about growing their own food and understanding how to create resilient and regenerative systems. The systems exist to create a better future, we just need to spread the knowledge and use it.

Signature Sustainability provides Permaculture designs, discussions and presentations. If interested, contact us today: or 201-788-7963.

What is an EPD?

EPD stands for Environmental Product Declaration and quantifies the environmental impact of a product over its given lifecycle in the material stream. Much of the information on the EPD is based on a life-cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA assesses environmental impacts over the life of the material, building, or product, from raw material extraction, manufacture, through its use, to when it ends up in an incinerator or landfill. The EPD itself is essentially a data sheet that includes information on the specifics of a certain product as well as environmental information on the company that manufactures that product.

Relevant EPD information includes:

1. Life Cycle Impact (LCI)How much energy, material inputs and environmental concerns does the item contain, what are the impacts?

2. Material SourcingWhere and how was the material created, what processes were used to extract the raw materials?

3. Environmentally Preferable ingredientsWere recycled, rapidly renewable or environmentally certified materials use? Does the product contain harmful VOCs and other chemicals?

4. Manufacturing practices: land use, extraction locations, labor practices – How does the company that makes the product act? Does the product require clear cutting forests or dumping of waste into rivers? Is the material local?

So, EPDs create a place for transparency and allow for purchasers to choose between products not just based on the product itself, but on the many factors that go into creating that product. Through transparency, EPDs help to make a market that is fair to those who choose to produce products in a more ethically and environmentally friendly way. Although it may “cost” more for products to be produced more ethically, that is only a financial cost, and EPDs allow for the “true cost” of creating products to be seen, allowing project teams to choose a healthier and more ethically produced flooring material over one which is known to include harmful chemicals which may cause cancer or other negative impacts. The damage, or non damage, of ecosystems in the creation of products and other environmental factors now levels the playing field to be able to compare products across a variety of factors beyond just the product’s intended use.

EPDs are now required in LEEDv4 in order to earn points in the material credits. Some manufacturers already are providing this information, but many still have yet to do the Life Cycle Analysis of their manufacturing process in order to gather the information required for the EPDs. After October 31, 2016 as projects will be required to pursue LEEDv4, we hope to see more manufacturers providing this information as more project teams begin requesting it.

USG has already provided many EPDs.
See a sample: EPD SAMPLE

Environmental Product Declerations will continue to help propel the manufacturing industry to create more environmentally friendly and ethically produced products. As the interest in rating systems like WELL and the Living Building Challenge also request project teams to look at the specific chemicals that are part of the materials they use, manufacturer’s will need to find healthier alternatives to many of the harmful chemicals which are commonplace in manufacturing today.

When is LEEDv4 required and what are the major changes?

LEEDv4 is the USGBC’s newest version of the LEED Rating System. As with each of the previous incarnations of the program, LEEDv4 brings many new changes to the program but still maintains many of the core credit strategies of the previous versions. Originally released November 2013, at the annual Greenbuild Conference, the USGBC chose to delay the mandatory adoption of date of LEEDv4 due to industry push back. Since then, projects have had the option to pursue either the 2009 version or v4. LEED v4 will be mandatory as of October 31, 2016. With only a few months away from the official day when all projects must use the v4 rating system in order to achieve certification, many are wondering: What are the new requirements for LEEDv4? and What is different about LEEDv4?

In order not to bore you with the details, we’ll stick to the major credit changes and not dive too deeply into the specifics, which you’ll be able to easily research on your own once you have a clearer idea of where to start. Many credits have been renamed or combined into new credits, we’ll just list the brand new credits for BD+C to keep it simple for now.

New Credits:

  • Integrative Design: (1 point) looks at early and collaborative project discussions and models to find opportunities for synergies between disciplines to achieve greater efficiencies throughout the project in energy and water.
  • Location and Transportation:
    • LEED for Neighborhood Development: encourages the pursuit of the LEED ND rating system and a streamlined path for pursuing Location and Transportation points.
  • Sustainable Sites:
    • Site Assessment: an early site analysis to evaluate Topography, Hydrology, Climate, Vegetation, Soils, Human use and Human health effects.
  • Water Efficiency:
    • Outdoor Water Use Reduction: PREREQUISITE – requirement for landscape water use reduction by 30% through EPA’s WaterSense Water Budget tool or no irrigation.
    • Building-Level Water Metering: PREREQUISITE – requirement for measuring whole building water use.
    • Cooling Tower Water Use: additional analysis of water sources and maximization of water cycles.
    • Water Metering: must submeter a minimum of two water end uses.
  • Energy & Atmosphere:
    • Building Level Energy Metering: PREREQUISITE – additional metering of whole building energy uses
    • Advanced Energy Metering: meter any end uses that are 10% or more of total building energy, must connect meters to BAS with data loging
    • Demand Response: (building reducing or shifting the electricity demand during peak periods in response to time-based rates or other forms of financial incentives)
      • Incorporate systems into the design to allow for demand response integration
      • Include demand response in commissioning scope
  • Materials and Resources:
    • Construction and Demolition Waste Management Planning: projects must set target percentage for waste reduction and reporting of diversion rates
    • Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Environmental Product Declarations
      • Creates transparency of environmental life cycle impacts of products and selection of products with less environmentally harmful life cycles
      • Products must provide EPDs (Environmental Product Declaration) from manufacturer
      • Local production
    • Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Sourcing of Raw Materials
      • Creates transparency of in sourcing of raw materials and selection of materials that are more appropriately sourced
      • Products can earn credit for manufacturers that provide information on land use practices, extraction locations and labor practices etc.
      • Local production
    • Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Material Ingredient Reporting
      • Creates transparency in material composition and selection of products with optimized ingredients
      • Products can earn credit for meeting programs such as Health Product Declaration, Cradle2Cradle, etc.
      • Local production
      • Supply chain optimization
  • Indoor Environmental Quality:
    • Interior Lighting: Addresses lighting quality and controls requirements (from previous 2009 credit “Controllability of Systems – Lighting”)
    • Acoustic Performance: (previously available in Schools and Healtcare)
      • Room noise levels
      • Speech privacy
      • Sound isolation
      • Reverberation time
      • Paging, masking and sound reinforcement systems

Major Changes:

  • Minimum Energy Performance: ASHRAE 90.1-2010 now required – Demonstrate an improvement of 5% for new construction, 3% for major renovations, or 2% for core and shell projects in the proposed building performance rating compared with the baseline building performance rating.
  • EPDs: Environmental Product Declarations: are now required in order to earn credits as some of the major material credits in LEEDv4. The Materials Reuse, Recycled, Regional, Rapidly Renewable and Certified Wood material credits are gone and are now incorporated into parts of the three Building Product Disclosure and Optimization credits.
  1. Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Environmental Product Declarations
  2. Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Sourcing of Raw Material
  3. Building Product Disclosure and Optimization: Material Ingredient Reporting