The annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo is an event that challenges professionals in how they approach the future of green building. Some argue that the green movement, gaining traction in the U.S. in 1970s through the environmentalism platform, is old news. While, for some, the movement has plateaued, buzz at Greenbuild 2015 said otherwise. Sprinkled throughout exhibitor booths and included in select educational sessions, “health” was the new catch word among green enthusiasts.
In looking for the genesis of this change, all roads seemed to lead to the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Founded in 2009, ILFI was created with the mission of, “leading and supporting the transformation of communities into places that are socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.” ILFI has a robust network of sponsors including Google, Mohawk Group, Yamaha and Owens Corning. With the help of experts and thought-leaders, the institute currently runs seven programs: Living Building Challenge (LBC), Living Community Challenge, Living Product Challenge, Net Zero Energy Building Certification, Just, Declare and Reveal. The LBC and Declare programs were key lenses through which attendees were introduced to considerations of health at Greenbuild 2015.
LBC was the institute’s first program. In fact, the Cascadia Green Building Council founded ILFI as an umbrella organization for the challenge and the council’s auxiliary programs. LBC started in the 1990s as a theoretical idea from architect and environmentalist, Jason F. McLennan. In 2005, McLennan introduced his concept to Cascadia, which eventually made it a codified standard. In 2010, Cascadia began certifying LBC projects through ILFI.
Today, LBC is the institute’s flagship program. LBC is seen as a building certification program, advocacy tool and philosophy that offers advanced measurement of sustainability. To date, more than 328 projects have registered with LBC, but only the following seven have received full certification:
• Smith College’s Bechtel Environmental Classroom in Massachusetts
• Tyson Living Learning Center in Missouri
• Omega Center for Sustainable Living in New York
• Hawaii Preparatory Academy Energy Laboratory in Hawaii
• Bertschi Living Building Science Wing in Washington
• Bullit Center in Washington
• Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscape in Pittsburgh
The Declare program centers on product labels that provide clear and informative ingredient details for building and construction materials to everyone from designers to consumers.
“When I started at the institute, it was very uncommon for manufacturers to talk openly about the ingredients that they used in their products. So, we created Declare in 2012 to really help facilitate communication between our project teams and manufacturers, and create a database of materials that are fully disclosed and vetted through the Red List," said James Connelly, LEED AP, director of the Living Product Challenge and Declare. “Currently, we have over 415 labels in our database, and it is growing fast."
ILFI believes that Declare offers manufacturers an expanded point-of-entry into projects and new platform to connect with consumers.
"Fully understanding their supply chains is the biggestchallenge for most manufacturing companies. However, it is also a benefit, because if a company understands exactly what it’s putting in its products then it has information that can be used to improve the products and get ahead of the market,” Connelly said.
Plumbing manufacturer TOTO was one of the biggest advocates for the institute and its programs at Greenbuild 2015. Bill Strang, president of Operations for the Americas at TOTO USA, was instrumental in forming the company’s relationship with ILFI. Through Strang’s vision, in September 2015, TOTO became the first plumbing manufacturer with products earning the Declare label and appearing in the Declare Products Database. In November 2015, ILFI determined that a number of TOTO's commercial products were Red List-free and listed them as such in the database; another first.
“The reason we got involved with the ILFI is that I wanted to give us the ability to tell the story about our products and address the issue of material health,” Strang said. “The plumbing industry, in some cases, has been seen as slow to react, stodgy and not really progressive. TOTO wants to be as nimble as the leading-edge tech companies in the world. So, when I benchmark, I benchmark against the Apples, Googles and Amazons. I believe TOTO can be as innovative as they are, not only in the product itself, but also in the way that we bring that product to market.”
TOTO’s Drake II 1.28 gpf toilet is one of the products that gained recognition from ILFI. The toilet’s original design earned “Declared” status, as it contained a PVC flapper, refill tube, and seat pads, and chrome-plated trip lever. The company worked with its vendors to produce PVC-free versions of these parts that are made of elastomeric (EPDM). As a result, a number of its high-efficiency toilets are now “LBC Complaint.”
“To meet these requirements, we spent money and used engineering and supply chain resources that ultimately cost us the opportunity to develop and work toward something else,” Strang said. “But, we did the right thing. Because we not only now have the opportunity to bring products to market that many of our consumers find desirable, but also our employees have become very proud that we’re doing things other companies haven’t considered doing yet.”
Paula McEvoy, LEED Fellow, is a senior project architect at Perkins+Will and co-director of the firm’s Sustainable Design Initiative. She said that the construction industry has been slow to embrace the concept of health in green building. McEvoy joined Perkins+Will in 2000 as a project manager, and has since been instrumental to the firm’s work in green building. In 2007, before ILFI’s programs were developed, Perkins+Will created its own precautionary list of material substances as a method of promoting transparency and specifying less toxic materials for clients.
“Initially, our Sustainable Design Initiative was created to help take the firm forward in actually meeting sustainability goals. When we started, we were doing things like having everybody become a LEED AP, and looking at greening our operations,” McEvoy said. “We started seeing some reports come out, federal and university, which were starting to tie health impacts to ingredients commonly found in building products. So, we felt that it was really important that we know what was in the products that we were specifying. From there, we started developing our precautionary list. And then, when the ILFI Red List came, we were one of the first to get on board.”
Perkins+Will has used the Red List while pursuing LBC status for projects including: Perkins+Will's Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago offices; the VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre in Vancouver, Canada; and the Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability at University of British Columbia.
McEvoy said that getting partners, clients and consumers on board with understanding the possible health impacts of certain building materials has not been an easy process. She said that one of the major road blocks has been awareness.
“The MEP industry is 99 percent unaware of these programs. Even when you look in HVAC, there’s nobody doing it. The closest you can get is insulation manufacturers; there’s a couple of companies dong it there,” McEvoy said.
Strang noted that some key roadblocks ILFI will face in industry receptiveness to its programs are lack of education and disinterest among professionals.
“Some of our plumbers and customers could care less,” Strang said. “Then, there are those who will say LBC is such a high standard that no one can meet it. And, I say, yes, it is a very high standard, but we need to make it our aspirational goal. Because, I believe today’s consumers are very passionate and want to be knowledgeable about the material health of the products in their homes.”
ILFI shares in Strang’s optimism. They believe their programs streamline the materials specification and certification processes.
“Having worked as a contractor when I was younger, it was incredible the amount of chemicals I was exposed to. Contractors are really on the front line,” Connelly said. “We’re trying to work with the trades to help them understand the potential risks of exposure and how to work with manufacturers so they’re not burdened with those risks.”
Connelly continued, explaining that beyond contractors, engineers and designers play a critical role in the success of ILFI’s work.
“Alternative water systems are increasingly becoming commonplace as we drive towards Net Zero Water buildings. Climate change and chronic overconsumption is creating massive global water shortages. How the plumbing industry adapts and reacts to these challenges is key to finding solutions,” Connelly said. “We know that the engineering and design communities' product decisions have ramifications. They must recognize their power to push manufacturers to develop better, healthier and more efficient products.”
McEvoy agreed with Connelly’s point, saying that being an early adopter of transparency reporting and ILFI’s programs has helped her firm to deliver standout service for green building projects.
“Before, you had to do the work yourself. We actually would go back to specification and website patent information when we were trying to find out what was in products,” McEvoy said. “Having ILFI programs cuts work down by a huge volume. It’s exactly what we want to see.”
There will be more to see very soon, as more partners and advocates come on board with ILFI. LBC has been endorsed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Canada Green Building Council. Just last month, USGBC made addenda to its LEED green building certification system that were focused on the analysis, disclosure and optimization of building products and materials. Specifically, one addendum stated that, “material ingredients will provide more flexibility for product manufacturers looking to meet the requirements included in LEED v4.” With this addendum, the Globally Harmonized System for the Classification of Chemicals (GHS), ILFI’s Declare program, and the Cradle 2 Cradle Material Health Certificate and ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard were added as referenced standards.
“We’ve seen incredible growth over the past year,” Connelly said. “Declare was initially intended to solve the problem of finding materials that are appropriate for LBC projects. It’s now gone significantly beyond that with this accepted pathway for LEED v4. The growth trajectory is really exciting.”
McEvoy added, “For us, having manufacturers report what’s in their products is the first step. We’re not expecting manufacturers to come to market having absolutely no potentially hazardous ingredients in their products. We just want them to say that they’re making the effort to find out what’s in their products then working on improving them.”
McEvoy is former co-chair for the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Material Knowledge Initiative. Last month, AIA published a paper on material hazards and risks. The paper was the result of a year-long collaborative process between Material Knowledge Initiative leaders, architects, legal counselors and insurance representatives.
“There’s been pushback from designers and architects asking, ‘Why would we ask for this kind of information? Is that not a liability for us?’” McEvoy said. “The paper looks at what we ought to know. It is a big step forward in having us feel more confident about transparency and material information.”
As the construction industry plays catch-up to the changes being made in green building, ILFI is forging ahead.
“We’re a future-oriented organization. In April 2014, we launched the Living Product Challenge, which asks manufacturer to create products with Net Positive impact through not only measuring and reducing their 'footprints,' but also maximizing their 'handprints,' which is a sum of total positive impacts a product has,” Connelly said. “We think it’s really exciting, because if you can create profitable products that actually have an overall positive impact on human an environmental health, it will turn the whole concept of sustainable business on its head.”