July 19, 2013

Do the criteria for excluding building materials actually benefit the environment as they claim to do? This difficult question is tackled below in a frank and insightful Conversation between Joe Lstiburek, John Straube, Achilles Karagiozis, Theresa Weston, Mac Sheldon and Gary Parsons.

I just came back from New York City and had heard that a major architectural firm has decided as a goal to eliminate all petroleum-based products from their list of specifications. And they probably drove with a car to that meeting. This is consistent with rumours in Boston and in Chicago. I am somewhat bemused by that because many of the substitution products take an enormous amount of petroleum to make so that they don't have to have the petroleum in them.

The Bullitt Center in Seattle is one of the first big Living Building Challenge buildings in America, and they tried hard to follow the Challenge's red list and in most aspects they were able to, but it wasn't as simple as petrochemicals – they had a specific list – specific fire retardants that they were avoiding. One supplier reformulated their water-air barrier so that it did not contain some of the chemicals on the red list. So there is apparently significant pressure being brought to bear on the industry to alter the composition of specific products or limit their use. I know that big companies, like Google, have an environmental plan that says they shall not build buildings with anything on the red list on them. The Google approach is more sophisticated than just "no petroleum," thankfully.

When we talk about these red lists, are we talking about products that don't have an environmental product declaration? EPD, as we call them? Should not the first step be for the manufacturers of products to produce these EPDs before we start putting things on a list?

The red list is in existence, it has a group of chemicals on it, and it's based on a perception of hazard, basically "we think these materials are bad." It is not always clear the reason that the keepers of the list think they're bad, they're just bad. In many cases there is no exposure limit, just a potential – these could hurt somebody somewhere. That's unworkable especially if people don't understand chemicals and chemical exposure. There is the potential that a lot of products could end up on the red list that are potentially beneficial and potentially much safer than the alternative – so the problem is, it's very easy to list something, but there's no easy way to do a full risk analysis.

There does not appear to be a standard of proof – a requirement of proof. In fairness I think there is actually some science to support some exposure on some materials. Petroleum based chemicals is not a category on the Living Building Challenge red list, and I guess the rumours in New York City and Boston are an example of how stupid things can get. When it comes to the Living Building Challenge red list, we can't have products that contain things like petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Is that perhaps what people mean when they say something can't contain petrochemical products? We can make an absurdity of the statement "can't contain petrochemical products." Because essentially everything that's shown up on a job site contains petrochemicals in the sense that someone drove them there. So that's just a ludicrous bar to set. But some materials...I mean, you could say, which ones do we think are a good idea? Asbestos? Is that a good one to keep on a red list? We can make our own red list...How do you move forward in this conversation? Other than to inform the public that each red list is an arbitrary list by a particular group, and some of the items on the list make some sense. I think many would agree with banning asbestos – but some bans make a bit less sense, because the red list would literally consider 1 part per billion of formaldehyde unacceptable.

I submit that petroleum is 100% organic; nothing more than super-composted plant matter buried under layers of earth. Would it be acceptable to those who advocate against petroleum products to reduce the consumption of petroleum by 90% or more? If so, then stop burning it! Find a different method of transportation and fuel source and the remaining 10% can be used for all of our clothing, household products, building insulation and creature comforts we're so accustomed to and enjoy so thoroughly.

If one is dead set on not using petroleum products they must not use HFCs, which means no mechanical cooling systems. Is everyone OK with that? Maybe we ask that question in August and see how many people are willing to bend their rules a bit.

Unless there's a clear and present danger (enriched uranium), and the assembly allows the material and people to be out of harm's way of each other (cavity insulation or exterior sheathings) then let the Life Cycle Assessment for the product influence the decision to use it or to find a different solution.

Some of these questions lead to interesting trade-offs. For example, we don't want any pesticides – or do we? Termites and termite control are quite an issue south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi river. I think if you're in Minneapolis or North Dakota or Ontario, you can be very comfortable and you can be very smug about saying "I don't think we should have any termidicide used in our project." But in other parts of North America it's not possible to exist without some of these. It's an interesting problem.

I think what we're getting to is coming up with a list that makes sense. And we should depend on the openness and the transparency of the products that exist. There are so many products out there that few people know exactly how they were made and the product category and if they have a verified life cycle – we should look at the life cycle too, from beginning to end, to understand the toxicity and the health impacts. It's much more sophisticated than what has been done in terms of putting something on a red list – or a black list. So we should start with requiring an assessment of impact so that then it becomes easier to say "use less of this product" or "use none of this product in these circumstances".

Maybe we should have a black and white list, and then a gray list. You could probably come up with a very small number of items that you would allow none of in a manufactured product. But the problem with the current Red List that they have is that it's not about how much you can have, it's literally zero tolerance. That is unworkable. What is the limit where it's okay? It can't be simply a black-and-white list where it's either bad if it's there and good if it's not. It hardly moves the discussion forward and hardly gives useful direction to the industry about what kind of products should be developed. There need to be reasonable thresholds set because a zero tolerance policy, while ideal, is not practical or helpful.

These lists appear because people in the industry have very little understanding of how these products are manufactured or what their components are, or what the roles of their components are. As a result, there might be some point in providing more information about the whole life cycle and how different chemicals are used and get introduced. This might help to explain why they might be present in different amounts. We also need to provide a very clear understanding to the public of why these chemicals appear – what they're for – they've all been designed in some way, but that doesn't get communicated. People are worried about things like petrochemical insulation in building enclosures, but what about all the stuff that's in the building after the building's done? Are we going to say that you're not allowed to have any petrochemical products inside the building? If that's the case, then leave your laptop on the curb, most of your clothing and oh by the way, you can't clean your house because there is no cleanser you can use.

It's ridiculous in the sense that the lowest use of a petrochemical is to burn it to make something hot. And yet that is the choice that most Americans make for their transportation and heating their homes. But because we have a lot of them, we use them for that. And so then everything else – when manufacturers refine petrochemicals into a container that's recyclable, insulation that saves energy for the next 75 years, roofing membranes that keep the water out for the next 30 years – all of that is considered a problem? It's just irrational, because there's a complete ignorance of the materials – it just sounds good, I guess.

Let me throw on one more issue: lack of chemical industry involvement - the manufacturers of these products. All of our companies are big companies that have various responsible manufacturing programs, so we don't really get much out of the thought of having hazardous products or promoting their use. We put a lot of time and effort into making sure that our products can be safely used, and we probably know more about how they're made, and how they're used, than anyone else on the planet. So if we're not engaged in the discussion, it's going to be flawed from the start.

I would echo all of that. There are very strict product stewardship processes that we follow to understand environmental impacts, health impacts, and how people use the final product. Lists also don't look at how the material is incorporated in the product. I think silica is on some of these lists. That would mean that sand cannot be used. Silica, if you breathe it in as a raw ingredient, yes it can cause issues, and you have to wear personal protective equipment if you are actually working with the material, but if sand is added to stucco and it's stucco on the building, you're not going to be breathing it in. So the red list doesn't look at the form of the chemical in the actual products.