Are Materials Mindful?

Global climate is changing and humans’ burning fossil fuels is a significant contributor to the change.  We burn fossil fuels which adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere; the additional CO2 increases our atmosphere’s ability to trap heat from the sun.  Both the construction and operation of buildings are huge consumers of fossil fuels and contributors of atmospheric CO2.  The construction industry has recognized its responsibility to the climate by developing methods to construct buildings in a manner that is less environmentally impactful and also to make our buildings consume less fossil fuels.  

There is some encouraging progress; the US Department of Energy recently published its 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey: Energy Usage Summary which indicates that the rate of increase in energy use is slower than the rate of increase in total building square footage.  It’s a step in the right direction, but what we really need is to decrease how much energy we use and how much CO2 we release.  Architects are in a tough spot in light of this fact, and are under significant pressure individually and as a profession to reduce their projects’ climate impact.  Numerous organizations and initiatives, such as USGBC (LEED), Green Globes, Living Building Challenge, and AIA 2030 have been developed to help architects and owners reduce their projects’ carbon footprints.

Unfortunately for architects, they generally have only minor influence over energy and carbon in their projects.  Some of the biggest contributing variables are not in the architect’s control at all: Does the project need to exist at all? How big is it? Where is it located? How meticulously are energy-consuming systems maintained? How many hours a day will it operate?  Architects have some influence over other considerations pertaining to energy (design of the building envelope, for example), but most of the hard work of calculating and designing energy efficiency performance is done by engineering consultants.  That left architects, who feel the need to participate in changing the world, a bit out in left field.  In an effort to bring the entire building design and construction community into the “green” conversation, the definition of “what is green” has expanded well beyond carbon and energy and into site considerations, material sourcing, water efficiency, and indoor environmental quality.  These additional domains gave architects more areas to influence the decisions made on a project, and architects have actively participated in expanding their services to fill those arenas.

The problem is that for carbon and energy, results are comparatively easy to measure.  Basically, you count up how much fossil fuel and non-renewable electricity was used during a given time period operating the building.  Same thing goes for water.  But for indoor environmental quality, you quickly get into subjective value judgments over things like natural light and views, and into fear-mongering and questionable science over chemicals in building materials.

On April 6, AIA Chicago and USGBC Illinois co-presented a program called “Mindful Materials: Education & Advocacy.”  The program was marketed to ask participants to “join AIA Chicago and USGBC-Illinois … to explore how to distinguish greener and healthier materials faster to serve your projects better. The Chicago design community has come together to endorse a voluntary product labeling initiative, dubbed Mindful Materials, to facilitate the transition to transparency, sustainable and healthy product selections for your projects.”  

The mindful materials initiative is simply just that – a labeling program and spreadsheet that materials librarians can use to track which products have health product declarations or Declare labels or are Cradle to Cradle certified.  To talk up the value of the labeling program, the speakers acknowledged that architects and designers are not chemists and are not trained to understand the medical literature, but somehow still equipped to understand what’s good and what’s bad sufficiently well to tell their clients that they can make their buildings more healthy.

The science is particularly equivocal on the link between adverse health effects and most building products.  Even chemicals that carry significant health hazards may not be risky at all when properly managed to minimize exposure, used in small concentrations or used in combination with other products.  For architects to not only full-throatedly advocate for certain product attributes but also arbitrarily select products based on a ‘mindful’ label could be doing a serious disservice to their clients.  

Architects and designers can make themselves feel like they’re being “green” through the use of products based on product ingredient ‘transparency’ and claimed (but not substantiated) indoor environmental quality attributes, but it’s a wasteful distraction, like fiddling while Rome burns.  It may not feel as significant, but architects can make a far bigger “green” impact by understanding the energy codes, heat gain and loss, air, water and vapor movement, and how these things affect building envelope.  Then they can make informed design decisions accordingly.