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Safer Materials: What Will It Take?

FRIDAY, JUNE 19, 2015

By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

The nature of building materials and products has been part of the LEED rating system from its beginning.

For almost 15 years, the evolution of LEED has included a commitment to the state of the art in material science. Just as important has been its commitment to influencing the global elimination of toxic materials and the development of more sustainable materials, products and practices.

Children at play

Manifest largely in LEED’s Materials and Resources (M&R) and Interior Environmental Quality (IEQ) sections, building materials have been scrutinized for their impact on the environment and on the health and well-being of building occupants.

Raising the Bar

The emergence of the International Living Future Institute has raised the bar for architecture in general, and benign building materials in particular.

The institute’s Red List is a compilation of material ingredients that cannot be used if a project is to achieve Living Building status.

Living Building Challenge

At the same time, industry pressure and politics associated with chemical suppliers have influenced stakeholders working to position Green Globes as a respected green building alternative along with LEED and the Living Building Challenge.

I anticipate that the conversations among these organizations, building professionals and manufacturers will continue for some time.

And there is movement.

Counting Petals

LEED v4 does not have a Red List, but the U.S. Green Building Council is beginning to accept some ILFI “Petal” requirements as comparable to some LEED V4 credit requirements. This has been getting a lot of attention.

SC Johnson

LEED users are subject to a bewildering barrage of new terms, conditions, testing agency standards, paperwork, and need for clarification.

Questions persist about the reason for promoting more benign, nontoxic products; these are summed up well in a recent article from Environmental Leader.

What Consumers Want

As the authors explain, consumers want safer chemicals and ingredients; they also want companies to be transparent about what’s in their products.

Target and Walmart Logos

To meet this demand and achieve a competitive advantage, Target, Walmart, SC Johnson and other retailers and manufacturers have taken steps to phase out hazardous chemicals in their products and encourage product transparency.

Now, this gesture does not directly address the social equity or supply-chain concerns that LEED is now championing, and for which these companies are criticized.

Bob Kobet
Bob Kobet

He can't formulate or specify nontoxic flooring; we have to do it for him.

But ongoing efforts to rid building materials of volatile organic compounds, endocrine blockers and other causal agents of building-related illness as detailed by Cradle to Cradle is welcome progress.

Blueprint for Safety

An Environmental Defense Fund blog post identifies a blueprint for safer chemicals in the marketplace that it has discovered in working with Walmart and other businesses.  

The EDF blueprint is not intended as a substitute for Environmental Product Declarations or the other detailed requirements in LEED V4.

Safer Chemicals

Still, it is a point of departure for more in-depth research and understanding.  The blueprint lists five “key pillar” things companies can do to ensure safer products, and begin their journey to LEED and Living Building Challenge compliance.

5 Pillars

The key pillars are:

  1. Institutional Commitment. Firms need a written corporate chemicals policy and solid commitment from company executives.
  2. Supply Chain Transparency. Before a manufacturer or retailer can flesh out its plan to introduce safer products, it must know the chemicals used to make those products.
  3. Informed Consumers. Transparency meets customer demands for increased product safety and sustainability.
  4. Safer Chemicals Plan. This plan is the roadmap for using safer chemicals and phasing out hazardous chemicals.

EDF says the plan “provides the structure for evaluating chemical safety with respect to workers, neighboring communities and consumers; prioritizing, managing and eliminating chemicals of concern; and evaluating, determining and introducing safer alternatives. The plan also provides a basis for communication with suppliers, customers and consumers.”

  1. Public Commitment. Communicate the company’s policy, timelines and progress (both successes and setbacks) toward safer chemicals. This can also lead to useful partnerships with other organizations that can provide expertise and best practices.

Getting It Done

The effort to mainstream these concerns and advance the effort to develop, market and implement green materials, products and practices must go beyond the USGBC, the Living Future Institute, Green Globes, and even the federal agencies charged with public health and safety.

I believe the most important factor—however we achieve it—is public commitment.

What will it take?

It will take all of us.


Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Architecture; Color + Design; Design; Environmental Protection; Environmentally friendly; Green chemistry; Green coatings; Green design; Hazardous air pollutants; hazardous materials; Lifecycle analysis; Living Building Challenge; Low odor; North America; Sustainability

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