AIA Issues Guide to Materials Transparency


Expecting building materials suppliers to share information about their products’ ingredients might have once seemed unrealistic. Today, however, materials transparency is both necessary and beneficial, according to a new report from The American Institute of Architects (AIA).

The AIA has just released its first white paper on materials transparency and risk, part of its efforts to provide consensus-driven guidance on an issue of critical importance to architects, their suppliers and their clients.   

“Whether in politics or in building design, transparency is an increasingly necessary element of modern life,” said AIA CEO Robert Ivy, in an April 8 statement. When it comes to materials, “it’s more important than ever for architects to be able to communicate openly about what they contain.”

The white paper, Materials transparency & risk for architects: An introduction to advancing professional ethics while managing professional liability risks, was developed by AIA’s Materials Knowledge Working Group (MKWG). While created by materials specialists, the document aims to help all architects understand the need for materials transparency and to provide guidance.

The white paper covers:

  • The evolving role of transparency in product contents;
  • Opportunities for architects in this changing landscape;
  • Actual and perceived risks of additional exposure to legal liability; and
  • Strategies for managing risks through communication and collaboration with clients, suppliers and technical experts.

The Transparency Trend

Before the advent of industrial manufacturing, the AIA argues, the architect’s traditional role included knowledge of the building materials, such as stone. Today’s complex materials pose a far greater challenge in this regard, but architects still need to understand manufacturing and ingredient sourcing processes to make informed choices.

According to the document, “attention to those raw materials becomes even more essential to the process of building with them as technology and construction techniques develop over time.”

For the AIA, product content transparency consists of “disclosures of substances that make up building products and potential health hazards associated with those substances.” Examples include Health Product Declarations (HPDs), Declare labels and certifications. These differ substantively from Safety Data Sheets (SDSs), environmental product declarations (EPDs) and OSHA standards, according to the AIA.

Opportunities for Architects

Product content transparency, the AIA says, is a way to “expose and thereby reduce unnecessarily harmful or risky choices,” and architects are in a strong position to encourage and incentivize disclosure of the materials used in a building project.

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Architects are in a strong position to encourage and incentivize disclosure of the materials used in a building project, according to the AIA.

Even if architects don’t use this information, sharing composition information with clients gives building owners the option to have materials assessed by independent, qualified professionals.

While pursuing such transparency could be seen as its own reward, it also presents several opportunities for architects, according to the AIA. These include:

  • Competitive advantage;
  • Thought leadership;
  • Design innovation; and
  • Environmental and human health leadership.

As engaging with manufacturers' product transparency becomes part of architectural practice, firms may benefit from getting involved and leading the way rather than trying to catch up later, the AIA suggests.

Managing Potential Risks

Advocating for materials transparency does introduce new risks, the AIA acknowledges. By seeking and retaining information about product contents, architects could be exposed to legal liability. Other challenges could include materials disclosures that obscure the actual contents and misleading marketing claims.

“One common concern,” according to the AIA, “is that a building occupant may claim to have been injured by a substance contained in a product, and assert that the architect was aware of the presence of the allegedly injurious substance and had a duty to avoid specifying products containing that substance.”

In light of these concerns, the AIA assembled a group of architects as well as insurance providers and attorneys working within the industry. According to the white paper, this group determined that “the legal risks should be managed and that AIA members would benefit from guidance.”

To help practitioners who choose to get involved with product content transparency, the AIA’s Contract Documents Committee will be releasing explanatory text and model contract language to specifically address materials transparency issues, according to AIA.


Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Architecture; Building design; Building materials; Construction chemicals; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; North America; Specifiers

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