I have a friend who’s a climate-change denier. He calls climate science “junk science”. He gets in my face about carbon dioxide. CO2belongs in the atmosphere, he says. The difference between atmospheric CO2 at two hundred something or three hundred something parts per million is infinitesimal! Why waste US taxpayer dollars on some misinformed quest to micro-manage infinitely small quantities of a naturally occurring substance?

My usual reply: Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance too, pal. How many parts per million of arsenic would you like to have in your body?

Logic is wasted on this guy. But little did I know that the toxic-substance-in-your-body argument is the right answer for a question he hadn’t asked.

The question is: how many toxic substances would you like to have in your building products?

Fact is, some pretty nasty bioaccumulative toxins and highly carcinogenic stuff is commonly used in the materials that go into our buildings. Like polyvinyl chloride and its phthalate plasticizers. Like formaldehyde. Heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium. PCBs were banned from flame retardants, now we have bromated and halogenated flame retardants to deal with. Even arsenic! Until recently,arsenic was used in pressure treated wood! Remember?

We have to put a stop to this. And we can, because we have a good team.

I was recently introduced to the work of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative: a bunch of people and organizations who want to eliminate toxic substances in building materials. Their charge: material transparency. The HPD Collaborative calls for architects and designers to only specify products from manufacturers that can provide a Health Product Declaration (HPD), a list of every material used in the manufacturing of every product. They believe full disclosure will drive this change. A template HPDlives on their website.

Take carpet, for instance. Do you know what’s in carpet? I just looked at one manufacturer’s data. Mostly nylon and calcium carbonate (a mineral found in rocks) with small amounts of polyester and silica. The backing contains recycled calcium alumina glass spheres and – um – polyvinyl chloride copolymer. Oops, there it is.

But wait. This blog is about the AIA 2030 Commitment. What does all this have to do with reducing building energy use?

Glad you asked. Answer this one: why do we do this AIA 2030 Commitment thing? For building energy efficiency, yes. For carbon emissions reduction, yes. But at the root of it all, it’s about human health and prosperity. Love of humankind. We do it because we care about people, people that don’t even exist yet. And look, it just doesn’t make sense to make buildings more energy efficient while filling them with toxic materials.

And besides, there is plenty of support for disclosure and material transparency. The Healthy Building Network is a fabulous resource. Look into the Pharos Project. The Living Building Challenge has its famous Red List. Perkins+Will uses its precautionary principle. Read about ASTM’s environmental product declarations. And check out the long list of firms and manufacturers on the HPD Collaborative’s website that have already signed on.

So do this: If you signed the AIA 2030 Commitment, you have or will produce a Sustainability Action Plan. Update it. Add a section called “Health Product Declaration”. Make it a goal to write a letter from your firm (like this one from Cannon Design) stating that you will only specify (and only keep in your library and only accept lunches from!) companies that provide an HPD. End of story.

You’ll be among friends!

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA.

Published Jul 25, 2013