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Finding eco-friendly building materials

By Michelle Ludwig

Specifying responsible building materials is an important component of green building design. Information and environmental claims about materials or products vary from borderline greenwashing to legitimate data, leaving decision-makers to navigate through a ‘green fog’ of information. The antidote, according to green building consultant Michelle Ludwig, is product certification and transparency.

To filter the green hype, a base understanding of the criteria involved in evaluating materials for improved environmental impacts, is useful. The familiar ‘Three Rs’ of environmental initiatives – reduce, reuse, and recycle – is just the beginning. First, reduce the use of everything wherever possible, thus less material, less energy, less water. These things can be measured and optimised. Second, is a design challenge to enable repair and reuse of what we already have brought into this world. Third, consider the end-of-life options and ways to deal with what we have created.

The conventional ‘recycle’ part, however, puts a great burden and high expectations on the recycling industry which is generally trying to deal with materials that they are not choosing.

An important Fourth R – Rethink or Redesign – should inform our processes and occur at the very beginning of every process. 

What are we making and choosing to put out into the world? Is this our intention or rather lack of attention? A product lifespan might be two days or 22 years but at the inevitable end of its useful life, what options exist? If we start with the end in mind, could we be cleverer about what we make in the first place?

Circular thinking, and closing the loop, should be considered just another parameter for product design in order to evolve to a truly circular economy.

That is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.

Biological cycle product ‘ingredients’ are designed to work with nature’s cycles of biodegradation. Technical cycle materials should be designed to re-enter the technical loop repeatedly, thus downcycling is not a long-term sustainable solution.

Verifying progress

For companies that are leading by evolving and innovating, how do they communicate their achievements and get recognition in the market? Some manufacturers do not readily know how or where to start improving their processes for reduced environmental impact. Meanwhile, built environment professionals are trying to find information, make comparisons, and determine credibility. Enter product certification or ecolabels, which can be considered a mark that designates compliance with third-party certification schemes. They are useful to all parties as they define a framework for measurement and comparison, independent verification, and credibility. 

EcoStandard and Global GreenTag are two useful and robust product certifications currently available in South Africa. While there are some minor variations, they both assess a life-cycle scope of impacts of building materials, encompassing: resources and raw materials, ecotoxicity, manufacturing and production process (e.g. energy, water and waste), product use phase and emissions, packaging and distribution, social impacts, and end-of-life scenarios such as recyclability. The result is more holistic than many pass/fail standards with a score for overall performance. It is useful for benchmarking and provides a verification mark to communicate this success to the market

The GBCSA recognises and has pre-approved these product certification programmes, along with a few others, which significantly facilitates certified products contributing to Green Star Interiors points.

Health takes centre stage

Health and well-being issues are now firmly part of the design consciousness. The potential health impacts of products are particularly important for interiors where there are numerous types of materials and where people spend a significant portion of their day. Internationally, progressive architects and designers are looking beyond the legislated generic safety assurances from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and asking for more specific information on what is in the products, particularly with a lens on impacts to human health. This means information disclosure and transparency, which will seem intimidating to manufacturers. However, consumers are placing increased value on transparency as an element of brand trust. And building rating tools are now requiring product transparency information to meet material credit criteria.

To encourage more disclosure of building product ingredients, a consortium of organisations in the green building movement came together to create the Health Product Declaration (HPD) format. It is an open standard – composed of a format and instructions – to be issued voluntarily by manufacturers for the accurate, reliable and consistent reporting of product contents and associated health information, for products used in the built environment. The result is a growing library of over 7 000 HPDs from 650 manufacturing companies that inform and influence the selection process of decision-makers such as architects and designers.

With a similar intent, Declare, is a disclosure label, which assists those pursuing The Living Building Challenge criteria in avoiding Red List building materials. A Declare label aims to answer: Where does a product come from? What is it made of? Where does it go at the end of its life? It aims to function as a nutrition label for products. The Red List comprises the worst in class materials prevalent in the building industry that should be phased out of production due to health concerns. The commonly used chemicals on the Red List are polluting the environment, bio-accumulating up the food chain until they reach toxic concentrations, harming construction and factory workers, and impacting building occupants. All products are eligible for inclusion, regardless of their composition; the key to Declare is honest information sharing.

The Health Product Declaration and Declare label are not full product certifications but rather a format for comprehensively presenting key information. They are aligned with and recognised by many building ratings tools that have established high criteria for material selection such as the Living Building Challenge, LEED, and the WELL Building Standard. They enable manufacturers of ecologically sound products to demonstrate market leadership in the growing movement toward product transparency.

Ask for change

As decision-makers and influencers in the built environment, we should choose to reward manufacturers who are walking the talk and moving the needle. Wherever possible we need to raise our expectations, and our voices, for what we want to select for our buildings. Quality information and contextual clarity is paramount to being able to make these informed decisions and requests. By asking the hard questions and seeking deeper technical understanding, our market demand will drive the business as usual towards innovation. We are a clever species, and we can do this.

Want to know more? GreenED offers more in-depth and technical information on these topics as online on-demand courses that are accredited for Category 1 continuing professional development (CPD) credit and free to attend.  Courses include:- Material Selection and Ecolabels – Green Interiors – WELL Building Standard – The Living Building Challenge – SANS 10400-XA – Solar Basics: Understanding the Sun

Global GreenTag is an Australian and USA Regulator approved Certification Mark and ISO 14024 Type 1 (Third Party) Ecolabel that provides the required evidence for products seeking engagement in green building rating tools and for manufacturers wanting to differentiate their products based on the health and sustainability benefits or characteristics and communicate this simply and effectively to end users and green professionals. They also can assist in creating compliant Product Health Declarations.

Want to know more?
GreenED offers more in-depth and technical information on these topics as online on-demand courses that are accredited for Category 1 continuing professional development (CPD) credit and free to attend.
Courses include
Material Selection and Ecolabels

Green interiors

WELL Building standards

The Living Building Challenge

SANS 10400-XA

Solar Basics: Understanding the Sun

EcoStandard
EcoStandard’s aim is to promote the development of a sustainable building and building product industry within South Africa and to set a credible South African standard by providing an independent eco-labelling system. EcoStandard is a registered NPO that has designed and launched the very first South African criteria and assessment tool that is third party-audited and -verified, to assess the legitimacy of green claims. The EcoProduct Assessment Tool seeks to assess products using the principles of Life Cycle Analysis and ISO 14024 (Type 1) and provides a rating indicating the environmental performance of a product.
Global GreenTag
Global GreenTag is an Australian and USA Regulator approved Certification Mark and ISO 14024 Type 1 (Third Party) Ecolabel that provides the required evidence for products seeking engagement in green building rating tools and for manufacturers wanting to differentiate their products based on the health and sustainability benefits or characteristics and communicate this simply and effectively to end-users and green professionals. They also can assist in creating compliant Product Health Declarations.
How to start the journey towards a circular economy?
Circular-Vision is a South African sustainability consultancy specifically focused on assisting companies and organisations to transition to a circular economy. The intention is to understand the core business and the value chain to assess where the most appropriate point of entry is to start making the transition to circularity.

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