The growing demand for transparency in buildings

by sadia_badhon | March 12, 2021 3:00 pm

Photos © Legrand[1]
Photos © Legrand

by Patrick Ford

As buildings become more complex and connected, the demand for building materials supporting high-performance facilities has also increased. This includes building controls, lighting, electrical and digital infrastructure, audio/visual (A/V), and other aspects of the structure.

A high-performance building[2] is one that “integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.” At the same time, green building certifications, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, the WELL Building Standard, and the Living Building Challenge (LBC) have pushed all built environment stakeholders, from suppliers and manufacturers to specifiers, architects, and owners, to change the way they make decisions about the materials making up a structure.

One of these changes has been the push for increased transparency into the environmental and health impacts of materials, and also the drive for manufacturers to optimize their chemical and sustainability profiles. To date, these demands have sometimes overlooked materials in the categories referenced above, either due to their complexity or placement in the building. However, the case for seeking transparency documentation and proof of optimization for these technologies is evident more so today than ever before. This highlights the importance of ensuring the selection of materials that enable increased building functionality, flexibility, and connectivity includes consideration of the environmental and material health attributes.

The demand for high-performance building controls, lighting, electrical, and digital infrastructure is rising.[3]
The demand for high-performance building controls, lighting, electrical, and digital infrastructure is rising.

Environmental and material health impact of building materials

From an environmental impact standpoint, the demand has been driven by the desire to better understand the embodied carbon of materials going into buildings. According to the Carbon Action Network (materialsCAN), embodied carbon is defined as “the carbon dioxide [CO2] emitted during the extraction, manufacture, and transport of building materials.” Between now and 2050, Architecture 2030 (a nonprofit that is advocating for sustainable and carbon-neutral planning and design in the built environment) estimates that “embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of new construction emissions (49 percent).” Unlike operational carbon (i.e. the carbon emitted from heating/cooling, lighting, and other activities while the building is in use), embodied carbon cannot be reduced once the material is installed. This change, coupled with the fact the embodied carbon from building materials[4] and construction makes up approximately 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, heightens the importance of reducing the carbon intensity of buildings.

Turning to material health, in their 2018 report, “Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol,” the American Institute of Architects[5] (AIA) cites several research studies that point to growing concerns about the amount of time people spend indoors (90 percent) and the prolonged exposure to chemicals—some of which are known to be hazardous to humans and the environment—found in building materials. This concern has precipitated the need for all construction stakeholders to not only better understand the material makeup and health impact of building products, but also to look for viable substitutes or designs that avoid chemicals of concerns altogether.

Several green building rating systems are steering the demand for transparency, such as LEED v4 and v4.1, WELL v2, and LBC v3.1 and v4.0. Manufacturers are also publishing many forms of transparency, including environmental product declarations (EPDs), product environmental profiles (PEPs), health product declarations (HPDs), Declare Labels, Cradle to Cradle (C2C) and Material Health Certificates, and the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Product Lens Certifications.


Administered by the United States Green Building Council[6] (USGBC), LEED is considered to be “the most widely used green building rating system in the world.” There are options for LEED certification[7] for nearly all building types, and the focus of the rating system is on creating “healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.” There are currently three active versions of LEED: v3 (2009), v4, and v4.1, but this article focuses only on the last two.

Green building certifications are to changing the way industry professionals make decisions about products and materials that make up their buildings.[8]
Green building certifications are to changing the way industry professionals make decisions about products and materials that make up their buildings.


In LEED v4, the two main credits focus on product transparency—Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) – Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and BPDO – Material Ingredients. Although multiple choices are available for these credits, this section focuses only on the first option for both, since, according to Nadav Malin, president of independent consultancy BuildingGreen[9], the others are unachievable at this time for most project teams. There is also one additional BPDO credit within LEED—Sourcing of Raw Materials. More information on this credit can be found on the USGBC website.


Within BPDO – EPDs, the first option is to use at least 20 permanently installed products, sourced from at least five different manufacturers with environmental transparency documentation. Acceptable forms of documentation include life-cycle assessments (LCAs), industry-wide EPDs, and product-specific type III EPDs. However, each form can count as a different number of equivalent products, ranging from one-quarter of a product for LCAs to one whole product for product-specific type III EPDs. There is also an option to utilize PEPs, which are EPDs for the electric, electronic, and heating and cooling industries. When externally verified, PEPs count as one product, and when internally verified, counts as three-quarters of a product. In practice, this means that design professionals can select different forms of documentation from multiple types, as long as they total 20 equivalent products (i.e. two industry-wide EPDs would be needed to earn credit for one product).

LEED v4 BPDO – Material Ingredients

Turning to the LEED v4 BPDO – Material Ingredients credit, the first option is to use at least 20 permanently installed products, sourced from at least five different manufacturers, with their chemical inventory disclosed down to at least 0.1 percent (1000 ppm). Acceptable forms of documentation include a manufacturer inventory, HPD, C2C certification, C2C Material Health Certificate, Declare Label, the American National Standards Institute/Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (ANSI/BIFMA) e3, Furniture Sustainability Standard, UL Product Lens Certification, and Facts – NSF/ANSI 336, Sustainability Assessment for Commercial Furnishings Fabric.

When v4 was first developed, the intention of including these credits was to incentivize the selection of products with transparency documentation. However, their acceptance by project teams has been low when compared to other credits. This is likely due to two factors, confusion regarding the types of forms available and the perception EPDs and material transparency documentation are hard to find. USGBC has addressed the first factor in LEED v4.1, which will be discussed next, and the second factor will be addressed later in the article.

LEED v4.1

According to USGBC, LEED v4.1—released as a beta version in early 2019—is “focused on the implementation, applicability, and agility of LEED,” and has the following goals:

Although this is only a ‘.1’ update, there are several significant changes throughout the rating system, including to BPDO credits.


Within the first option, USGBC simplified the requirements so all LCA and EPD options, with the exception of third-party verified EPDs, are worth one product. Third-party verified EPDs are now worth one-and-a-half products. Within the second option, which is focused on product improvement/optimization rather than just disclosure, they have made two major changes in an attempt to make the credit more achievable. The first was to lower the threshold from 50 percent of permanently installed products by cost to 10, with the option of using 10 permanently installed products from three different manufacturers. The second was to create two tiers of improvement options, with the first being the publishing of a life-cycle impact reduction action plan (valued at 50 percent by cost or one-half of a product), and the second being demonstrating life-cycle impact reductions in embodied carbon (the value ranges from 100 percent by cost or one product to 200 by cost or two products). Put another way, the new version of LEED will make it easier to reach the BPDO – EPDs Option 2 Credit by way of lowering the threshold for product selection criteria for materials with disclosure and optimization documentation, and incentivizing manufacturers to create impact reduction action plans and/or to demonstrate reductions in embodied carbon.

LEED v4.1 BPDO – Material Ingredients

Within the first option, the main change was to increase the value of third-party verified material transparency documents to one-and-a-half products. In the second option, which is focused on selecting products with documented material ingredient optimization, USGBC again lowered the threshold to either 10 percent of permanently installed products by cost, or 10 compliant products. Similar to the EPD credit, USGBC has implemented a tiered structure, allowing manufacturers to demonstrate continuous improvement ranging from the creation of an optimization action plan to the removal of substances of concern. The methods for achieving the second option beyond the action plan are detailed on the USGBC website. Overall, the key takeaway for the second option is the selection of products with fewer substances of concern may also make the project eligible to earn an additional LEED point[11].

WELL Building Standard v2

The WELL Building Standard[12], which is overseen by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) and was launched in 2014, is the “standard for buildings, interior spaces, and communities seeking to implement, validate, and measure features supporting and advancing human health and wellness.”

The selection process must include the products’ environmental and material health attributes. Photos ©[13]
The selection process must include the products’ environmental and material health attributes.
Photos ©

The standard is built around concepts of air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community and optimizations, which are analogous to the credits within LEED. The most recent version of WELL, v2, is in the pilot phase, and several preconditions and optimizations are focused on material transparency and health within the “Materials” concept.

LBC v3.1 and v4.0

Developed by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), LBC is a performance standard focused on creating buildings that are:

The standard is built around seven petals—place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty—and 20 imperatives, which vary between v3.1 and v4.0.

The one imperative most directly related to material optimization is referred to as the Red List. According to ILFI, the Red List contains the worst classes of chemicals or materials found in building products. These chemicals or materials are known to pollute the environment, bio-accumulate, and potentially harm individuals with significant exposure to them, including construction and factory workers. Examples of Red List chemicals or materials include asbestos, cadmium, halogenated flame retardants, lead, phthalates, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and added formaldehyde. While there are a couple of temporary exceptions to the Red List, the overall requirement to qualify for this imperative in v3.1 is that the building project cannot contain any of these chemicals or materials. In v4.0, projects must avoid the use of the Red List chemical classes on the updated list in 90 percent of the project’s new materials by cost.

Deconstructing myths

Although the requirements in each of these rating systems can vary, some common misconceptions can limit their implementation and the drive for buildings where products are transparently disclosed and optimized.

There are not enough environmental and material transparency documents available to meet the rating system requirements

While this may have been true in the past, the recent increase in demand for transparency and optimization has pushed manufacturers to publish documentation for their products. This includes building controls, lighting, electrical and digital infrastructure, and A/V products that are necessary for high-performance buildings.

Even if there are enough documents, it is too difficult to find them for differing product categories

There are a number of trusted sources for finding transparency documents, ranging from the databases managed by the organizations administering the documents, like the HPDC Public Repository, Declare Products Database, UL SPOT Database, Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Registry, and Material Health Certificate Registry to platforms compiling varying forms of documentation across a host of building products, like Mindful MATERIALS, Sustainable Minds, BuildingGreen + Designer Pages, Ecomedes, and the recently released Better Materials website from the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI). The website allows users to search across several leading platforms.

There are no existing forums for built environment stakeholders to collaborate on driving the industry forward on transparency and optimization

While there are certainly others (including materialsCAN), one of the organizations taking the lead on this front is the Living Product 50 (LP50), a group of manufacturers. Run by ILFI, LP50 is committed to investing in product transparency and reductions in environmental and human health impacts. Through conversations and collaboration with the design community including through their Materials Pledge group, the LP50[15] is looking to advance the case for specifying products that are transparently disclosed and/or optimized.


The drive for environmental and material transparency and optimization has come a long way over the past few years, encompassing the increasing number of product categories required to meet advancing building performance and sustainability standards. However, it is incumbent on all the built environment stakeholders to play their part in advancing this effort, from suppliers who provide material and component level data and manufacturers who publish disclosure documentation and design improved products to members of the design community who specify and select products that are disclosed and optimized. If the industry is going to meet its efficiency, optimization, and carbon management goals, stakeholders must work together using a systems-based approach.

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  2. high-performance building:
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  4. building materials:
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  6. United States Green Building Council:
  7. LEED certification:
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  9. BuildingGreen:
  10. track progress:
  11. LEED point:
  12. WELL Building Standard:
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  14. healthy:
  15. LP50:
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