May 28, 2014


You know the feeling when you are singing along to a song you ‘think’ you know the lyrics to, but then you realize you’ve gotten it ‘not quite right’ all along…(“Don’t stop, believing…Hold on to that fever”…oh wait, feeling…).

That’s how I felt when I started my deep dive into materials research for the Living Building Challenge. My colleagues and I were always conscious about material selection, giving preference to products with high recycled content, low/zero VOC content, and never using PVC unless we have to. But our idea of responsible material selection forever changed when we began a Living Building Challenge (LBC) project for the Alice Ferguson Foundation. This is a project where children, lots and lots of children, would spend their days and nights. So we committed to getting all of the lyrics right, not just most.

The LBC’s Red List Imperative identifies 14 materials and chemicals of concern that must be eliminated from your project in order to achieve the Imperative. And when they say eliminate they mean EVERY product (excluding nuts, bolt, and fasteners), from in your concrete to your backflow preventers. And when they say 14 materials and chemicals they really mean 336 materials and chemicals because each chemical has many variations. For example, they identify 58 different Halogenated Flame Retardants! These items are suspected carcinogens, bio-accumulators, and hormone disruptors just to name a few of the multiple health affect they can have on you and me.

Since our research began, we have reviewed thousands of MSDS sheets, contacted hundreds of manufacturers, and been transferred to “the right person” to help with our request too many times to count. Oftentimes, I would need to talk directly with a manufacturer’s chemist or factory manager to determine if Red List items are in their products. We’ve learned that these Red List items are EVERYWHERE in our built environment and are unavoidable unless you’re making a mud and stick hut (and then you have to wonder what chemicals have leached into the mud and water). Here are some of the fun things I now think about: there can be 5-7% lead content in potable water connections and door hardware, phthalates in metal coating, HFRs in spray foam insulation…

When we discover a Red List item in a product, we ask why it is necessary, but most often manufacturers don’t know why these chemicals are even in their products. This made us quickly realize that we need to ask for alternatives to get products to qualify, “Hey Johnny, can you make this for me with an ABS plastic shell instead of PVC?” This doesn’t work all the time, but when it does I feel like celebrating! On a good day, we’ve qualified a product, educated the manufacturer of a harmful item in their product, and helped them identify an alternative that is Red List free that they could offer to the broader market.

In summary, the work is challenging, but it is rewarding to know that we are the advocates for change in the materials and chemicals that are going into our offices, schools, and homes. “Lead Free” prior to Jan 4, 2014 was 0-8% lead content but it is now 0.25% of the wetted surface. The industry transformation won’t be quick, but when more people are asking the same question, manufacturers have no choice but to listen.

***UPDATE – JUNE 2014***

So they’ve done it again. The folks over at the International Living Future Institute released the Living Building Challenge v3.0 this past May (2014), raising the bar on the, “most stringent and completed sustainable building philosophy and standard in the world.” There are a number of changes including a greater emphasis on resiliency, a tool for regenerative design, a more refined and full Equity Petal, and an expanded and updated Red List.

Focusing on the Red List v3, they have added an additional 8 chemicals to the Red List to include Alkylphenols, Bisphenol A (BPA), Cholobenzenes, and Chromium VI just to name a few. The 22 total chemicals now on the Red List equates to 45 different chemical groups, for a total of 777 individually identified chemical CAS numbers (jaws drop). Before we all start writing letters to ILFI to say this expansion seems kind of crazy, I would like to note this is the first update to the Red List that was originally created in 2006. The Red List v3 has expanded in part to place more focus on life cycle by trying to address all of the possible ‘exposure stages’ that people or the environment can be negatively affected by chemicals. For instance, some chemicals were added because of their toxicity to manufacturing workers or communities around those manufacturing plants, not just the end building occupant user.

The Challenge is harder (actually a great deal harder), but the goal remains the same, a regenerative, restorative, and non-toxic future for all.