If you want healthy materials, you’ll have to take matters into your own hands, conducting the vetting process yourself. Green building rating systems for houses are a good start, but most do not address healthy building products. Even the most widely used one, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes, addresses only the issue of emissions from building products that affect indoor air quality. But a newer and less well-known rating system, the Living Building Challenge, lists specific materials and chemicals to be avoided.
Developed by the International Living Future Institute, which is based in Seattle, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was launched in 2009.
Based on the optimistic premise that “every single act of design and construction can make the world a better place,” Living Building Challenge (LBC) 2.0 is concise in its directive (which is only 48 pages long with limited text; it can be downloaded at https://ilbi.org/lbc/standard). To be certified, every project must meet the requirements of its 20 imperatives, which cover seven performance areas, including site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty.
Zeroing in on healthy building materials, Imperative 7 has a “Red List” of 15 materials and chemicals that cannot be used in any LBC-certified project. Most of these are not household names; despite their wide usage in the construction industry, most home builders and architects will not recognize them. The list was compiled by a group that included researchers from the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products, the Healthy Building Network and the International Living Future Institute.
Most homeowners who study the Red List will find it pretty random. There is only one actual building material, polyvinyl chloride (PVC); the rest are ingredients and most have multisyllable names (for example, chlorosulfonated polyethylene used in some types of roofing).
This seeming randomness, however, goes to the heart of the problem, explained Tom Lent, a biochemist with the Healthy Building Network who helped create the list of 15. The issue is not types of materials as a class, but the ingredients in each one. You can have four different types of insulation and each is unhealthy for a different reason — it can be the basic material or an additive like a binder or a flame retardant. “Most of the bad actors are petrochemicals, but petrochemical-derived materials are not all bad and not the only bad actors,” Lent wrote in an e-mail.