CLOSING THE LOOP
BY: JEN LEVISEN, EDITOR AT THE FORUM
What does it look like when the leading global product manufacturers and the top A&D firms in the country come together to grow the value of sustainability throughout the green building industry?
Well, if you attended the Closing the Loop Summit at this year’s International Living Future Institute’s unConference, it looked like a whole bunch of sticky notes. But those sticky notes held big ideas and big commitments from groups, who for the first time, were coming together not just for the betterment of the industry, but for the world at large.
“The most important outcome of May’s Closing the Loop Summit was the opening up of communication between the building design and product manufacturing communities,” says Lona Rerick, summit speaker and associate principal at ZGF Architects. “We truly can’t make the progress that we need without clear, substantive, and ongoing communication.
“The movement may have started with the value for manufacturers, however, we plan to develop and spread the word on the realized value at every level of the built environment value chain which includes the value of sustainability to owners, contractors, etc.,” she says. “Once the value is realized, there is no stopping this movement and impact.”
“Once the value is realized, there is no stopping this movement and impact.”
Let’s go back to the beginning.
In 2012 the A&D community released a series of letters to leading global product manufacturers asking them for two things: To provide information on the health and environmental impact of their products and to start creating more sustainable and environmentally friendly products.
“To be frank, the sustainable materials industry would not be where it is today were it not for this effort,” says Bevan. “Manufacturers did increase their transparency with product information, and they did start to create more optimized products. However, they didn’t see the return on investment they were hoping for or had been led to believe they would see for this investment.”
Turns out part of the problem is just the nature of how buildings are built — the amount of time it takes as well as the number of people in the process.
“There are a lot of decision points, a lot of stake holders that need to be on board; basically a lot of opportunities for these efforts to go off the rails,” says Alexandra Muller, Associate Director, Living Product Challenge at the International Living Future Institute, “and there are not a lot of opportunities for specifiers or architects to say, ‘Hey, we used your product and we did so because you provided all of the sustainability info.’ The 2012 letters were a great push for transparency, but we needed to close the communication loop and let manufacturers know that they were selected due to sustainability.”
"The 2012 letters were a great push
for transparency, but we needed to
close the communication loop and let manufacturers know that they were selected due to sustainability.”
Rerick says even calling a product sustainable is fraught with issues.
“There are so many facets to how one might define a sustainable material,” she says. “Primarily, the product disclosures readily available to designers today are focused on human health and embodied carbon issues. Even though there are a lot of material ingredient disclosures, such as Health Product Declarations and Declare labels, and Environmental Product Declarations, there is a level of literacy and discretion required to interpret what defines a better material. And, there are whole categories of product types that still have no product disclosures of any kind.”
Fast forward to April 2018 when Bevan and Muller spearheaded an industry-wide effort to break out of the silos and work more effectively toward these shared sustainability goals.
In a letter back to the A&D community, a group of leading product manufacturers, known as the Living Product 50, or LP50, co-signed a letter to 300+ leading architects, designers, and building owners. The letter urged them to refresh the conversation about sustainable materials that had gone quiet since the 2012 letter campaign. Read the letter here.
Each manufacturer made a number of commitments in the letter including continuing to build sustainability practices into manufacturing and raw material section, as well as using common platforms for product information so all transparency reports could be found in one place.
“Other commitments covered areas such a raising internal awareness of the importance of product transparency and sustainability, and prioritizing suppliers who support these efforts,” says Bevan. “The goal of these commitments was to define where we stood as group, define what makes a ‘sustainable’ buildings product manufacturer, and hold each other accountable for our progress.”
The letter also asked the A&D community to take a number of actions, including the prioritization of specifying products whose impacts have been transparently disclosed and advocating to customers for programs such as LEED, WELL, and Living Building Challenge that value this transparency.
The A&D community released their response this past April in the form of the Materials Pledge, a letter that further defined what “healthy” means, and signaled their renewed commitment to prefer products that demonstrate transparency and sustainability attributes.
“When we received the letter from manufacturers, the design community was gratified that the building product companies had listened and made so much progress,” says Rerick. “We also felt a profound responsibility to accelerate our efforts and respond in an honest and meaningful way. The Materials Pledge is a clear vision of the fundamental goals for all building materials. We want to build with products that support human health, climate health, ecosystem health, and social health & equity in a circular economy.”
Over 70 firms have now signed this letter, committing to specifying healthier materials.
“In my time with ILFI, we’ve seen some big projects incorporate materials from manufacturers who haven’t done the work, so it’s not a success story for the manufacturer who has invested in transparency and optimization. Sometimes it results in issues for the building project if they learn later on that what they thought was a Red List product, in fact isn’t,” says Muller. “I’ve also seen manufacturers without sustainability information continue to win contracts because, in some cases, they are just who those architects, designers, contractors, and subcontractors are used to working with. Sometimes that push for sustainability certifications or transparency is just not happening because that’s the way it’s always been done. It’s an interesting paradigm that we’re hoping to see shift.
"We want to build with products that support human health, climate health, ecosystem health, and social health & equity in a circular economy.”
“One of the most amazing things we’re seeing,” Muller continues, “is the contractors, designers, architects, etc., who are changing the products they use and purging their materials libraries. This is such an important step to ensure sustainable building products become the norm, not the exception. However, our work is not close to being done here as there is still a gap in communication back to the manufacturers letting them know their product was chosen and why. Unfortunately, it’s not like purchasing something through Amazon, where that feedback can be instantly shared. Again, it’s needing to close the loop.”
In May, ILFI hosted the Closing the Transparency Loop: Collaboration for Better Buildings summit. Over 100 individuals from the A&D and manufacturing communities came together to determine, “how we can talk the talk and walk the walk,” says Muller.
“Now, we’re having conversations about what the Closing the Transparency loop campaign means in day-to-day practice,” says Bevan. “If we don’t start making it clear about what we want to achieve and how we are trying to achieve it, it is going to be incredibly difficult to hit the mark. The LP50 and Materials Pledge still represent only the first tier of companies. To create meaningful impact, these companies need to scale and find ways to reach a much larger audience who is not yet part of the conversation.
“We need all of us to come together in every sector of the built environment,” Bevan continues. “There is no question we are in the midst of a climate crises that will have generational impact. We, right now, have the opportunity to collaborate to make significant impact. The Closing the Transparency Loop movement is a means to gather the masses to ensure this impact is realized — together.”
“There is no question we are in the midst of a climate crises that will have generational impact. We, right now, have the opportunity to collaborate to make significant impact. The Closing the Transparency Loop movement is a means to gather the masses to ensure this impact is realized — together.”
Images featured throughout this article are from Mortarr subscriber and Materials Pledge signatory, Moody Nolan and Unsplash.