This is the first of a two-part series on the North Texas Sustainable Showcase held in recently in Dallas.

By Dave Pennington     

The construction industry could be the key to a greener, more sustainable future, thanks to a movement to make healthier building materials. Attendees of the North Texas Sustainable Showcase got a peek at that future, when the conference presented by the American Institute of Architecture's Committee on the Environment, the U.S. Green Building Council's North Texas Chapter and Construction Specification Institute was held July 11 at the Dallas Arboretum.

At the event, a small gathering of architects, construction specifiers, building product representatives and designers spent the day discussing some of the complex and wide ranging issues around the use of sustainable building materials for healthier buildings.

Detoxing building materials

The first speaker was Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network. Previously he coordinated the Energy, Forest and Toxic Campaigns of Greenpeace USA and held staff attorney positions with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Institute for Public Representation of Georgetown University Law Center. He and his collaborators are the ones who finally got the arsenic out of treated lumber. Now they are working on the formaldehyde and dioxins in other building materials. Walsh presented some alarming statistics, including the fact that babies are born with an average of more than 300 industrial chemicals in their bloodstream.

He pointed out that architects can be powerful people in setting the environmental materials agenda. Architects greatly influence what is built, how it is built and the materials used in building. According to Walsh, big commercial, institutional and residential projects set the tone for the rest of the building industry because they create the demand for materials used for environmentally friendly buildings. For example, Walsh and the Health Building Network want to get PVC out of buildings. Architects and building owners have specified products without PVC when possible. In response to these requests, Howard Williams of Construction Specialties reported that their Acrovyn hand rails and other products are made without PVC.

Preaching restraint

Bob Harris, the keynote speaker, relayed a powerful message: that of “restraint” being an important guiding principle. It's a concept we need to hear touted more often. Harris walked the audience through his thought process, demonstrating that by efficiently utilizing local resources and “revitalizing” older construction, we can create beautiful, functional and healthy spaces for living with a far lower impact on the earth. One example was the Livestrong Foundation in Austin.


(Photos: Livestrong Foundation in Austin. Courtesy of Lake | Flato.)

Many others are shown at the Lake | Flato website. Harris said that “beauty is the missing link of sustainability.”

Identifying ingredients

One of the big issues identified at the Sustainable Showcase was the use and avoidance of construction materials made from toxic chemicals. Several of the speakers described how their businesses are replacing them with greener alternatives. One of the keys to this process is simply the identification of chemicals within various building and furnishing materials.

Several speakers discussed the daunting problem of having more 85,000 industrial chemicals registered in the U.S., with only a few hundred of those monitored for health effects and only five controlled. However, building owners, architects and construction specifiers want to know exactly what's in the products they're buying. They want an ingredients label like those required for food products. The national regulation of dangerous chemicals has not been updated much since 1976.*

*The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the federal law that currently governs chemical production and use in the United States. It hasn’t been updated since it was passed in 1976. Its replacement, the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013, which has yet to be passed, would give the EPA new tools to protect children and families from toxic chemicals. 

A growing number of studies suggest that endocrine-disrupting chemicals** in plastics like PVC are causing asthma, diabetes, cancer, infertility, behavioral disorders and the obesity epidemic. The use of these chemicals may prove to be as bad or worse than the use of asbestos, which was finally regulated 20-plus years after its toxic effect became known within the industry. Billions have been spent trying to remove it safely from homes and businesses. We now face the same issue with thousands of industrial chemicals.  

**See Endocrine Disruption - An Overview and Resource List from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One useful tool developed in recent years is the Health Product Declaration (HPD), which has been developed to be the industry standard format for conveying details about product content and associated health information. The standard was designed to help architects and planners make informed decisions about the products they purchase and their impacts on human health. The standard is also designed to reduce the paperwork burden on product manufacturers.

A similar tool, the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a comprehensive, internationally harmonized report created by a product manufacturer that documents the ways in which a product, throughout its lifecycle, affects the environment. It gives information on the environmental issues of various products, not just the health concerns. This includes embodied energy, eco-toxicity, acid rain and global warming impacts. 

Both standards can be useful, and they definitely point to a future where building designers can be more aware of the toxins hidden in the materials that are used in home and office construction, and thus avoid them. 

 Pharos is a project of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network, whose mission is to transform the market for building materials to advance the best environmental, health and social practices. The Pharos Project, at its core, is a campaign for transparency in the building materials market. Its website states: "What we are creating is the ultimate campaign tool: a tool for users to locate the best materials to meet their current needs and enduring values; a tool to help cut through the prolific greenwashing; a space where users can discuss what makes a product truly green; and, most importantly, a platform from which to show manufacturers what constitutes a market in support of the best environmental, health and social equity practices." 

 Sign up for the weekly Green Source DFW Newsletter to stay up to date on everything green in North Texas, the latest news and events 

Dave Pennington is an inventor and entrepreneur who develops technology used in the field of aquaponics. His achievements include the development of a recycled Styrofoam and paper-based cement composite (EPIC), portable yet permanent dome houses made from EPIC and super-efficient biomass burners used for heating and cooking applications.