Make What’s Inside Count: A Simple Framework for Healthy Materials Selection

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Make What’s Inside Count: A Simple Framework for Healthy Materials Selection

This is the second installment in a series on Healthy Buildings. In the first installment, we introduced the background and research behind what we call “Healthy Building Syndrome” –  the growing movement towards optimizing buildings for occupant health and productivity. In this article, Katie Bachman outlines a simple, strategic framework that removes the complexity from the undertaking of choosing building materials that are more sustainable and healthy. Katie will be speaking on this topic at the Living Product Expo in Pittsburgh, PA on September 13.

The AEC industry has swiftly educated itself on the impact that building materials can have on the environment and human health. Primarily ushered in by the LEED v4 Building Disclosure and Optimization credits, which require transparency labels such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), these methods of reporting the embodied impacts of building products have helped the industry move towards transparency, but also caused a lot of confusion in their rapid rollout.

However, the dust is starting to settle and it’s time to focus. How can we use these third-party product transparency labels as a guide for larger impact? Instead of just hitting the 20 EPDs and HPDs required by LEED v4, there are ways to be strategic with product selection, whether you’re targeting LEED certification or not. Here’s a two-step framework to help you simplify where to focus when it comes to environmental and health impacts of building materials:



Where to focus for high impact: materials with high weight and/or volume.

  • For new construction projects, focus on the building’s foundation, envelope, and structural systems
  • For tenant improvements projects, focus on doors, casework, interior framing systems, and high-volume products such as carpet

These types of products are those you should require verification of resource responsibility, in the form of an EPD or single material attributes, such as FSC for wood or high recycled content.


Where to focus for high impact: materials with lowest risk, where the formula for risk = f (hazard, exposure).

Exposure is always predictable. Determine where the design is intending occupants to spend most of their time. What will they be touching and interacting with most frequently? Focus on materials in those spaces for health impact transparency. Here are some examples:

  • In an office space, focus on employee workstations or finishes in highly utilized spaces such as conference rooms
  • In a retail environment, focus on the checkout counters, employee breakrooms, or the product display fixtures your customers will be exposed to
  • In a daycare center, focus on the flooring that children will play on

Hazard is variable depending on the product, so once you have determined the materials in your space to be the focus for health impact, identify the known toxic ingredients (i.e. what Chemicals of Concern should not be present in carpet vs. laminates?). Then leverage a health transparency label, such as an HPD or Declare Label, to ensure that those known hazards are either not present in the products you’re specifying, or only found in trace amounts (meaning exposure is limited).


Coming out of Step 1, you will have narrowed down your focus and determined which materials should require different environmental and health disclosure data. If you want to strive for greater impact, consider how material selection can be further optimized through alignment with your sustainability vision or project industry sector.

Corporate Vision Alignment

Question how to align product procurement with a larger, corporate sustainability vision.

For example, if you are an organization with a carbon reduction goal, not only require that materials with high environmental impact have EPDs, but specify that the embodied carbon impact category (one of the five environmental impact categories disclosed on a typical EPD) demonstrates a reduction from industry baseline.

Industry Alignment

Question how to align sustainable product procurement with your project’s industry sector.

For example, on a healthcare project, add an additional layer of focus to materials unique to the health care industry, such as patient exam chairs. Start by doing your due diligence to ensure all high exposure materials have health transparency documentation, but then focus and ensure products specialized for your industry have no known hazards (Chemicals of Concern). This way, you’re moving markets unique to your project’s industry – and you’ll walk away with a great sustainability story!

We foresee that the adoption of transparency labels is soon to be industry standard; thus, it’s important to learn how to utilize these standardization methods to jump off the disclosure platform and into product optimization. We hope you can use this simple framework as a starting point for smart decision making within your procurement practices.

If you have questions about Healthy Buildings, please get in touch!