By JONATHAN A. WRIGHT
One of the primary goals of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is to eliminate the use of known toxins in products installed in the built environment. If it is harmful to life — human, animal or anything else — do not use it if at all possible.
In 2016, Wright Builders Inc. completed two Living Buildings, which will be evaluated for certification over the next 18 to 24 months. These projects gave us a unique opportunity to work inside the largely unexplored new world of materials research, vetting, documentation, and advocacy.
The International Living Futures Institute has developed a list of worst-in-class chemicals and compounds that are widely used in construction products. We know that the course from first discernment to total ban for DDT took about 15 years; the Red List approach is a quicker, more responsive, advisory process based on a path to better health results. Many of us remember when asbestos was the all-purpose additive in many construction products and have followed its gradual removal with no ill effects on product performance. There are many cases where toxic products are simply not needed.
The Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are within a quarter mile of each other in Amherst, Massachusetts. As the construction manager for both buildings, Wright Builders learned quickly what a complex process this is. More than 1,400 submittals and products were vetted by the teams. We also learned that with good communication systems, persistence, and careful record-keeping, the teams could advance the knowledge base significantly.
The vetting process for the Hitchcock Center occurred just enough later to benefit fully from the lessons learned during construction of the Kern Center, bypassing some blind alleys in favor of proven materials that would pass vetting.
A continuous collaboration
Fundamentally, the vetting process is a continuous three-way collaboration between architect, construction manager, and materials consultant. Early on, I asked Charley Stevenson of Integrated EcoStrategies, who would actually be accountable for securing materials documentation, to join the team, and he said we would collaborate. Hmmm. Who, and how, exactly?
The process evolved through months of weekly calls, hot lists, and dead ends. Together with Kern Center architects Bruner/Cott and the Hitchcock Center’s DesignLab, we all lent significant effort and creativity to the process. Charley was so right — everyone has to get under the weight of it to avoid wasting time and resources.
From the first days of concept design, the design teams looked at the available materials within 500 kilometers, evaluated these potential palettes, and developed the building designs using materials highly likely to be accepted. This drove us toward regional and local sourcing of all material, especially timber, lumber, and stone.
The materials and substances that must be eliminated or reduced are on the LBC Red List. They include known carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, and contributors to a wide variety of diseases and conditions, the effects of which have been largely borne by the manufacturing and skilled trade workforce for centuries.
Wright Builders Inc. and the teams worked under the Red List 2.1 (now augmented and supplanted by later versions), which identifies the following material and chemical classes:
- Chlorinated polyethylene
- Chlorosulfonated polyethlene
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
- Chloroprene (Neoprene)
- Formaldehyde (added)
- Halogenated flame retardants
- Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
- Lead (added)
- Petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- Wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol
Derived from these are hundreds of other compounds and ingredients, which in turn are being modified and incorporated into still more chemicals — perhaps as many as 200 every day — in American industry.
Better products over old standbys
The purpose of the Living Building Challenge is not to keep us up at night, but to change the way products are made and used so that we may build and experience our world in a healthier, more resilient and environmentally responsible way. To that end, even if we are not building our next project for LBC certification, we can still choose to use better products in lieu of our old standbys. These everyday decisions will lessen toxin loads and support companies that are trying to make positive change and grow their influence in the marketplace.
Enter stage right: not the Red List but its country cousin the Ready List — a specialized private list developed by Wright Builders to answer the question: What can we do today? It is an eclectic range of off-the-shelf products that professionals in our industry can examine and adopt right away to make incremental but meaningful change.
The following suggestions from Wright Builders Inc., reviewed by the design and materials collaborators on these projects, are based on our 30-month intensive LBC odyssey. Many of these we have already included in our more conventional projects. We are not vouching for perfection here — only indicating that these are best-in-class for now, and a great place to start.
Door hardware: ASSA ABLOY
Before the Living Building Challenge, many of the products made by ASSA ABLOY were already compliant. ASSA ABLOY was very diligent with transparency and is constantly working on improving their products. They are based in New Haven, Conn.
R-Guard and Consolideck
Prosoco is a company that focuses on clean construction products. The Kern Center includes products from Prosoco’s R-Guard line: Cat 5 and AirDam. The Hitchcock Center used the Consolideck product line: ColorHard and PolishGuard and LS/CS. Prosoco products are in some ways the poster child for LBC, in that the entire line of products was stripped of Red List components as a result of the company’s involvement with the Bullitt Center in Seattle. The company is very forthcoming, offers great support, and generates keen interest.
Carpet tile by Shaw Contract Group
Shaw has created a carpet tile that is 100% recyclable. Wright Builders worked with Shaw to identify a good solution for recycling the installer’s carpet scrap. They arranged to send what little scrap was generated back to a facility capable of making new backing and new fiber from the returned materials.
Interior shades by MechoShade Systems
When these projects were coming to a close, interior shades rose to the top of the priority list. MechoShade offers a Declared shade, meaning that any LBC project team can easily document and use it, along with other options for Red List-free shades.
Electric elevator by KONE
The hydraulic fluid used in traditional elevators is full of Red List chemicals. KONE manufactures an electric elevator which performs just as well as a hydraulic elevator. This product uses 40% less power than a hydraulic unit, and its mechanisms free up some of the space usually allocated to a machine room. It provides equal performance without harmful chemicals.
Lighting fixtures by Fluxwerx
Light fixtures can be some of the most difficult products to vet for an LBC project. Every single part of the fixture needs to be accounted for, from powder coating to the coating on the lenses inside the fixture. Fluxwerx was engaged with the vetting team to break down components of the fixtures. This new generation of lighting specifically designed for LEDs is versatile, efficient, and beautiful.
Wires and cables by General Cable and Belden
General Cable and Belden succeeded where others have failed. Although they are not the only companies who make LBC-compliant wires and cables, they were both able to supply the required amount of LBC-compliant wire and cable needed for the Kern Center and Hitchcock Center.
Windows and doors by Alpen
These exterior windows and doors used at the Hitchcock Center are now Declare-labeled products. They have a low U-factor, which makes them attractive to designers aiming for a high performance building. Alpen has a pultruded fiberglass frame system, lots of custom options, and good design support. We have used the 725 series in three different applications with great results. Check out the 925 series and their other products.
Main electric by Square D, Schneider Electric
The biggest hurdle with electrical components is confirming that they are Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) compliant. RoHS was developed in Europe and is the highest standard worldwide, for lowering hazardous content, including mercury and lead. American specifiers and manufacturers do not generally require their products to comply. Square D is a company that has already changed its manufacturing process so that some of its products meet the RoHS standard. They also have constructed a timeline for when their non-compliant products will be ready for RoHS certification.
Solar panels by SunPower
There are now multiple companies that will install solar panels on your building. The project teams chose to use panels from SunPower because they have proven themselves as a company fighting for sustainability. The high output, longevity, solid warranty, and durability of the panels all contribute to the value. These panels have Cradle to Cradle Certification at the Silver level, giving the project teams confidence in their selection.
EcoBatts by Knauf Insulation
The project team came across an acoustical issue at the Kern Center. Wright Builders and Integrated Eco Strategy researched and found Knauf Insulation, a company with a proprietary formula which excludes formaldehyde from their insulation.
Paint by ECOS Paints and Benjamin Moore Paints
ECOS Paints was one of the first options for Declare labeled paint, leading to its use at the Hitchcock Center. We also vetted several Benjamin Moore paints for the Kern Center. The Benjamin Moore paints, which are readily available nationwide, have recently been added to the Declare list of pre-approved products. However, in order to avoid using Red List products, careful attention should be paid to the contents of tints.
Expanding foam sealant by Premier Building Solutions
In any industry, it’s normal for products to be discontinued. In our case, the approved expanded foam sealant was no longer available. Premier Building Solutions was able to provide a Red List-free product with the transparency needed to be approved on extremely short notice.
Fireblocking foam by Handi-Foam
This is a common product in most building supply stores. Having widely available, LBC-compliant product is great for the everyday buyer.
Spectrem 1 and 2 by Tremco Sealants
With the newest addition of Red List chemicals, LBC 3.1, it has become very difficult to find compliant sealants and adhesives. Fortunately, Tremco has taken the initiative to push and create LBC-compliant products.
Liquid Nails 903
This common product can be found in nearly every home improvement store across the country. Having been vetted under LBC 2.1, homeowners can be confident in the safety of the chemicals used in this adhesive product. It is no small achievement that this product is LBC 2.1 compliant.
Adhesives manufactured by Loctite/OSI
These products included: PL 300 Foam board adhesive; H2U Window, Siding, Door, Trim Adhesive;
F-38 Drywall and Panel Adhesive; SF-450 Subfloor Adhesive; and SC-175 Draft and Acoustical Sound Sealant. Loctite and OSI have demonstrated excellence in the Living Building Challenge. The vetting teams for both the Kern Center and Hitchcock Center found success when vetting products from these manufacturers.
Stonetech Bulletproof sealant by Laticrete
There are multiple LBC and Red List compliant stone sealers on the market. What sets Laticrete’s Stonetech Bulletproof apart is the extremely low VOC. A total of 12g/l makes this a smart choice when thinking about off-gassing.
PolyWhey by Vermont Natural Coatings
Vermont Natural Coatings is a small, regional company that makes great finishes using local whey by-product generated during the cheese-manufacturing process. We like this product for its low stink, local availability, ease of application, and durability. Our teams could sit down in the building for coffee or lunch near these applications and experience no smells. Almost weird — and of course, wonderful!
Glue-laminated post and beam by Nordic Structures
The post and beam structures inside the Kern Center and the Hitchcock Center are made from black spruce lamination sustainably harvested in Canada. Nordic Structures can make a structure in any shape as long as it can fit on the bed of a truck. Both buildings took advantage of this sustainable and beautiful product. Design, fabrication, and installation were done by Bensonwood for the Kern Center and Architectural Timber and Millwork for the Hitchcock Center.
Manufacturers want in
Over the course of these two LBC projects, we at Wright Builders have found that the word is getting out, and that many manufacturers want to be able to participate in the LBC. Paint companies and carpet companies are flocking to be included in specifications. And with each project or consumer purchase, the values of sustainability and resilience are reinforced for those manufacturers who make the commitment.
An important connection is created between specifier, designer, builder, and tradesperson around making meaningful change every day. Overall, except for the Kone elevator, none of the products reviewed here come with a significant cost premium. Old habits die hard sometimes, but new habits can sparkle with a little hope, which is always a good thing.
Jonathan A. Wright, the founder of Wright Builders Inc., has worked on two Living Building Challenge projects. Andrew Solem also contributed to this article. Along with his colleague Phil White, Solem led the vetting process for Wright’s two Living Building Challenge projects. This post was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of BuildingEnergy, a publication of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.