We have nutrition labels for food, so why not building products? After all, as JASMAX architects associate Michelle Johansson sees it, we “eat” our built environment as well, ingesting its dust on our food, coffee cups and fingers; absorbing chemicals where we sit or lean; and breathing in whatever is floating about from the off-gassing of furnishings, finishes and other items.
Jasmax designed the Tuhoe Te Uru Taumatua building in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand’s first project designed and constructed to Living Building Challenge specifications.
- See our article, Case study: the Tuhoe Building – NZ’s first Living Building Challenge contender
According to Johansson The Living Future Institute’s Declare labelling scheme, used as part of the certification, aims to give architects, builders and consumers transparent information on exactly what they are “eating’” in the built environment.
The label covers where it was made, where each element in it came from, and whether each element is safe, dubious or on the Red List of “worst in class” substances. It also gives a projected lifespan for the product, and information about the degree of end-of-life re-usability or recyclability.
One of the aspects of the system that sets it apart is it does not generally forbid the use of anything, instead it challenges manufacturers and suppliers to be entirely transparent. A bit like a food product listing its fat content, salt content, and dodgy chemical colourings, flavourings and preservatives. It’s about putting all the facts out there so users and consumers are making an informed choice, without having to wade through the many pages of technical detail that comprises a standard environmental product declaration or grappling with the technical language of a material safety data sheet.
There is an allowance for what Johansson calls “secret ingredients” – proprietary substances that give a product its unique qualities. Up to one per cent of a product’s content does not have to be declared on the label by name, but the manufacturer must guarantee the anonymous substance is not on the Red List.
Where the goal is a green outcome, the system aims to guide architects, specifiers, builders and other building product consumers towards making choices that have lower toxicity, increased lifespan and recyclability and a more localised supply chain.
What Johansson hopes will happen is users will be guided by the labelling the same way they are by energy labels on whitegoods. And that the market will therefore shift in favour of greener products, and manufacturers will respond to growing demand by delivering more sustainable products.
One of the points she makes about Tuhoe and its LBC-compliant products is that there was nothing “weird” about them – they were perfectly normal materials that are used in buildings everywhere, just in some cases, formulated differently.
“Everyone thought food labels were bizarre in the beginning, but they are now seen as entirely normal. I hope we get to the point where all building products have Declare and it’s normal,” Johansson says.
Jasmax’s Sarah Rothwell says that the system is a new perspective on manufacturing.
“It is a new way of working that could be picked up and made mainstream. There are other systems out there too – all roads lead to Rome.”
Currently there are eight building products in the New Zealand market that carry Declare labelling, and one in Australia. Johansson says there are another 21 products in NZ that have commenced the process, including 10 plasterboard products.
The five biggest materials manufacturers in the country including Hardies and Carter Holt Harvey are also seriously contemplating making the transition, and Johansson says the “big five” recognise that if they go down this path, the entire industry will probably follow.
“It needs key people who will create change,” she says.
From the viewpoint of some of the suppliers and manufacturers who have undertaken Declare certification as a result of their involvement in the Tuhoe Building, the journey is proving to be an ongoing one that involves a combination of validation, challenge and inspiration to innovate.
The laminex maker
Laminex New Zealand currently has two products that carry the labelling and are Red List-free certified, a structural flooring panel used for ground floors and mid floors and a board suitable for wall linings and flooring overlays. These were the first products in NZ to achieve the status.
“We were in the fortunate position to already have products in our range which are locally sourced, manufactured and free from Red List items, these products were already perfect for Declare,” company spokesman Chris Dunn says.
Rebbecca Page, the company’s sustainability advisor, told The Fifth Estate that while the firm already carries a number of other green certifications and credentials, there is a growing interest in the LBC that made Declare a good fit to add to the stable.
“Through conversations we had with the architects involved with local Living Building Challenge projects, we became aware of how we could support the process. By having a Declare label on Strandfloor and Strandboard we are providing the designers with a ‘go to’ product with all of the necessary transparency available at the click of a button,” Page says.
“With more and more enquiries about the Living Building Challenge, it made complete sense for us to add a Declare label to our already vast array of certifications.”
Page says that while there was “definitely a learning curve” in getting up to speed with the new terminology involved, this has put the firm in a great position to get more products labelled.
“We’re working on ‘Declaring’ more products right now. As both a manufacturer and distributor, we are always looking for products that tick as many boxes as possible from an environmental perspective.
“When we are dealing with architects, designers and engineers working on LBC projects, having a Declare label makes things a lot easier. They tend to be very well aware of Declare so having the certification is a massive positive for us.”
The interiors supplier
Managing director of T & R Interior Systems, Kaz Von Heraud Parker, says the process of developing products that can carry Declare labelling and growing market demand for them involves a number of balancing acts. The company currently supplies one product that carries the certification – an aluminium-based partition system – and is working with a number of other manufacturers to facilitate their products achieving certification.
One of the challenges is gaining manufacturer buy-in to the concept of materials transparency, particularly when the product does contain Red List items. However, the concern this could disadvantage the product may be misplaced, as a product which openly states it contains a Red List substance may contain a smaller amount of it than a competing product that does not have transparency in its labelling.
Von Heraud Parker says the company has become an initiator, working with suppliers and promoting the system to architects. She has also sparked the formation of a Living Building collaborative in Wellington.
The firm also carries the Just label, another Living Future Institute initiative that sets out how companies perform in terms of the social responsibility dimension, and its social concerns for employees and their families in terms of business viability that are driving a measured approach to going publicly greener. There are jobs at stake.
Part of the issue is the degree to which architects are looking for green product credentials.
“We still have to weigh up the value architects put on that,” she says. “We are prepared to go down that path but it’s a balancing act.
“We have to go at the speed of our suppliers and the uptake of architects.”
The demand for greener products has two drivers, clients that request green buildings, and architects that specify such products whether clients have specifically aimed for a sustainable building or not.
“Architects are the ones creating the demand for the products and setting the ground rules. There are also cases where they might specify a product and then when it comes down to money, the builder might start switching like for like for the sake of price, except the ‘like’ product might actually be toxic.”
Architects, when they are choosing products, need to make sure it is hard specified, so it doesn’t get substituted, she said.
The timber manufacturer
For NZ-based timber products manufacturer Abodo, having just completed the LBC on The Tuhoe building and knowing that its products and values align with the scheme made it an “of course” kind of decision to proceed with Declare according to technical director Ben Campbell.
The company has two products currently carrying the label, a thermally-modified timber cladding that is free of any preservatives, and glulam, an engineered wood product. Both use FSC-certified wood. A third product, a plant-oil based penetrating coating formulated specifically to be suitable for Declare, is currently in development.
“Existing penetrating coatings on the market generally contain mineral turpentine which is petrochemical derived and high in volatile organic compounds,” Campbell says. The plus of a solvent-free coating with no toxic ingredients is the simplicity of establishing safety in terms of impacts on end users.
The glulam product was modified to make it suitable for Tuhoe with a polyurethane glue substituted for a formaldehyde-containing adhesive, and this formula change was made permanent before the Declare labelling was applied for.
He says that there is a growing interest in the scheme, but, there are also many reasons that some manufacturers may not opt-in.
Some may not want to be transparent about what’s really in their products. Others may not be willing to accept what he admits can be a performance trade-off with some types of products.
“A lot of legacy products perform well because of the chemicals they have in them,” he says.
For others, the barrier may be the amount of capital invested in plant and equipment specific to a product, or being invested in proprietary formulations that are used, or a potential need to jump through regulatory hoops to get a new or revised product approved for use. This is why starting from scratch to develop a cleaner product can be easier than changing one that already exists.
Consumers including builders, their clients and the average hardware store habitué also need to start practising discernment.
“With today’s consumer, a lot are waking up, but there is a large amount of them that don’t care or don’t have the resources to find out about products,” Campbell says.