Green Buildings

New database shows health, environmental impacts of building materials

Written by EMS

How many millions of material and chemical ingredients go into the built environment —offices, homes, train station, hotels and factories?

The environmental impact of the use of materials is now being tracked as part of an undertaking by Google, its Google X spin off Flux, software and consulting firm thinkstep and the Healthy Building Network. The companies have produced an open source database of 100 common building products, their ingredients and their environmental and health impacts, according to an article in GreenBiz.

The database, called Quartz, it lists building products in their generic terms, such as linoleum flooring or pipe thread sealants, and does not list manufacturer’s brand names.

The tracking allows for decisions about material use in the early stage design phase that could make “an order of magnitude” difference in environmental and health impacts, Drew Wenzel, Google’s campus design technical specialist who worked on Quartz on behalf of Google, told GreenBiz.

“When you are looking at materials, you end up looking at a lot of materials that are somewhat commodities. There’s not a lot of difference in the products that are out there,” as in one manufacturer’s drywall or linoleum flooring or welded wire mesh concrete reinforcement versus another’s.

But the general product category itself possibly could not be the best choice environmentally or healthwise. Instead of linoleum floors, or cement, architects could deside to use some kind of wood, for instance.

So a major goal of creating the database is to inspire innovation.

“We’re hoping we could get a better technology solution” for some broad categories, Wenzel said.

Quartz is being demonstrated this week at GreenBuild in Washington, D.C. where Google also announced $3 million for healthy building materials research.

While health impact data has become more commonly disclosed, this is the first time environmental impact data has been layered in, said Heather Gadonniex, thinkstep’s vice president who was director of sustainable building and construction as the project was underway. Thinkstep gathered the environmental impact information.

With researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health reporting that unhealthy indoor environments can impair cognitive functioning (PDF), that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors and with government estimates that 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions are from buildings, interest in healthful environmental buildings is growing.

Vivian Dien, Quartz project manager for Flux, said the hope is that the Quartz information will be used to include sustainability measurements in other building materials performance benchmarks and decisions. Ideally, applications will be written to include the environmental and health data in Building Information Modeling, an industry tool for digitizing information about a building, its utility connections, heating and cooling systems and so on that is now used for designing and building.

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