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Bertschi School Science Classroom Addition in Seattle used materials that meet the LBC’s red list requirements.

Skanska USA expresses its corporate commitment to the triple bottom line through its Sustainability Agenda. The following is the fourth of a five-part series exploring how Skanska is approaching the triple bottom line for the good of its clients, its respective businesses and for the good of the places we live, play and work. You can read parts one, two, and three here.

The phone call had to rank among one of the most frustrating moments for one of our young project engineers. Hard at work in Seattle on the Bertschi School’s Science Classroom Building – designed to be the first Living Building for a school in Washington state – she was simply trying to make sure the wiring we procured for the project met the Living Building Challenge’s extensive Red List requirements.

When asked, the vendor didn’t know what materials made up the jacketing of his wiring – and wasn’t sure how to find out. Obviously, this meant more work for our project engineer to dig deeper into uncharted reaches of the supply chain. This situation came up with nearly every product installed on the building, creating a process so tedious for the engineer that she had to wonder just how far one can go in pursuit of sustainability.

Being a pioneer of anything, though, requires the tenacity to keep going forward despite adversity. And when enough pioneers follow suit, you can begin to change an industry.

Sourcing materials has always been an area of construction that has largely been price- and quality-focused. We live in a global society that values the appearance of Indiana limestone, even if the project is in Idaho. It is only a recent development that the idea of “regional materials” has returned to common consideration. As for looking under the hood at how most materials are manufactured and what chemicals they contain? That’s an area many haven’t been willing – and sometimes able – to go.

It’s on this front, though, that businesses can make a call for action if they are truly looking to support a sustainable economy.

Regional materials make sense to most business owners at first blush. If a quality supply can be sourced locally, at the very least, supporting a local vendor supports the local economy. If the materials themselves originated from within a certain radius, all the better. Wood is something, for instance, that we in the Northwest are easily able to source locally. There are systems in place for responsible, sustainable forestry, transporting the wood takes less fuel than if it was coming from a greater distance and we can support local mills.

With some exceptions, wood is wood. You know when you receive it, except for certain kinds of applied treatments, wood is the only ingredient in wood.

Can you say the same for your carpet tile? Or, as mentioned above, the jacketing of your electrical wiring?

These are topics that we’re only beginning to cover. While building occupants may not be affected by the manufacturing processes of these materials, they could be affected by what has gone into them and ultimately what comes back out of them. From our point of view, we need to start being accountable for the entire cycle.

Fortunately, we’ve had just enough Living Building projects in the United States that, perhaps, we can reduce the number of frustrating phone calls to suppliers. Within the past three years, we’ve seen several efforts to build an industry-wide database of “green list” materials – items that meet all “red list” requirements and are approved for nearly any construction project.

Now, we’re at an exciting moment in the movement. A group of committed companies – including heavyweight names like Google – have endorsed the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, a customer-led organization that is aiming to standardize transparent disclosure of building products’ contents and other related health information.

This is a watershed moment for our industry. For many years we’ve been able to track how much material we contractors divert from landfills. It has been very difficult for us, however, to put measures on the materials we put into a building. Even when we could try, we have to wonder if we really had a full look at what materials we were using or if it was making a difference.

As the HPD Collaborative does its work, we will be able document materials procurement like never before. I look forward to the day we can report more than 90 percent use of materials that meet the HPD standard. I believe we can get there within a decade.

The number will be nice, but it’s what’s behind it that will count. It will mean we’ve changed an opaque and mysterious supply chain into a transparent model that enables specifiers to make informed decisions. The choices will stimulate local economies, reduce carbon emissions and contribute to healthy workplaces and homes.

Advancing higher building materials standards is the new norm. I hope that we will see an industry-wide movement to adopt these materials, leading the way to a healthier community for our communities, colleagues and families.

Steve Clem is Vice President of Skanska USA.



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