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  • 02.06.17

Google’s Plan To Make Our Buildings Less Poisonous

Our buildings can make us sick. In Google, the movement for healthy architecture may have gotten its most powerful ally yet.

The Mississippi River’s 85-mile course between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, snakes past 150 chemical plants and refineries. In the shadow of towering industrial infrastructure and beneath emission plumes are neighborhoods that are mostly poor, black, and sick. The area’s residents were diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses at such a high rate that the region earned the nickname “Cancer Alley.” In the 1990s, Greenpeace stationed Lawrence Kilroy, then an environmental justice activist, in the region.

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“The communities along ‘Cancer Alley’ see higher rates of asthma and developmental toxins, particularly in children,” Kilroy says. “The common ingredient there is the pollution. When you travel to these areas, you experience big-factory smokestacks with all kinds of stuff coming out of it and a disenfranchised, impoverished community. This has an impact on you. You say, ‘What difference can I make in the world?’”

Seeing the environmental degradation wrought by the chemical industry in southern Louisiana–which produces over a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals, which are used in everything from flooring to footballs–as well as the devastating health impacts on people who live nearby eventually inspired Kilroy to join the Healthy Building Network (HBN), a nonprofit founded in 2000 with the mission to reduce the hazardous chemical content in building materials. His argument for fighting environmental injustice through the lens of architecture and construction? It impacts all of our health, but disproportionately affects marginalized communities from two angles. Manufacturing building materials often involves the use of hazardous chemicals, which harms communities adjacent to factories. Additionally, the materials people put into low-income housing are often the most hazardous. “We see the full circle there,” he says.

Kilroy has been working at HBN for over a decade, but now he’s poised to make one of his most substantial contributions to the fight for healthier buildings and environmental justice. HBN partnered with Google to develop Portico, a green materials database and decision-making tool that, in Kilroy’s mind, has the potential to transform how the entire building industry thinks by leveraging big data.

Progressive architects, product manufacturers, and advocacy organizations have been calling for more industry change for years. There have been a few piecemeal wins But Google, a global multibillion-dollar company, might enable the dramatic shift the industry needs.

“Our aim is not to eliminate a material, but to facilitate a debate,” Kilroy says. “The campaign is about having discussions about materials, and when manufacturers do that they’ll find a better way to make them. We’re not trying to dissolve an industry; it’s about trying to improve their products. Working with someone like Google, which has a large market presence, elevates the conversation.” Google, whose purchasing power is very strong, has the leverage to persuade manufacturers to make healthier products.

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The movement for healthy buildings may have gotten its most powerful ally yet in Google. But is it enough to actually make a difference, or is this another tech-will-save-us moment of blind optimism?

[Image: via Healthy Building Network]

Creating A Market For Healthy Materials

There’s a saying that you are what you eat. The same idea applies to architecture. A building is the sum of its parts–framing, insulation, flooring, cladding, windows, carpet, furniture, and so on. While you can read an ingredient list on most foods and make an informed decision about what you’re going to consume or avoid, the same isn’t true for architectural products. While benign in appearance, they could contain noxious chemicals and substances.

Buildings have a bad environmental track record: They account for half of the United States’ energy consumption and carbon footprint, and more than 534 tons of construction and demolition waste entered landfills in 2014. What isn’t discussed as much are buildings’ negative health implications. We spend close to 90% of our day inside and, according to the EPA, indoor air pollution is often worse than it is outside. The culprit is often the materials, finishes, furniture, and products–which are often made from noxious chemicals–that compose our buildings.

As science advances and we better understand the impact of chemicals, our knowledge of what is and isn’t okay to use grows. A chemical that was once thought to be benign could have untold long-term consequences. Meanwhile, these chemicals go unregulated.

“We would love the idea of the precautionary principle to guide regulation,” Kilroy says. “Right now, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.” Chemical companies test their products for health implications and report that information to the EPA, however for people who aren’t chemists, the names of these substances is confusing and the regulatory language is filled with jargon. Kilroy believes consumers of products that contain these chemicals need to be more aggressive in voicing the type of information disclosure they need.

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Third-party certification systems–like Cradle to Cradle, Greenguard , and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative–have aimed to make the information about chemical content in products and the potential health risks they pose, but there are so many different systems, each with their own rubric for assessing risks that it adds yet another layer of confusion, even though they were designed to clarify. It is expensive to obtain certification, and product manufacturers are choosy about what they get certified and by whom.

In 2006, HBN launched Project Pharos, an early version of Portico, that aimed to bridge the gap between architects specifying materials and materials manufacturers by making the confusing landscape of third-party certification systems easier to navigate.

What started out as a database of materials and what’s in them eventually evolved into an information-gathering tool to help systematize chemical disclosure requests from manufacturers. Then Google heard about Pharos and asked HBN to develop a custom tool for the design of its own offices; however, when they put their heads together, they realized they needed something more robust.

Google’s Journey to Green Buildings

Around 2010, Google was expanding its Mountain View, California, campus and also rapidly building elsewhere. Google cofounder Larry Page began asking his real estate team about what was in the building materials, recognizing that a healthy environment would lead to happier and healthier employees.

“We approach our spaces the same way we develop our products, and our office is a product,” says Robin Bass, a member of Google’s real estate and work services team, a sustainability specialist, and a key contributor to Portico’s development. “‘Focus on the user and all else will follow’ is a mantra, and that’s where our focus on people and the focus on health in the environment stems from. There are a lot of smart people [at Google], and if they smell something in a new space they’ll ask about it. That’s where the healthy materials program began.”

Bass is part of Google’s 12-person environments, experience, and ecology team–a multidisciplinary group of architects, engineers, and designers responsible for health and sustainability in all of the tech company’s spaces worldwide, which amounts to 70 offices in 40 countries. An architect based in San Francisco, she began consulting with Google in 2012 and joined the staff in 2014, but her commitment to healthy buildings began when she was a freshman at the University of Virginia and attended a lecture from green-design guru Bill McDonough.

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“What clicked for me when I heard Bill McDonough speak was really the concepts of ‘design as the first signal of intent’ and ‘waste as a design flaw,'” she says. “Bill connected the dots on so many issues with the status quo of the design and construction industry. It changed the way I saw my future and the future I wanted to help create.”

At Google, Bass thought that her work could become more effective because of the company’s size. Google builds a lot and prioritizes sustainability in all its structures. “The importance of green buildings and healthy materials has to be a bigger conversation than one green building here or there,” she says. “We have to scale up to cities, neighborhoods, campuses to make an impact. The same can be said of materials. We can’t have one or two healthy materials. We need every manufacturer of every product in every home improvement store to be working on this.”

Bringing Big Data To Healthy Materials

While Google built its business dealing in information, it didn’t have the most efficient system in place when it came to its construction management. There was no central database to track the information it gathered about building materials and collate which ones met its stringent standards. It was all done on a per-project basis, each with its own set of spreadsheets tracking material specifications. The need for a database became apparent.

“A lot of these tough questions [about healthy materials] are really difficult to do in alignment with design and construction schedules,” Bass says. “You need to make decisions quickly when there is no information. That’s something we struggled with from day one of this effort. That was a big reason why we needed a tool: get the people out of the way and create a platform.”

The Portico platform includes a database of products organized by manufacturer, product category (like textiles, seating, carpet, systems furniture), and whether or not it meets LEED and Living Building Challenge standards, two green building certification programs. Google also created its own numerical scoring metric for each product. Products are ranked on a 16-point scale according to the level at which they disclose ingredients (for example how granular they can get for chemical concentration measured in parts per million), how transparent the entire formulation of a product or material is, and the identification of hazards associated with each material. If a product doesn’t meet a certain points threshold, Google won’t specify it in a project.

Building materials and products enter the library in a handful of ways. If designers have all of the necessary disclosure information, they can enter it into Portico. If there’s a material the designers are considering, but they don’t have the relevant information, they can send a request for a material disclosure list to the manufacturer (this is done through an automated form). The manufacturer can then respond directly to the Portico database. The information-gathering process is systematized. Its incentive to respond? Whether or not a product meets the criteria determines whether or not Google specifies the product. An architect specifying flooring for a single-family home might request a few hundred square feet of a product–peanuts for a product company and a sale that might not be worth the information-gathering effort. Google–whose offices are substantially larger–might buy hundreds of thousands of square feet. Even if the architect or designer using Portico to request information from a manufacturer isn’t Google, having that product in the same database Google might use for future projects sweetens the deal.

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Portico also helps with project management so designers, clients, and builders can track what materials are being specified, where they are in the disclosure process, and whether or not the roster of specified materials meets green-building compliance goals, whether that’s for Google’s internal goals or for other programs like LEED. Deciding what materials to use in a project is a complex process, which is far from static. For example, architects and clients can agree on a material in the design stage but by the time it gets to budgeting and construction, the price could’ve changed, making the materials impossible to use. Then the design has to change to meet the budget.

“Leveraging Portico makes materials sourcing a conversation,” Bass says. “It’s not a yes or no or a binary answer. It’s really where are you in the journey to understanding what’s in your product and what can you do to limit health implications.”

The Manufacturers’ Incentive

Google’s biggest contribution to healthy architecture might simply be that it’s Google. Understanding what’s actually in a product is really about understanding the supply chain, and manufacturers are often tight-lipped about specific formulations. The flow of information is just as challenging for architects as it is for manufacturers. However, dollars can sweeten the deal and get manufacturers to divulge more information.

“The bigger the company, the more incentive [a supplier has to share information],” says Deidre Hoguet, director of sustainability and material exploration at Designtex, a textile manufacturer that specifies materials to Google and uses Portico. “Having Google, which builds enormous numbers of square feet every week and purchases a lot of products, ask about ingredients is different than having the one customer who’s building one office inquire. It’s a different conversation.”

Even for a manufacturer like Designtex, materials disclosure is a challenge. When it seeks information to submit for third-party certifications, like Cradle to Cradle, obtaining details from suppliers–it designs products and contracts them out to manufacturers in the United States and abroad–is a long process. “We’re a customer of another customer,” Hoguet explains. “The fabric supplier is a customer of a yarn company who is a customer of a fiber company. The cascade of supply-chain information is often a bottleneck.”

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Enter Google. “Portico was a golden ticket for me,” Hoguet says. “We’ve been talking to mills and suppliers and dyers for years and it was very hard to get information from them. But when we are able to say, ‘There’s this very big customer who buys a lot of product, and you’ll only be able to sell to them if these chemicals aren’t in there,’ it became easier.”

Expanding Portico’s Reach

While Portico began as an internal tool to help Google designers ease the specification of materials for its own architectural projects, it is now evolving into what the tech giant hopes will become a go-to resource for all designers to use.

“In relationship to our work in healthy materials, our desire is not just to build things that impact Google, but to look at the broader community and consumers, making chemical information about products and the health implications readily available,” Bass says.

The more materials that enter the database, the more robust it is. To increase the number of products in the library, Google and HBN invited other organizations to begin using the database. In 2016, the architecture firm Perkins + Will; the developer Durst Organization; Harvard University; and the HomeFree Affordable Housing Cohort, an HBN program that helps affordable housing developers specify healthy materials, joined Portico as founding partners. Since each company approaches projects differently, the hope is they’ll be able to offer different insights into improving Portico’s functionality.

Today, there are more than 2,600 scored products in the Portico database, more than 5,000 manufacturers have contributed information to the resource, and more than 500 projects (250 are Google’s) are currently using the database. By pooling knowledge, materials sourcing could potentially become easier for everyone and potentially give designers a bigger vocabulary to work with in projects.

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Perkins + Will hopes that Portico will help project management, ease conversations with clients, and, most of all, make it easier to talk to manufacturers. In 2008, it began compiling its own list of concerning substances and frequently requests material disclosure information from manufacturers for every project. Like Google, it experienced hurdles with sorting through information and obtaining information.

“In this market transformation, one of the things we continue to work on is the relationship with manufacturers,” says Mary Dickinson, co-leader of the Material Performance Lab at Perkins + Will. “We have the declarations and certifications, but there are so many. It continues to be an effort to try and get the information, to know how to use it, and to apply it to projects.”

The information Perkins + Will gleans from every request for information becomes part of the firm’s collective knowledge, which then feeds into the next project, and the cycle continues. It’s not unlike what happens at Google when it tries to specify materials.

What’s most promising about the Portico experiment is how data analysis and technology could help the materials industry innovate. “Having the power of big data getting behind the problem is so valuable,” Hoguet says, director of sustainability and material exploration at Designtex, a textile manufacturer that specifies materials to Google and uses Portico. She’s excited at the prospect of the fragmented building and construction industry pooling its information resources.

To Kilroy, Portico’s biggest advantage is getting multiple entities together and speaking the same language. “There are few systems that can interact together with APIs,” he says. “What you get is siloed data, proprietary data, and data that’s not transportable from system to system. Designers might use specific software for building information modeling (BIM). Materials researchers are using Google, and now Portico or Pharos, to do health and environmental research. Then you have materials specification tools at the point where you’re ordering what you need.” Portico, which can be used at all steps in the materials specification process–from design to supplying orders to building–connects these systems.

Perkins + Will hopes that architecture firms and their clients–small or large, businesses and individuals–join in a chorus rally for healthier materials. The more demand manufacturers have for information about their products, the more likely they are to change what goes into products in the first place.

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“What I’d like to see Portico become is a catalyst for change,” Dickinson says. “Our goal is to have that industry transformation and to have other architectural firms join us on the mission. From 2008 to today, there has been a louder voice and unison in the voice [saying] that materials need to be addressed as part of the sustainability story.”

The challenge–and opportunity–here is to make this design intelligence widely available. The next steps are to get as many materials into Portico as possible–the hope is to have 12,000 building materials and products in the database by the end of the year–and to get more architecture firms to participate in the Portico’s early-access program.

The Bigger Problem With Building Materials

As lofty as Portico’s ambitions are, some of the realities of the building materials industry might stunt its impact. Supply chains are opaque. The certifications landscape is fragmented and expensive. Some products that are “healthy” don’t get certified because the financial burden is too great.

“It’s like organic food,” Hoguet says. “A lot of companies grow organic, but can’t pay for the USDA certification so they don’t get the label. It’s exactly the same thing in healthy material certifications.”

Additionally, Google uses certifications from Cradle to Cradle and the Living Building Challenge in its algorithm, but those are far from the only third-party certifications out there. Designtex sources some of its wool from a small mill in Scotland, but since it uses a European certification system, and not one of the certifications that Google incorporates into its score, the product receives zero points in Portico and can’t be used in a Google project. (Google doesn’t independently certify products.) That’s not to say Portico’s ranking system won’t adapt in the future to include more certification programs.

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“There’s value that’s unrecognized,” Hoguet says. “Of course there are certifications that are better than other certifications. I have my own ranking on what’s valuable and what’s questionable as a certification and a practice. The Portico system is a good start, but it could go a lot further.”

Kilroy views Portico’s value more as a conversation platform than a blanket solution. His goal for the next couple of years is for Portico to convince the industry to eliminate chemicals he calls “low-hanging fruit” from their products. “Portico is less about creating a ‘product’ rather than creating a solution and a campaign,” he says. “We want Portico to be the virtual table everyone sits around to make products healthier . . . We’re not aiming to solve everything, but create a model others can use. Hopefully this sets a template others can use to create tech in the [materials] space.”

The database is still in its nascent stages, and Google is still developing its system, so Portico’s full potential remains ambiguous. Additionally, the question remains about how much designers and eventually end users of a building are wiling to rely on the algorithm Google uses to calculate a product’s score. We trust Google to find information, but do we trust it enough to tell us what’s healthy? Even Google acknowledges that it can’t solve the healthy materials problem alone. “We need 100 Googles asking for this info, leveraging their purchasing power, and engaging in the conversation about understanding what’s in products,” Bass says.

[All Images (unless otherwise noted): via Google]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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