Blog Post

Materials Rules for Going Beyond the Red List

Crowd-sourced commentary enriches proposed rules for building well.

I'm not sure if it was the topic or the all-star panel that drew a crowd to a session entitled "Beyond the Red List" at the recent Living Future conference in Vancouver. Along with other great panelists, Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network teamed up with Robin Guenther from Perkins+Will to share a strong call to action on toxicity in building materials.

Tom and Robin had brainstormed a list of "Materials Rules" in the manner of Michael Pollan's Food Rules. The rules were posted on the wall, where they enriched the conversation that I facilitated after the presentations (with help from design consultant Mary Davidge and International Living Future Institute VP Eden Brukman). With about 130 people in the room, it was helpful that people could contribute to the conversation in multiple ways. In one mode, people speaking got into an animated debate about whether transparency and better information will be enough to bring about a sea-change in the toxicity of our building materials.

While that conversation was unfolding, people were writing on note cards and passing them forward, where we posted them on the "Rule" that they relate to. That second mode created a way for lots of people to sound off simultaneously, and have their thoughts captured. This multilayered conversation generated great annotations on the Materials Rules from people in the room. You can see what they looked like on the wall. Here are the Rules, with a few of my favorite annotations:

If they won't tell you what's in it, you probably don't want what's in it.

  • Use both carrots (rewards, incentives, trip to Vegas?) and sticks (LBC red list) to get exposure.
  • Managing data is difficult and we're not doing a good job.
  • The default is never the greenest, safest option.
  • Consult your nose--if it stinks, don't use it.
  • Start with people and all else follows.
  • These pens stink (oops)!

Just because almost anything can kill you doesn't mean building products should.

  • What are unintended consequences of red lists?
  • Why not the "heal us" list?
  • There is a product we are all using today that we don't yet know is making us sick.
  • Innovation is the opportunity for manufacturers to take more market share.

Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.

  • Include manufacturers in design & integrated team partnership, us + us.
  • How to compare material Values (e.g. toxicity vs. habitat)?
  • Environmental product declarations with toxicity included in LEED and Living Building Challenge.

Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.

  • Embrace decay and transformation.
  • We should be able to eat buildings.
  • Can you grow glass?

Question materials that make health claims.

  • Can we make materials biologically active?

Pay more, use less.

  • Closed-loop economy.
  • Take only what you need.
  • Can your company switch to product as service?

If it is cheap, it probably has hidden (externalized) costs.

  • What you buy gets produced.
  • Tax pollutants not profits.
  • Economics puts profits over value to the world.

Regard "space-age" materials with skepticism.

  • How can we avoid the toxicity of technology?
  • What will we wear in the future?

Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.

  • Less processed better than more processed.
  • Can we really do better than nature?
  • Use things that can be repaired, not just replaced (don't support forced obsolescence).

Question the generation of hazardous waste instead of where to use it in your building.

  • Recycled content is not always better.
  • Educate your family first...then clients.
  • The power of "NO."

Published May 14, 2011

Malin, N. (2011, May 14). Materials Rules for Going Beyond the Red List. Retrieved from

Add new comment

To post a comment, you need to register for a BuildingGreen Basic membership (free) or login to your existing profile.


May 19, 2011 - 12:55 pm

We were happy to see the commentaries on Materials Rules for Going Beyond the Red List.
Saint-Astier Natural Hydraulic Limes (NHL) are not only adressing these concerns but they are also going beyond by disclosing their exact composition in their raw and finish state (see ).