Lack of transparency
A lot of the time, there's no real way for a builder -- or us -- to know if PVC, BPA, coal fly ash, synthetic gypsum or other potentially hazardous materials are in a building.
Perkins + Will, a Chicago-based architectural firm, has made this unknowability a focus. The firm runs a project that lists building material components (along with their known or suspected health effects) in an effort to encourage transparency in the building field.
The project, and its precautionary list of 25 building materials it recommends builders and consumers be aware of, has gained national attention.
The transparency project has logical beginnings. When the firm set out to design a cancer center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which opened in 2003, it wanted to do the sensible thing: construct and outfit the center with building materials that contained no known or suspected carcinogens.
Turns out this was an impossible task -- though the firm came close to its goal.
There's no way to have perfectly harmless building materials, said Peter Syrett, a Perkins + Will architect who runs the firm's transparency project with a colleague.
"Name a 'green' product? I really can't," Syrett said. "It's not how we (as a culture) do things now."
It's not about finding a perfectly harmless product, however.
Beyond a return to the prehistory of mud huts and reed cabanas, building products, as fully modern materials, come in at best only shades of green, Syrett said -- one of the compromises of civilization.
As awareness grows there are more tools for builders to use. The Pharos Project, an endeavor of the Healthy Building Network, aims to provide information on where to get building materials that have full disclosures.