The new green
Some, including the almighty market, see health as the new green.
"Not everybody understands what sustainability is," said Aaron Smith, director of sustainable building solutions at Assa Abloy, a global manufacturer of door-related products, "but most people understand human health."
Assa Abloy, in response to growing customer demand, Smith said, has found less-toxic materials to plate its metal goods with, has eliminated some hazardous cleaning chemicals, has removed PVC from all of its products where found, and is trying to eliminate formaldehyde from all its door products.
Removing PVC was doable, Smith said, but formaldehyde, a cheap, effective bonding agent used in many wood products and which customers are increasingly demanding elimination of, is proving more difficult because of a lack of economical substitutes.
Gray shades of green
And as health concerns rise with building products, sometimes the "green" building industry is at odds with itself.
Sometimes, recycled content has adverse health effects, said Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of the Healthy Building Network.
For example, more stringent air pollution controls require coal-fired power plants to clean their combustion exhaust. The result is fewer heavy metals and toxicants in the air, but more in the existing fly ash and synthetic gypsum, which are used more as a recycled product in building materials.
This is just one example of the complexity of modern buildings, the health concerns they provoke, and the minefield we must pass through as we enter the next era of sustainability (and what it means).
Whatever happens, it won't be a black-and-white solution, said Chris Youssef, an interior designer at Perkins + Will who helps run the firm's transparency project with Syrett.
In reality, it's a weighing system, Youssef said. "Every modern material has a problem with it," he said.
"People want red lists," he said. "It's not about that."