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Transparency for Materials

My colleague Amanda Sturgeon of the Living Building Challenge, is leading efforts to make building materials more transparent. A year ago the  International Living Future Institute, parent of the Challenge, launched a new program: “Declare, the ingredients label for building products.” An important part of the Declare process is an online database of materials. Amanda writes,

the contents of most building products remains a mystery to those who purchase them, and the declaration of ingredients is the first step to identifying whether a building product contains toxic chemicals or not.

The Living Building Challenge requires manufacturers disclose the ingredients in their products to ensure they do not contain any of the 14 worst in class chemicals listed on the program’s Red List. Project teams have discovered that this is one the most challenging aspects of the program because of the lack of information about building material contents.

Transparency: Questions Relevant to All Materials

I also wrote about “invisible materials” in the Designers Atlas of Sustainability (pages 36-39 in case you’ve got your copy handy). The book highlights four ways that materials are invisible:

– Scale: how many of these objects are there in the world and how fast do they “turn over”?
– Content: what chemicals and material types does the object contain?
– Origin: where have the components of the materials come from?
– Escape: how do bits of the object, or the whole object, get back into the environment?

And to support work with students I also developed a few related exercises in the book’s teaching guide (download the guide  free here).

one aspect of invisibilty: how materials go back into the environment

In the exercise “Invisible Materials” students examine an object (or a building or an interior) and evaluate the visible and invisible aspects of its materials. In the section on setting up this exercise I suggest,

It’s possible that students will be completely unaware that mobile phones and even everyday upholstery contain, to some degree, substances known to be toxic. In the same vein they may not be aware of recent discoveries of worker exposure to these toxins, of unfair labor practices, or of environmental damage resulting from the harvesting of resources. In this regard it may be worth setting aside time for a thorough case study in which these aspects of invisibility are highlighted before they attempt to do the exercise.

I include a range of resources for finding and/or learning more about invisible materials. There are also exercises on:

  • the structure and concentration of materials, which touch upon one aspect of invisibility–loss of material through abrasion.
  • estimation — this exercise is about scale–how many pairs of sunglasses or residential boilers are there in this country? in the world? At these larger scales, materials become visible in a different way.

Check out the Designers Atlas of Sustainability and its teaching guide–you are guaranteed to find new ways to think about and teach sustainable design!

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2 Responses to Transparency for Materials

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