Three Ways Builders Can Boost Local Economies Through Procurement Decisions: Buy U.S.-Made, Locally Made, and Union-Made Building Products

Builders can amplify the economic impact they have in communities by selecting building products that are made in the U.S., locally sourced, and made by union workers. Products with these specifications support the creation of high-quality jobs, help grow the manufacturing base of the U.S., and more fully realize the socio-economic benefits of investments in making buildings more efficient, healthier, and equitable with high-road labor standards.

RELEASE: New Report Finds Decline in Domestic Manufacturing of Energy-Efficient Products

WASHINGTON, D.C. –A new analysis released today from Building Clean—an initiative of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation—has identified a decline in domestic manufacturing of energy efficiency products. In 2007, 84% of energy-efficient products used in the United States were manufactured domestically. The data found that today the U.S.-made percentage has fallen to 79%. The new report, Energy Efficiency Should be Made in the United States, showed the U.S. share of energy efficiency manufacturing is still strong, however the decline is a cause for concern. The biggest declines are seen in Appliances (11%) and Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Cooling (HVAC) systems (10%).

“Deindustrialization has hurt families and communities and cut off pathways into the middle class,” said BlueGreen Alliance Foundation President Jason Walsh. “Sending these jobs overseas has gutted manufacturing communities across the nation. These findings highlight the importance of turning this statistic around by investing in domestically produced energy efficiency products.”

The effects of lost manufacturing are far reaching. Not only does this decline affect jobs in the energy efficiency product manufacturing sector, it also impacts economic activity and jobs throughout the supply chain. A single 100-person factory supports an average of 455 induced jobs at the stores, restaurants, and other businesses where the factory workers spend their money.

Historically, communities of color are most heavily impacted by the decline in domestic manufacturing. For example, there has been a 30.4% decline in Black manufacturing employment between 1998 and 2020. Latinx workers are also disproportionately affected as the largest community of color working in manufacturing.

The report authors recommend a set of policies to pair energy efficiency investment with incentives for domestically produced products, to further increase investment in energy efficiency, and to provide direct support to the manufacturers of these products.

“Outsourcing and disinvestment is pushing the manufacturing of appliances, HVAC components, and other needed technologies outside the United States,” said BlueGreen Alliance Foundation National Program Manager Dana Saylor. “The domestic manufacturing of energy efficiency products is integral to building a strong, clean, fair economy for all.”

The report can be downloaded here.

Energy Efficiency Should be Made in the United States

A new analysis released today from the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation has identified a decline in domestic manufacturing of energy efficiency products. In 2007, 84% of energy-efficient products used in the U.S. were manufactured domestically. The data found that today the U.S.-made percentage has fallen to 79%. The new report, Energy Efficiency Should be Made in the United States, showed the U.S. share of energy efficiency manufacturing is still strong, however the decline is a cause for concern. The biggest declines seen in Appliances (11%) and Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Cooling (HVAC) systems (10%).

The effects of lost manufacturing are far reaching. Not only does this decline affect jobs in the energy efficiency product manufacturing sector, but it also impacts economic activity and jobs throughout the supply chain. A single 100-person factory supports an average of 455 induced jobs at the stores, restaurants, and other businesses where the factory workers spend their money.     

Historically, communities of color are most heavily impacted by the decline in domestic manufacturing. For example, there has been a 30.4% decline in Black manufacturing employment between 1998 and 2020. Latinx workers are also disproportionately affected as the largest community of color working in manufacturing.  

The report authors recommend a set of policies to pair energy efficiency investment with incentives for domestically produced products, to further increase investment in energy efficiency, and to provide direct support to the manufacturers of these products. 

Click the link below to read the full report.

50 State Report Card on Affordable Housing Policies Highlights Room for Improvement on Racial Equity, Healthy Building Practices

Click to download the full report.

The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation today announced the release of a thorough analysis of measures for affordable housing investments in all 50 states and three cities. This includes both a report and a scorecard ranking all states based on their criteria for allocating Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) through Qualified Allocation Plans (QAPs).

The report is available at: https://buildingclean.org/qap-report

“QAPs serve as a valuable tool to advance progressive solutions in affordable housing,” said BlueGreen Alliance Foundation State Initiatives Manager and report author Jeff Hurley. “This report shows there is significant room for improvement. I hope our findings will help improve states’ QAP requirements and affordable housing standards.”

The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation undertook this project to encourage states to create good jobs, protect health, and enhance equity in affordable housing. To achieve this, the report focuses on what the pillars of QAPs should be: healthy building practices, energy efficiency, worker-friendly labor standards, and racial equity.

The report found the locations with the highest overall scores in three categories were IllinoisMinnesotaOhio, and the District of Columbia with an A-; ColoradoMichiganWashington, and Oregon with a B+; and DelawareGeorgia, and Maryland with a B.

The report found the locations with the lowest overall scores were MaineKentucky, and Tennessee with an F, and AlaskaAlabamaArkansasCaliforniaMontanaNorth CarolinaNebraskaKansasOklahomaWest Virginia, and the City of Chicago with a D.

“Ultimately, this is a call for states to improve their QAP process with a focus on reducing disproportionate exposure to communities of color,” said BlueGreen Alliance Vice President of Health Initiatives Charlotte Brody. “The bottom line is that the investments we make in affordable and low-income housing should foster a healthy and equitable future for all, not just reduce energy waste and pollution.”

“While housing finance agencies have a litany of priorities to consider when developing their QAPs, this report shows that the health of residents and workers, the energy efficiency of housing developments, labor standards, and racially equitable housing policies cannot be ignored,” said Hurley.

“Just 2% of the real estate industry in the United States includes Black-led companies. Access to capital remains the most significant barrier for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) developers,” said Deborah De Santis, the CEO of the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). “The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation report is an important tool for understanding how jurisdictions can begin to address the systemic racism and discriminatory practices used in rental housing development and leasing and create more equitable access to housing for people who face persistent discrimination.”

Biophilic Design as a Holistic Approach to Healthier Buildings

Biophilic design is the practice of connecting people and nature within our built environments and communities. It prioritizes integrating innovative building materials and techniques into living spaces that are beneficial to our health. People spend around 90% of their time indoors, implying that public health highly depends on the health of indoor ecosystems. Relative to affordable housing, biophilic design provides a path forward for healthier and more beautiful spaces, and has the potential to rectify the negative impacts of living in what are too often depleted and insufficient living environments.

Biophilic design exemplifies the notion that spaces should be cultivated for enhancing public health and nurturing humans’ innate desire to feel connected to natural systems. In buildings, incorporating environmental features such as natural ventilation and daylight, views and vistas, green walls and flora, or access to a garden provides occupants with a direct visual and experiential connection to nature. Integrating organic shapes and forms such as tree-like columns, botanical motifs, and spirals into design is another effective way of evoking nature.1 Projects that draw inspiration from surrounding geography, history, ecology, and culture create an environment for occupants to experience a sense of belonging in having their unique community reflected in their dwelling spaces.

The building materials that comprise our living spaces have the ability to affect cognitive functionality and performance, psychological health, physiological health, and our overall well-being. Indoor air is often polluted by building and consumer products containing hazardous chemicals, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can cause long-term damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.2 Respiratory ailments, prohibitive proper cognitive development, high stress levels, high blood pressure, toxic legacies, depression, anxiety, and cancer can be developed or exacerbated if our built environment does not create a positive nurturing habitat that acknowledges people as biological entities.3

A visual connection to nature curated with the power of healthier building products and design strategy can have a positive impact on attention restoration, stress reduction, and overall health and well-being. Studies have shown that biophilic indoor environments correlate with increased cognitive function, reduced stress and anxiety responses, and an increase in positive emotions as compared with those in non-biophilic environments.4 This has been demonstrated in certain studies, which showed that bright sunlit rooms resulted in a 26-41% reduction in the length of a hospital stay,5 and a 10-15% increased mental function and memory recall when given access to a view.6 In addition to the positive effects on mental health, biophilic design frameworks can contribute to cleaner indoor air quality through increased ventilation and fewer toxicants in building materials. It is shown that when schools upgraded to displacement ventilation to increase fresh air, occupants benefited from a 69% reduction in asthma.7 Additionally, when people had access to natural ventilation a 16.7% reduction in doctor visits was shown.8

Healthier building materials aid in the implementation of biophilic design in a space through multiple facets. Light, air, natural ventilation, sounds, texture, colors, and materials all provide opportunities for building products to embody characteristics of the natural environment. Incorporating minimally processed organic materials such as cork, compressed earth, or clay and lime paints and plasters–into our interior spaces provide residents a visual and tactile connection to nature while also benefiting from low- to zero- VOC building products. Emerging biomaterial markets and products are promising the adoption of more natural materials in our dwelling spaces. Cross laminated timber (CLT) and mass timber–which consist of wooden planks glued together to form structural walls, floors, and beams–offer positive benefits to building occupants in connecting them to exposed wood grain, while contributing to climate resiliency with its inherent carbon-storing properties.9 Additionally, the rise in research and production of 3-D printed homes could expand the possibilities of incorporating organic shapes and non-linear spaces into our buildings, providing new frontiers for biophilic design in homes, schools, hospitals, and retail spaces.

Green building certifications can play a vital role in contributing to the creation of healthier and biophilic spaces. A renewed interest and a growing path to resource conserving biophilic buildings has been led by the International Living Future Institute and their Living Building Challenge (LBC). In their “deep green” building certification, they require that design and build teams incorporate biophilic design strategies into building projects by looking to their local ecology, climate, and culture for inspiration. Project teams seeking LBC Certification must participate in a day long workshop dedicated to exploring the potential for biophilic design for their projects, and must result in a framework and plan for addressing how projects will integrate place-based relationships, public art, nature-inspired patterns, and environmental features.10 WELL Certification, a green building certification focusing on health and wellness in the built environment rewards points for a variety of biophilic design features outlined in their building standard, including occupant access to nature; deliberate restorative spaces; nutrition education; proximity to local food production; and circadian lighting design.11

Strategies that uphold equity and fairness should be at the heart of affordable housing, and biophilic design frameworks have the potential to guide building design and construction into spaces that promote occupant and community health.12 By looking to green building certifications such as Living Building Challenge and WELL, project teams can have accountability in implementing systems and features that will lead to healthier and more equitable buildings and communities. Biophilic design as a health promotion mechanism can be profoundly beneficial for under-resourced and marginalized communities who are more often living in older, less efficient homes, and are disproportionately exposed to–and have their health impacted by building materials which contain hazardous chemicals. The demonstrated therapeutic benefits resulting from connection to nature, proper daylighting, natural ventilation, and healthier materials could be utilized more readily as strategies to improve indoor air quality and other environmental conditions in affordable housing.

Endnotes
1. International Living Future Institute (ILFI), Biophilic Design Guidebook, 2018. Available online: https://www2.living-future.org/l/464132/2019-03-25/ghpnlf?RD_Scheduler=BD
2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Available online: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality
3. Building Clean, Six Classes: A New Way to Eliminate Harmful Chemicals. Available online: https://buildingclean.org/harmful-chemicals/six-classes-new-way-eliminate-harmful-chemicals
4. Jie Yin, Shihao Zhu, Piers MacNaughton, Joseph G. Allen, John D. Spengler, Physiological and cognitive performance of exposure to biophilic indoor environment, Building and Environment, Volume 132, 2018. Available online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2018.01.006.
5. Choi, Joon Ho. Study of the relationship between indoor daylight environments and patient average length of stay (ALOS) in healthcare facilities. Diss. Texas A&M University, 2007.
6. Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. – Daylighting and Productivity. “Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. – Daylighting And Productivity.” H-m-g.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Dec. 201
7. Smedje, Greta, and Dan Norbäck. “New ventilation systems at select schools in Sweden—effects on asthma and exposure.” Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 55.1 (2000): 18-25
8. Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. – Daylighting and Productivity. “Heschong Mahone Group, Inc. – DaylightingAnd Productivity.” H-m-g.com. N. p., 2017. Web. 20 Dec. 2017.
9. Terrapin Bright Green, The Nature of Wood: An Exploration on the Sciences of Biophilic Responses to Wood, 2022. Available online: https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/blog/2022/01/the-nature-of-wood/
10. International Living Future Institute, Living Building Challenge 4.0, June 2019. Available online: http://living-future.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/LBC-4_0_v13.pdf
11. WELL Building Standard™ version 2 (WELL v2™) International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), 2022. Available online: https://v2.wellcertified.com/en/wellv2/overview
12. Minnesota Undergraduate Research and Academic Journal, Anne Debertin, Biophilic Design, Regenerative Design, and Equity: An Intersection, 2021. Available online: https://pubs.lib.umn.edu/index.php/muraj/article/view/3618

Building Clean: Policies to Accelerate the Presence of Locally Made, Healthy Materials in Multifamily Housing

Building Clean’s “Buy Local, Buy Healthy” motto is a concept and approach to purchasing building products that focuses on supporting jobs in the local or regional economy, while lessening exposure to hazardous substances in the home through a better understanding of a product’s ingredient content and how it might impact the health of residents and installers. When applied in conjunction with building products that are energy and water-efficient, this concept can help transform lives and communities by creating buildings that save resources, grow jobs, and protect public health.

The benefits of healthier retrofit products that are locally made are numerous. By ensuring the products used in affordable housing retrofits are healthy and locally made, we can create more energy-efficient jobs; improve affordable housing conditions; increase tenant savings; improve tenant comfort and health; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This toolkit contains effective and innovative policies and programs highlighting the commitment to healthy and locally made materials by cities, states, and utility companies. It provides links to specific policy language as well as case studies detailing the impact of buying local and buying healthy.

Building Clean is a program operated by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation (BGAF) that aims to educate builders and other housing stakeholders about the importance of using energy- and water-efficient building products made in the U.S. and free from chemicals that could impact the health of residents and workers. Using healthy and locally made materials in retrofits of multifamily, affordable housing projects both increases the demand for U.S.–made energy-efficient products and decreases exposure to harmful chemicals found in many housing products.

Zero Energy Ready Strategies

Written by Michael Miranda and Linnea Morgan from the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean initiative. 

What is Zero Energy Ready?

Net-Zero Ready or Zero Energy Ready buildings are designed and built to meet a certain level of energy efficiency so that if a renewable energy system were installed, the building would then produce as much energy as it consumes. While a Net-Zero or Zero Energy building is an energy-efficient building with a renewable energy system installed that produces as much energy as it consumes.

Zero Energy and Zero Energy Ready buildings typically have very well insulated roofs, walls, and foundations, along with energy-efficient appliances, heating, ventilation, domestic hot water, lighting, and, if needed, air conditioning systems. Assuming a typical occupant’s energy consumption behavior, the end goal is the home’s utility bill showing zero energy consumption at the end of a year. The building’s designer works back from that goal.

If the building is tall and skinny, so that the relative roof space for a solar PV system is small compared to the size of the building, then a more efficient building is needed, which means more insulation and higher efficiency HVAC and hot water systems. However, if the relative roof space for a solar PV system is large, then a slightly less efficient building is fine (if cost-effective).

This is all determined by creating a building energy model, with all the numerous building components that impact the energy performance of the building included within the model, such as the type of construction and energy performance of the roofs, walls, foundations and windows, and the energy performance of the appliances, heating, ventilation, domestic hot water, and air conditioning systems.

Building Certifications

The U.S. Department of Energy has a Zero Energy Ready Homes program where participating homes are verified by a qualified third-party and are at least 40%-50% more energy-efficient than a typical new home. This DOE program generally corresponds to a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index Score in the low- to mid-50s, depending on the size of the home and the region in which it is built. The PHIUS Passive Building Standard goes beyond the Zero Energy Ready Homes program and requires an even more energy-efficient building. A true Zero Energy Home will have a HERS Index Score of around 0 by producing as much energy as it consumes.

Costs

A recent Rocky Mountain Institute report found that new zero energy homes are almost at cost parity, with a small incremental cost difference to code-built homes. In some areas of the United States, zero energy homes do not cost more to build.

Zero Energy Ready Strategies

Below are some strategies to successfully achieve Zero Energy Ready buildings, along with some real-world examples of Building Clean work with Flower City Habitat for Humanity.

Take Advantage of the Incentives: Your local energy efficiency incentive provider, which might be your utility company, city/town, or a state agency might provide incentives for building zero energy ready or zero energy buildings. Below are some resources to find incentives or rebates. If you can not find zero energy ready incentives, look for funding for achieving similar certifications that can provide you with some additional funding to get you there. Similar certifications include ENERGY STAR Certified Homes, ENERGY STAR Multifamily New Construction, LEED for Homes, LEED New Construction, National Green Building Standard, Enterprise Green Communities, or PHIUS Passive Building Standard.

Funding resources:

  • Local and regional energy efficiency incentive providers, such as your utility company, city/town, and/or state agency
    • New York State, through NYSERDA, offers Net-Zero rebates and smaller ENERGY STAR rebates. Both rebate amounts are increased for low-to-moderate-income housing. The NYSERDA Net-Zero rebate is $4,200 and the NYSERDA ENERGY STAR rebate is $1,700 for a single-family low-to-moderate-income home.
    • In Michigan, Consumers Energy has a Zero Net Energy program
    • The Energy Trust of Oregon offers incentives through their Path to Net Zero program
  • The Zero Energy Ready Homes program has also compiled a list of some of the incentives available
  • Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE)
  • ENERGY STAR certified building incentives
  • Energy efficiency incentive providers, such as utility companies, commonly provide custom rebates for commercial and industrial buildings, and it might be worth asking for a custom rebate based on the energy reduction you achieve beyond the minimum required by ENERGY STAR.

Expertise within the Project Team: Depending on the expertise within the project team, a green building consultant or HERS Rater might be useful, or potentially required if you are pursuing a certification that is required to receive an incentive. Local and regional energy efficiency incentive providers might provide funding to cover some technical assistance and/or testing the HERS Rater provides.

Very well insulated and air-sealed roofs, walls, and foundations are typical in zero energy and zero energy ready buildings due to insulation and air sealing being the most cost-effective measures for dramatically reducing the energy consumption of buildings. Air leakage not only allows indoor heated and cooled air to escape, but just as bad, air leakage through the insulation in the exterior walls, roof, and foundation reduces the effectiveness of the insulation dramatically.

There is a perception that spray foam insulation is needed to build a tightly air-sealed and highly efficient zero energy building, which is not the case at all. Spray foam insulation is not only expensive, it is the most hazardous type of insulation product, with various ingredients of concern that are hazardous to installers and occupants. 

When renovating or building a new building, the design or on-site conditions can sometimes limit the amount of insulation you can add to the building. The building cavity might be smaller than expected or there isn’t sufficient access to properly insulate portions of the building. When this occurs, project teams might be tempted to use spray foam insulation to achieve the insulation value they wanted or are required to achieve due to building energy codes.

During Building Clean’s product consultation with Flower City Habitat for Humanity, Building Clean suggested using REScheck to avoid using the planned spray foam insulation and replacing it with common, less-expensive batt and rigid insulation, which resulted in savings of approximately $3,250 per home. Check-out our resource on How to Meet Building Energy Codes While Avoiding Costly & Hazardous 2-Part Spray Foam Insulation that explains how REScheck provides you with flexibility in meeting building energy codes, and allows you to avoid using hazardous spray foam insulation.

A well designed and tested ventilation system is important in every building, but even more so in tighter buildings. Tight buildings make typical exhaust-only ventilation even less effective since there is less air leaking into the building to replace the air that is trying to be pushed out. Balanced ventilation that brings in filtered, fresh air, while exhausting stale air at the same time, such as energy recovery ventilators (ERV) and similar heat recovery ventilators (HRV), are essential in highly efficient buildings.

Flower City Habitat for Humanity purchased American-made ERVs for $90 less than the major-brand foreign-made ERV they had started to install. The American-made ERV had easier to replace air filters, and, most importantly, it was more efficient when full energy performance was considered, both ventilation recovery efficiency and power consumption.

It is very important to right-size the HVAC system to ensure it operates at peak efficiency, short-cycling is reduced (increasing system life), and equipment costs reductions are also common. Load-sizing calculations, using ACCA Manual J and S, are completed to properly size the HVAC system for the building.

By right-sizing the HVAC equipment, Flower City reduced its HVAC equipment cost. However, this also reduced the heat pump energy efficiency rebate. This sometimes occurs when energy efficiency rebates are tied to the HVAC system capacity or size.

It is best to get multiple quotes for multiple competing products or models. To compare quotes, a higher efficiency product will have a higher SEER, CEER, EER, HSPF, AFUE, EF, or UEF efficiency rating.

After receiving a quote for one model of heat-pump hot water heaters, BGAF suggested getting another quote from a different brand with almost the same capacity (first-hour rating) that was American manufactured and had a higher efficiency rating (a higher UEF in this case). Flower City installed the American manufactured heat-pump hot water heater, while saving $300 per unit.

Getting to Zero Energy

The key here is the addition of a renewable energy system that will produce as much energy as the building consumes. Focus on three types of renewable energy systems, the very common solar photovoltaic (PV), thin-film solar PV, or large 100+ kW wind turbines, which are cost-effective systems with proven track records.

Funding resources:

  • Local and regional renewable energy incentive providers, such as your city/town and/or state agency
  • Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE)
  • Non-profit organizations cannot take advantage of tax-based incentives, such as federal tax credits, so many have chosen to use common power-purchase agreements or lease structures to take advantage of those incentives.

 

Building Clean Case Studies

THE ZEM PROGRAM: USING BETTER MATERIALS TO IMPROVE OCCUPANT HEALTH

Over the next few weeks, Building Clean will be releasing a series of case studies highlighting successful programs across the country that incentivize buying local or buying healthy! 

Buy Local, Buy Healthy is a concept and approach to purchasing building products that focuses on supporting jobs in the local or regional economy and lessening exposure to hazardous substances in the home through a better understanding of a product’s ingredient content and how they might impact the health of residents and installers. This concept, when applied in conjunction with building products that are energy and water-efficient, can help transform our lives and our communities by creating buildings that save resources, grow jobs and protect our health.

You can find the first case study below.

The ZEM Program: Using Better Materials To Improve Occupant Health

Builders Share Their Thoughts on Health and Hazards in Building Products

The following post is from Dana Saylor, National Programs Manager, for the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean initiative. 

The Building Clean project is interested in shaping research and educational materials that can help builders take a health-centered approach to understand building products, including what chemicals of concern are in building products and how to identify and purchase healthier options. A part of that goal has been to understand what education and training are currently available for building professionals on toxic materials in building products, their impacts on residents and installers, and healthier alternatives. By connecting with organizations who provide training to builders, we are developing a better understanding of the information being taught and where discussions on these issues could be expanded.

However, within this effort, it is also important to understand what issues surrounding hazardous chemicals in building products construction professionals consider to be of greatest interest and concern. Building Clean took a step towards doing that in our recent “Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” survey, which drew valuable feedback from respondents and is highlighted in the summary below.

“Healthier Building Products and Practices in Construction” Survey Summary

Who Participated

Respondents came from a variety of backgrounds ranging from architects to materials specifiers to carpenters, and almost all had a focus on green building and energy efficiency. 60% of respondents work in single-family, 26% in multifamily, and 43% in affordable housing. Several eastern and central states are represented here, including Washington D.C.

Of those who are seeking green building certifications, Energy Star was the most reported, followed by LEED, LBC, NGBS, and Earth Craft. Others mentioned were EPA Indoor airPLUS, Zero Energy Ready, WaterSense, and WELL.

All respondents were curious and concerned about hazardous chemicals in building products, with about a third stating they have received education or attended webinars related to this topic. Those who achieved professional certification hold HERS, LEED AP+, LFA, WELL, and LEED Green Associate credentials. Nearly half of the respondents have used online sources or databases to find healthier materials, including Pharos, HomeFree, Mindful Materials, Green Building Advisor, BuildingClean, SF Tool, Red2Green, UL Product Lens, and 4specs.com.

Topics of Interest

Overall, there was a high level of interest in all of the topics we listed, including which building products are most harmful to health, carry third-party certifications and ingredient transparencies, and which products/brands are healthier alternatives. There is also interest in getting a general overview of chemicals but keeping it framed to building products and brands.

Concerns About Products

Respondents were concerned about specific products, including PVC, resins, adhesives, caulks, paints, flooring, particle board countertops, treated lumber, glues in engineered products, foam board insulation, spray foam, and fiberglass. Other concerns mentioned include harmful dust from materials such as drywall, concrete, treated wood, and asbestos tile—issues that adversely impact workers and installers as they are typically only present during construction. VOCs were the only specific chemical or chemical group mentioned.

Cost was the most reported concern. One piece of insight provided was that “even clients who are aware of the concerns of healthier materials are concerned about the cost, ‘It would be great to have cost information to share to show people that the “mark up” is not always there.'” Although more needs to be done, Building Clean has done some research to show that efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made building products can be cost-competitive with their alternatives, which we highlight in the following “Buy Local, Buy Healthy and Save!” brochure and “Appliance Cost and Country of Assembly Survey.

Performance was also mentioned by one participant as a concern, as well as the legitimacy of classifying certain products as “healthier,” indicating they “would like to see certifications that truly meet green building standards.”

Buying Healthier Products

Of those who are in the position to buy healthier products, a majority indicated that they do so on a regular basis or sometimes. A few respondents indicated that they were unsure which products are healthier as well as where to purchase healthier materials. Accessibility and affordability were mentioned as deterrents for not purchasing them.

For builders of market-rate housing, when asked if the use of healthier building practices and materials has given them an edge in attracting business, about half of the respondents who answered this question said it has. For some, it is less clear as they have only just begun to market these ideas to clients and have yet to understand if it will lead to new business.

Conclusions

Overall, respondents agreed that more information and education are needed across the construction industry to understand hazardous chemicals in building products and identify healthier options. Pursuing or mandating green building certifications in construction projects is one way to increase the knowledge and use of healthier products among builders, but how do we get beyond that to where healthier products are the first choice or the only option? Outside the pursuit of green building certifications, how do we ensure that the products architects specify for a project are those being used? Additionally, including homeowners in the conversation is important, and educating them on potential hazards in building materials is also needed.

There is also the issue of classifying certain products as “healthier.” We use that term to simplify communications about products that are third-party certified to be free from hazardous chemicals known to have an impact on human health. However, some certified products still contain chemicals that may be harmful to human health, so the question remains as to whether those products should be labeled as healthier vs. less toxic. One respondent said that some educational presentations on healthier products are hosted by building materials suppliers, which made them skeptical.

Finally, there is the issue of cost. Building Clean’s work with affordable housing builders to source cost-competitive products that are efficient, healthier, and U.S.-made is helping to address this concern, but it is on a small scale. Upcoming product consultation work with additional partners will hopefully help us continue to show that products with these qualities are not always more expensive. However, financial costs should also be balanced against the cost of using less efficient products, contain hazardous chemicals, and are manufactured far away.

You can read the full BPA eJournal here.

The Building Performance Association (BPA) is a 501(c)6 industry association committed to redefining the industry by supporting policies that will improve and increase the expansion of home and building performance, energy efficiency businesses, and industries.

Overexposed and Underserved

The following post is from Jeff Hurley, State Initiatives Manager, for the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean initiative. 

Interest in the relationship between health and housing has grown in recent years. Researchers have begun to look at the many characteristics within the built environment that influence an individual’s physical and mental health and well-being. Enhancements in the quality of housing and access to affordable housing can improve health outcomes and decrease health care costs. But beyond discussions on neighborhood amenities, access to health care, and the “cost burden” on families is the often-overlooked impact that indoor chemical exposure has on occupant safety. Moreover, the overwhelming evidence detailing the disproportionate exposure of harmful chemicals that Black, brown, and low-income families have compared to the general population is even more concerning.

Communities of color and folks with a low socioeconomic position or less education—many of whom are already predisposed to structural frameworks that hinder upward mobility—are overwhelmingly at risk of facing higher exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants. The increased cognizance of air pollution has not mitigated the disproportionate exposure, best highlighted by a study from the Ohio State University that collected data on exposure to industrial toxins for different racial and socioeconomic groups. Researchers identified that Black Americans were more exposed than other demographic groups. In addition, socioeconomic status did not shield Black Americans from these discrepancies.

Where you live—and the products that make up where you live—matter. Housing is a source of exposure to various air pollutants as a result of off-gassing from unhealthy or degrading building materials. Indoor environments can allow pollutants to accumulate, resulting in indoor levels many times higher than outdoor levels, increasing the risk of asthma and infectious and respiratory diseases. Many of the building products that we use in our homes are created with toxic chemicals that persist after installation and can exacerbate and/or cause negative health impacts, ranging from kidney damage and cancer to reproductive and developmental disorders. Flooring, insulation, paints, and sealants may include chemicals such as PFAS, volatile organic compounds, phthalates, lead, and carcinogens. Increased exposure to these toxins can lead to undesirable health outcomes that can stunt brain and nervous system development, lowering intelligence and reading capabilities.

And not only does where you live matter, but also the condition in which you live. Perhaps the primary association between social inequities and health disparities is the quality of housing. Individuals who live in areas with concentrated environmental, social, and health risks are exploited by the ramifications of unhealthy housing. Researchers from Boston University called this growing link between health and reduced income as the “twenty-first-century health-poverty trap.” The cycle of living in unhealthy neighborhoods and homes can lead to poor health, stagnating social and economic mobility, creating a lack of resources or opportunities to leave the unhealthy environment and improve health.

These inequities mirror similar discrepancies for nonwhite and low-income communities from outdoor air pollution. Everyone is exposed to toxins outdoors, but your exposure could be more significant depending on where you live. More often than not, this burden falls disproportionately on communities of color. What may not be as obvious is the deliberate siting of hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where people of color already live, continuing a tradition of racial discrimination through zoning policies and targeting the path of least resistance. Race, regardless of income, was the dominant factor in an individual’s proximity to industrial pollution.

In what unfortunately should not come as a surprise, the disparate manner in which COVID-19 has impacted Black Americans is likely associated with their increased exposure to toxic air pollution. An analysis done by the journal Environmental Justice found that “increased per-capita COVID-19 death rates among Louisiana parishes are associated with higher estimates of pollution burden and larger percentages of Black residents.” This aligns with a similar study from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which concluded that an increase in exposure to hazardous air pollutants—such as formaldehyde, asbestos, and mercury—is associated with a 9% increase in death among patients with COVID-19.

Solving these issues is not a simple exercise. While it can be challenging to implement, a holistic approach that combines the expertise of housing and health advocates with community leaders is often the best start. Policies that work in unison to improve affordable housing with an eye towards tenant health and reducing racial disparities are more likely to achieve longer-term results. For example, the use of green building standards for low-income housing renovations can achieve significant health improvements, and federally subsidized rent assistance has led to lower emergency visits for asthmatic children. As part of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s (BGAF) ‘Buy Local, Buy Healthy’ initiative of the Building Clean program, BGAF staff has encouraged state agencies to strengthen housing requirements for affordable housing policies to include healthy building materials that safeguard against toxic chemicals.

Chemicals and air pollutants don’t discriminate, but generations of systemic inequalities—from redlining to zoning and discriminatory housing policies—have cultivated a foundation that directly and indirectly widens the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Housing and health policymakers must be mindful of the social and structural factors that have created overexposed and underserved communities.

As residents and building developers consider materials to use—they should consider what health risks are involved with a particular building product. A number of resources are available to evaluate what chemicals may be harmful to occupants and installers, which products contain these materials, and if there are less harmful chemicals that can be used or healthier products available. The BlueGreen Alliance Foundation’s Building Clean website contains detailed information on how to evaluate products for harmful chemicals such as Health Product Declaration and Declare, along with product certifications like Cradle to Cradle and the GREENGUARD certification.