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Two new reports provide guidance for choosing healthier building products

Industry Research

Two new reports provide guidance for choosing healthier building products

The authors, Perkins&Will and the Healthy Building Network, home in on drywall, flooring, and insulation.

By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | December 9, 2023
AA new report offers guidance for buying and using greener building materials.
New white papers advise AEC firms and developers about how they can lower the environmental impact from the building materials they choose. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In the United States alone, an estimated 24 billion sf of gypsum board, nearly 30 billion sf of flooring, and 11.5 billion sf of insulation are sold annually. Even a modest reduction in the carbon footprint associated with these products could contribute substantively to creating a healthier built environment.

Perkins&Will, in collaboration with Healthy Building Network, a nonprofit research organization, has posted online two reports aimed at changing the way AEC firms select sustainable, lower-carbon building materials.

Drywall and flooring’s production and transportation have notable environmental footprints, and the products can emit hazardous chemicals. Insulation releases greenhouse gases throughout its lifecycle, and can contain toxic chemicals that make interior spaces less safe.

One of the reports, titled “Embodied Carbon and Material Health in Gypsum Drywall and Flooring,” identifies key drivers of embodied carbon (EC) by looking at examples of product categories that are specified frequently for building projects. For gypsum drywall, the biggest opportunity to work toward lower carbon is to reduce energy use at the manufacturing site, states the report. To work toward material health, reducing mercury that drywall releases by using natural, rather than synthetic, gypsum is a key driver.

The report asserts that choosing a product type with lower impacts is the greatest opportunity to reduce EC and avoid chemicals of concern in flooring. Plant-derived bio-based flooring such as linoleum, cork, and hardwood tend to be lower in EC and comprise safer base materials. The report also suggests ways to lessen the impact of carpeting and resilient flooring, such as by reducing the impacts associated with carpet fiber production, and increasing the service life of resilient flooring.

Insulation is not one size fits all

The second report, titled “Embodied Carbon and Material Health in Insulation,” translates results from assessment tools into guidance for manufacturers, AEC firms, and green building programs to optimize their decisions and promote and select healthier, low-carbon products.

The research finds that not all insulation can be used for all applications, nor are all insulation types exchangeable for one another.  When insulation is normalized by R value (which measures how well the product resists heat), the biggest opportunities to reduce EC and prioritize material health revolve around product choices.

The report also recommends giving preference to insulation manufacturers with established take-back programs, and favoring products with Health Product Declarations or Environmental Product Declarations that are third-party verified. An Appendix in the insulation report provides lists of product types that specifiers should prefer, reduce, or avoid for lower EC and better material health.

“Our research collaboration with Healthy Building Network underscores the importance of industry partnerships in effecting change,” says Leigh Christy, Principal and co-director of Research at Perkins&Will. “These reports give project teams and the industry at large vital information to make informed decisions about materials and products that are good for people and the planet.”

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