Healthy & Sustainable Building Materials with Charley Stevenson, Part 2

The advancement of building materials has allowed professionals to achieve new heights when designing and constructing high-performance buildings. But, the topic of building materials is not discussed enough, and more consumers are asking important questions. How do we know where these materials come from? What effects do they have on human health and the environment? How are standards for responsible building materials being enforced? The list continues…

This two-part episode features an interview with Charley Stevenson, a sustainability consultant and green building entrepreneur who has devoted his career to helping others understand and implement healthier materials goals. The discussion begins with a look at the Living Building Challenge, a program that pays particular attention to healthy building materials, and continues with a review of some of the resources that are intended to help consumers learn more about materials and their make-up.

Episode Guest: Charley Stevenson, LFA, LEED AP

Charley Stevenson HeadshotCharley Stevenson, Principal, Integrated Eco Strategy (IES), is a sustainability consultant and green building entrepreneur with a particular focus on helping others understand and implement their healthier materials goals. IES is a pioneer in assisting project teams in creating Full Living buildings, specializing in the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal.

Since 2010, Charley’s North Adams, MA, company has managed the green aspects of projects from 1,000 to 500,000 square feet, including the Williams College Environmental Center, Hampshire College’s R.W. Kern Center, Hitchcock Center for the Environment and Yale Divinity School campus. To facilitate materials compliance, IES created Red2Green (R2G), a comprehensive platform for building materials evaluation, selection and management. R2G is available to project teams by subscription and currently in use nationwide.

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Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

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Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello


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Episode Transcript

Kelly :                                00:06                   Welcome to buildings and beyond.

Robb:                                00:09                   a podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment.

Kelly :                                00:13                   by focusing on efficiency, accessibility and health.

Robb:                                00:18                   I’m Robb Aldrich.

Kelly :                                00:19                   and I’m Kelly Westby.

Robb:                                00:22                   This episode is part two of my interview with Charley Stevenson from integrated ECO strategy. And we continue our conversation about sustainable materials and healthy materials. We got into a little more detail about specific building products and approaches to selecting those products and also prioritizing what systems to look at first, which has a bigger impact. So here’s part two of my chat with Charley Stevenson.

Robb:                                00:54                   People that are not ready to, as you said, dive into LBC. What are some of the lightest lists? What are some of the lowest hanging fruit to really get the most bang for their buck or their time and their effort to get more sustainable materials into their projects?

Charley:                            01:12                   I have two thoughts in mind. If my practice had a mascot, it would be a ratchet. And the notion is you do a little bit of work and you get a click and then it’s clicked. You’ve, you’ve, you’ve made a change and it’s clicked. And then when you’re ready, you can do a little bit more work and get another click. And sometimes it’s really hard to get a click. Sometimes you gets some really easy clicks. But you know, that approach is, is half half of the answer here too, to think about places where in your practice, whatever it may be, you use the same product or product type again and again. And again, I don’t know of a building that doesn’t have drywall. So Rather than think of this as a problem that needs to be solved all at once, we can just say, let’s make sure we’re using drywall we feel good about because we always use it and we often use a lot of it. So we’ve reduced the hundreds of products that we’re worried about to that single one. And then we ask the question, well, what’s the right drywall to use? And if we can figure that out for a single family residence and we can figure that out for a commercial retrofit, chances are we’ve covered 90% of the market. And then anybody who has that answer, any design team that’s incorporated that and developed confidence in whatever that product may be, can simply make that their standard or could make three good walls, their standard and exclude from future work products about which they don’t know as much. Then it’s onto the next the next segment. What are, what are the concerns with drywall? Well, a reason to focus on drywall and I’m going to get to your answer in just a second, Is that we use a lot of it. So you know, if you were to prioritize where changes in a material Palette should take place. I think about what arrives by train car, what arrives by, by tractor trailer, what arrives in small cartons in the back of a pickup truck. So, you know, drywall is not coming in the back of the pickup truck by and large. So there’s a lot of it when you’re in a building, it has it been, presents a lot of surface area to occupants. So if it’s good, it could be really good and if it’s bad it could be really bad. So sort of starting with the inside skin that is presented to occupants in working out you know, deeper into wall assemblies as is, is one approach. Thinking about volumes you procured is another way to prioritize. And then, you know, back to thinking about mastics, wet applied products are different because the curing happens in the space. So whatever, whatever solvents or whatever chemical reaction makes it cure that’s happening live in the space that you, you care about. So to the specific question, there are excellent dry walls and many commodity dry walls are, are fully disclosed, are tested for offgassing and pass with flying colors. So, you know, you can, you can go to the major manufacturers, USG, national gypsum, certainteed, and you can ask and receive a red list, free or Red List compliant drywall. Excellent. paints are another good example. You know, it, it, first of all, there’s often a lot of them in a project and they’re wet applied. So what they have for chemical activity can be significant.

Charley:                            05:45                   It’s nice that paints had been the subject of LEED scrutiny for a couple of decades. So it’s a pretty mature market, at least as far as volatile organic compounds are concerned. You can add the question of whether it’s red list free. So I think to a major manufacturer that we all know, and you know, it’s been prevalent in the, in the industry for, for decades, if not a century. You know, eight years ago a colleague of mine call to ask what was in their paint and he kinda got a laugh back from that manufacturer to say, you know, that’s our, that’s our secret recipe. There’s no way we’re telling you what’s in that paint. You know, from, from his perspective, that made perfect sense. Now have a declare label for not one, but many products which means that over time, there’s been comfort in disclosing and there’s a recognition on their part that they gained value by revealing their chemical constituents. So the declare label, for first steps is a very effective way for project teams to identify places where there are simply good answers to the question, What product should I use? So the declared product database is it’s a prescreened list of products that the screenings they actually done by the international living future institute. So products earn labels and then you can search for them and simply see which, which products are preapproved for use on an LPC project. And there’s an awful lot within division nine. So if you’re looking for interior finishes, carpet, paint, floor finishes, ceilings, you can, I won’t say entirely, but you’re, it’s getting close to the point where you could simply pick products that pass muster just by looking for them in a, in a pre-published list.

Robb:                                08:07                   Nice. That that has struck me as well, that there’s much more, I guess, awareness of a healthy finishes. I think it may be because you said it’s, you know, many of them are white applied in space and that’s a big deal. But it’s also, you know, homeowners going out to buy stuff for their home and really wanting to kind of, you know, making much more personal decisions. I wonder how much that drives the manufacturer in that direction.

Charley:                            08:43                   I think that’s a lot. I think the fact that interiors have been the subject of LEED credits for 20 years has driven that a lot. So it’s a mature market. when I think about the reason to focus on material health or the health impacts of materials, it’s a nested set of concerns. So at the core is just that issue, you know, what impact will these material decisions have on occupant in building user health? So that’s a very natural place, you know, as you speak of a homeowner please don’t let me renovate my child’s room to the detriment of my child’s health. If we go out one layer, we asked the question of installer health. So you know, you know, here’s a place it makes sense that trades people would be concerned and you know, they’re the ones who are working with these materials in the building at that period of, of maximum chemical activity. So that’s the next layer. shouldn’t we ask that the question? What products can I select for installation that won’t have a negative impact on those people I’m hiring to install? The next layer is the manufacturing process. So an example here is neoprene. You know, I have, it’s not here at my desk, but before I got into this, I had a toddler and she wanted a colorful lunchbox and it happened to be native made of Neoprene, which has all sorts of fantastic properties and she could spill in it and I could wash it out and it would dry and it was good to go. It is annert, I wouldn’t mind her eating spilled apple sauce out of it. But I’m awfully glad I don’t live near or work in a neoprene factory.

Charley:                            10:52                   So it turns out that the production of neoprene has a terrible localized impact. It’s not healthy. You know, the act of producing Neoprene produces some pernicious, in fact, immortal, pernicious chemicals. So those impacts are felt by the workers in those factories. They’re felt by fenceline communities. And then once, once out in the wild those, those chemicals persist. So it’s not the case that we exclude neoprene from projects because it’s harmful in the building, but there’s no way to have made neoprene in a responsible way. So it makes sense in an, you know, with that lens to avoid consumption of neoprene because necessarily that meant production of neoprene, which meant harm.

Robb:                                11:48                   I was not aware of that I’m going to have to rethink some duct liners and installation.

Charley:                            11:58                   Well in this goes back to, you know, here I am, you’re asking how to do this simply.And I’m not making it simple, but you know, so that’s maybe a you know, a 200 or 300 level question, but, you know, it goes back to this idea of defining what success looks like and once in my world, once I’ve seen that question of how do I keep occupants healthy is a, can actually be optimized, but it may be optimized at the expense of other people or other planetary systems. So, so this iterative process has us expand our scope of concern to the point where we’re asking how do we minimize harm across the entire system? Not just for the building end users. And, and that goes to you know, it goes to volume as well. There’s not that much neoprene that goes into a typical building but there’s an awful lot of paint.

Charley:                            13:03                   So if resources are limited as they always are, you know, picking those areas where you can have the most impact or flip that around have the least impact with the least amount of work. That’s to say bring the most benefit with the least amount of work, you can get a few clicks on the ratchet there. And then you’re thinking about little wins. So if you can think of where there’s neoprene in a vibration isolation hanger if everybody that specifies that asks their typical manufacturers, whether it’s available with an EPDM gaskets, so sort of the you know, benign rubber gasket instead, you know, neoprene is lovely because it’s resistant to absolutely everything. If you’re not exposing those gaskets to oils, an EPDM gasket would have a comparable surface life. So sometimes the one size fits all solution is very harmful. And if, if you could identify within your practice where a different gasket type is, does not risk exposure to chemicals, that would cause it to degrade, then perfect. That, that, that one inquiry, that one substitution, you know, ripples through a pretty wide swath of materials procurement and you don’t have to ask the question again.

Speaker 2:                        14:34                   Yeah. So I definitely understand the point about volume. So drywall and paint and flooring, roofing, just the sheer mass, there’s so much of it and that’s a reasonable place to start. Are there some kind of pernicious elements that people don’t know too much about, but they’re relatively easy to avoid or, or choose better, make better choices?

Charley:                            15:14                   So I would say often we can achieve results through deletion of products or expectations. So examples of that would be antimicrobial finishes or stain resistant finishes. Or flame retardants.

Robb:                                15:36                   So flame retardants is, you know, fire alarms, as you said, was good. Flame retardants also sound pretty good.

Charley:                            15:46                   So that’s they do until you find out where they are and why they’re there. So flame retardants, if you have an upholstered piece of furniture, chances are it has several pounds of known carcinogens soaked into the foam. And you know, the idea is we don’t want this phone to catch on fire in. I think in everybody’s experience before the foam can catch on fire, the fabric has to catch on fire cause you can’t, you can’t get the F can’t get the flame through the fabric without getting through the fabric. So you know, here’s a case where the history is that the notion, you know, the history of flame retardants is people falling asleep on couches with lit cigarettes. And so we want the fabric not to catch fire and then we want the foam not to catch fire or rather it’s not a flame preventative, It’s a flame retardant. We want it to burn slowly enough that there’s time to get out of the building, there’s time for the alarm to get off and there’s time to get out of the building. So interestingly, those flame retardants don’t prevent fire. They just slow it. But they do it in an awfully smoky, billowy, black toxic kind of way.

Robb:                                17:30                   So it’s to the, so it’s toxic before it burns and it’s even more toxic when it burns.

Charley:                            17:37                   Right. And if we just had something like a wool or you know, a, a natural fiber, you know, flame retardant upholstery over it, we don’t have to worry about if we can slow the flame getting to the foam, we don’t need to slow the flame in the foam.

Charley:                            18:01                   Now this is, this has been a terrible nontechnical way of describing it, but its an example of a place where in many jurisdictions, the, the flame retardants aren’t actually required. And when you look at what those flame retardants provide, it’s marginal safety, even in a fire, at the expense of known health harm up until the unlikely event that there’s a fire. Right? So in those tradeoffs, we can either try to solve the problem without introducing chemicals of concern. And that the same would be true of antimicrobials. You know, anti-microbial finishes are typically endocrine disruptors. So and by design, there are things you’re touching a lot. So the very presence of those endocrine disruptors, you know, a classic example is on a baby changing station, right? we’re taking our most vulnerable and will undress them on a plastic surface coated with endocrine disruptors right? So, you know, put in those terms, maybe we could come up with a better plan. And it the same would be true of of stain retardant finishes. So these are typically Teflon derivatives. And you know, they are impactful at every point in their life. They’re, they’re terrible to produce. I happen to live in Northwestern, Massachusetts and there are three or four towns, four towns near me. All of which have municipal water supplies contaminated by precursors to Teflon. And yeah, there’s no getting it back out of the groundwater. So, you know, it’s just across the board, great to reduce Teflon production because that reduces this unavoidable ecological damage. Then, you know, further down the line, it’s you know, these, these are present in effectively all life because these are immortal chemicals. What makes them stain resistant makes them resistant to everything. So both in terms of interaction with, with living systems and then they’re indestructable. So every Teflon molecule that we’ve made will remain a Teflon molecule through geologic time. So we don’t know all of their consequences

Robb:                                20:58                   its the precursors that have health implications, is that correct?

Charley:                            21:06                   The precursors certainly have health implications. The use of Teflon compounds in certain applications also has health implications. So there’s typically a Teflon coating or Teflon derivative coating in microwave popcorn in the bag for the microwave popcorn. And There’s literature on people who eat more microwave popcorn than typical, suffering health effects. Not just from eating so much microwave popcorn, but from the, the Teflon compounds that they ingest with their microwave popcorn. You can kill certain sorts of birds by heating a Teflon pan too hot before you put food in it on that stove. And you know, it’s the canary in the coal mine in the sense that, you know, you know, it’s, it’s largely an immortal product, but it will interact under certain conditions. And, and that’s revealing to us that, that many of these compounds are in fact, biologically active. And therefore worth worth knowing about.

Robb:                                22:35                   Going back, focus on the big quantity items like drywall and flooring and paint. Also the, the coatings or the treatments, the fire, the fire flame retardants, stain resistant materials antimicrobial finishes

Charley:                            23:04                   places where you can avoid through elimination Rather than through substitution. And this has potential health benefits. It also has potential embodied carbon benefits. You know, how do you reduce the chemical load in the building? You reduce the volume. And the number of products that you’re bringing in. So, so lighter buildings with a smaller pallet require, well, less research and in many cases less, less just sheer volume of, of product. So you know, places where you can have exposed structure, places where you’re not putting a drop ceiling beneath another you know, exposed mechanicals. Many of these are sort of modern design directions that teams will go anyway, but there’s, there happened to be ecological benefits to these on, on many levels as well.

Robb:                                24:02                   Cool. Yeah. How about insulation?

Charley:                            24:11                   So again, knowing that saying we’re gonna use cellulose insulation, has other impacts as far as you know, the other detail and the construction quality, having to play a bigger role. Natural insulation products can be seen as carbon sinks rather than carbon sources. So cellulose is sort of, I mean, in many ways it’s optimal on many levels. You know, many manufacturers are treating just with Boron for both insect and and flame resistance. So, you know, annert chemistry. And then, you know, as far as the source is concerned, you’re taking a significant source of carbon in the world and you’re putting it into a building for 50 or a hundred or 200 years. That’s a low tech carbon sequestration strategy contrasted with a spray foam or a rigid foam insulation product, which you know, they’re chemically complicated. Many of the blowing agents, though this is changing, Many of the blowing agents are still powerful greenhouse gases. And often in the formulation there is a, a halogenated flame retardant to, to meet certain code requirements. So there’s middle ground in some of the wood fiber board insulation products. There are an increasing number of that products, both fiberglass and mineral wool that are formaldehyde free. and again, these are not high weight, but typically high volume, large surface area products that go into a building. Another, another thing to think about is just stuff you touch every day. So I’m looking at it, oh, in the buildings, where does your food land? If you’re going to pick it up and you know, eat according to the five second rule? You know, what’s your door knob finish? Just the things that, that, you know, you’re, you’re physically in contact with. You know, those are places where it makes sense you in terms of, in terms of bang for the buck or, or health return for the effort. Those are places where it can make good sense to, to pay a little bit of attention. You know doorknobs. An example of something that does also repeated, you know, through a building. There might be one doorknob type purchased 20 or 30 or 50 times. Yeah. So if you can, as opposed to the kitchen sink where there’s only one kitchen sink.

Robb:                                27:23                   Gotcha. I remember reading, maybe it might’ve been a year ago, somebody’s doing some research where they replaced all the handrails and doorknobs with, I think it was copper just with copper because copper has kind of innate anti bacterial I understand it, and, and trying to ascertain if there was any reduction in God, I forget what it was. Communicable diseases or, or what, but I mean stuff that you touch every day. I, you know, some people would think, oh, great place to have lots of antimicrobial to prevent bacteria spreading. But that’s not where you’re going.

Charley:                            28:02                   No, well you know, many things have bronze or a chrome finish. Well, there isn’t bronze without low levels of lead. So, you know, if you look at a lot of hardware, you’ll see that it comes with a California prop 65 warning, which is to say, okay, this product contains known chemicals of concern. And when I see that prop 65 warning I’m usually doing, in the case of metallics, I’m usually thinking that it contains trace amounts of lead. And yeah, so that’s an example of a place where you could consciously move in the direction of not having a, I’m looking at an antique doorknob here in my office, which I’m quite certain is bronze and it’s polished, which is to say that every day I use it and I clean it off a little bit with my hand. And then I could eat lunch. So you know, the purpose of this conversation is not to induce paranoia but to, to sort of give frameworks for thinking about this because there are many small steps, which taken incrementally, will move us in the direction of sensible solutions.

Robb:                                29:36                   Excellent. One thing I liked to ask is where are we going to go from here? If we talk about this again in five years, what do you think we’ll be talking about?

Charley:                            29:48                   That’s a great question. I see in the eight years that I’ve been working with healthier materials, I’ve seen night and day changes. You know, engagement from manufacturers who are completely resistant, you know, three and five and six years ago. You know, new levels of awareness and engagement from the full spectrum of project types. This topic of healthier materials has had remarkable growth and yet it’s still the early days. So I think five years from now we’ll see a much greater public disclosure and we’ll see a much broader awareness. You know, take BPA. As an example. You know, it had its moment in the spotlight and, and not favorable in the spotlight a few years ago. that’s an example of the kind of market change that can happen when when there’s a lot of, you know, broad scrutiny on a particular product. The, the problem that that can create and we haven’t touched on so I’m glad we are here, is what’s known in the industry is regrettable substitution. So if you have a water bottle that says it’s BPA free, chances are it’s chemically very similar to a water bottle that contains BPA. It might just contain BPS, which is to say it is literally BPA free, but it contains a different bicephenol compound, which is chemically similar to BPA. And in many cases, what this means is that, you know, people use the term whac-a-mole, that we identify this problem BPA, we push it out of the system and we replace it with a closely related chemical compound, which hasn’t yet been tested, which is to say it hasn’t yet been implicated in the studies of hormonal disruption. But there’s an excellent chance that it will be. So, you know, we want to be very careful that we’re taking a class base approach to this rather than an individual compound by compound approach. So that, the notion is not to eliminate BPA, but the notion is to reduce any BPX compound. So there’s been tremendous advancement in this discussion at the industry level. I think thought leaders like healthy building network and the health product declaration collaborative You know, there are a lot of unbelievably smart not for profit groups making tremendous strides here. And, and really what will continue to tip it is engagement by a growing number of practitioners and building owners making this, even at the simplest level of requirement for their projects. Because indeed it’s those market forces that bring about the most rapid and permanent change. So we just want to make sure that we’re asking the right questions so that we get the right outcomes, not just elimination of single compounds, but the unit reduction and elimination of whole families of chemicals of concern.

Robb:                                33:49                   And continuing the trend of more and more engagement and more and more demand on, on manufacturers.

Charley:                            33:57                   Right. You know, I think manufacturers are absolutely partners in this and you know, from a risk mitigation standpoint, they have the most to gain. You know, they’d stake their reputations on the quality of their products, and none of them want to be implicated in longterm health impacts. So there’s great alignment around this and it’s really a matter of raising the consciousness among all sectors of, I’m saying the building industry, but this entire conversation could port over to home electronics, it could port over to clothing, it coud pour over to personal care products, you know, these, all of these same factors are at play. And I think as we have a common language, a common set of goals and a common set of tools we’re, we’re poised for rapid transformation. And really it’s new chemical compounds that we need because no one wants formaldehyde. No one wants carcinogens. They do want strong glues. So how do we achieve strong glue without the you know, without the harmful side effects.

Robb:                                35:10                   Excellent. Makes Sense. And it’s an optimistic note to end on. I think that we’re moving in the right direction.

Charley:                            35:18                   Oh absolutely, and I think we’re constantly talking here at the office that we don’t need breakthroughs. We just want little clicks. We want incremental change. And the more people we have exerting this pressure, the more the market will move in the direction. That makes sense. So I, we’re, we’re fortunate to have powerful, brilliant thought leaders that can point us in a rational direction and then we can in small ways, but in constant ways, exert these forces and, and help move the market. And where, where can people find out more about you and your work? We’ve launched a new website that’s called

Robb:                                36:08                   All right. Awesome. Thank you very much charley.

Charley:                            36:11                   It’s a pleasure. It’s fun to talk about. I’m grateful for your time and attention and I look forward to continuing this conversation.

Speaker 4:                        36:25                   Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond. For more information about the topics discussed today. Visit and check out the episode show notes buildings that beyond is brought to you by Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment our professionals have led the way since 1972 and the development of best practices to achieve high performance buildings. I’ve production team for today’s episode includes Dylan Martello, Alex Mirabile, and myself. Heather Breslin, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.

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