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HKS Leverages Cradle to Cradle and Other Labels to Boost Specification Efficiencies

Tags: built environment (583) , architects (1)

Nearly every architect wants to use healthier, environmentally friendly products. The problem isn’t a lack of desire, but the sheer overwhelming task of knowing what’s in hundreds of products that go into hundreds of projects.

The rising prevalence of programs such as Cradle to Cradle and Declare has helped enormously—taking the evaluation portion out of the equation for many products (and counting) so that a mere check mark or achievement level provides a wealth of back-end confirmation into a product’s safety and sustainability. But still, how do architects keep track of which products have Cradle to Cradle certification, a Declare label, an EPD, etc., and which do not?

HKS, a 1,200-member firm with 25 offices around the world, aimed to tackle this problem and tasked associate Nancy Hulsey, LEED AP BD+C, with devising a way to give designers at the company more transparency into products and materials while improving specification efficiencies.

The firm developed the "mindful MATERIALS" library labeling initiative, a transparency labeling process “designed as a tangible means to incorporate transparency information into designers’ everyday work process.”

It begins with asking manufacturers to fill out a mindful MATERIALS spreadsheet for their products that notes which chemical content and environmental impact documentation exists for each product.

From there, a manufacturer within the mindful MATERIALS program adds a transparency label to those product binders that have requested information. A mindful MATERIALS sticker on the spine allows designers to identify products with disclosure tools quickly and easily. A designer can then pull the binder and locate the full label (pictured) on the inside, with indicators as to which labels or documentation the product carries. This broad brush guides them to products that meet initial criteria; for example, if a product is Cradle to Cradle certified at the Silver level, the designer knows it is free of carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants, among other details. It also allows designers to quickly identify products that contribute toward material transparency credits under LEED v4.

For any labeled product, team members can access the manufacturer spreadsheets and click on live links to dive deeper into the product’s documentation to learn more information.

“This is a value we can give clients, that we can direct them toward manufacturers that have disclosed and are trying to optimize their ingredients and minimize their environmental impact,” Hulsey says. “For example, one strategy might be ‘Let’s find C2C-certified manufacturers. We know they’re holistically focused, that they are looking to improve material health, they’re thinking about water use, energy use, product reutilization.’ That would be a strategy to introduce to the client, and mindful MATERIALS makes it easier for our team to do that.”

And though the presence of an EPD does not automatically designate a healthier product or a smaller footprint, just that assessments have been conducted, “We believe that disclosure and information will drive product innovation, improvement, and optimization,” the firm says.

HKS’ efforts don’t stop with its own team. The firm has shared the initiative with the rest of the design industry so that any firm can participate in the mindful MATERIALS initiative. Now a dozen firms, led by HKS, Sera Architects, and ZGF, have organized the mindful MATERIALS Collaborative. And at Neocon later this month, the mindful MATERIALS Collaborative initiative will stand on its own. New design firms can become Collaborative members, and manufacturers can sign up to participate on site. The mindful MATERIALS library provides access to each manufacturer's one spreadsheet. “This is a grassroots effort within the design community to reach out to manufacturers,” Hulsey says, noting that they have been overwhelmed by the outside response to the program. “HKS really sees the value in trying to position design firms to have more data.”

With mindful MATERIALS Collaborative firms involved in what’s been dubbed the “Big Ask,” manufacturers can communicate their transparency information through one easily accessible spreadsheet to a growing number of design firms and to their own sales staff.

The process not only simplifies the arduous specification task, but empowers designers to make more informed decisions to tackle the tough challenges the industry faces. “We know that more disclosure will bring improvements to material health,” Hulsey says. “By asking for the disclosure, we believe that it’s going to encourage more transformation of products.”