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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Tools for Healthy Buildings — at All Price Points

The Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree initiative helps leaders in affordable housing "do better" through scientific guidance and educational resources. The following insights from Billy Weber, HBN’s Collective Impact Director, were taken from a recent webinar, hosted by Shaw.

The Healthy Building Network (HBN) is a nonprofit that has helped define the leading edge of healthy building practices. For two decades, the organization has worked to increase transparency in the building products industry, reduce human exposures to hazardous chemicals, and create market incentives for healthier innovations in manufacturing. HBN’s HomeFree is a national initiative helping leaders in affordable housing "do better" through scientific guidance and educational resources, including its collaboration with the Housing Partnership Networking (HPN) and HPN Select EcoGuide.

As part of an initiative to recognize and learn from the wide array of organizations and ways we can each make a positive impact on people and the planet, Shaw hosted a webinar with Sustainable Brands in October 2019, “Sustaining Human Ability — Taking a People-Centric Approach to Sustainability.” The following three questions with Billy Weber, HBN’s Collective Impact Director, were extracted from that conversation. Weber oversees the leadership and design of HBN’s communities of practice and educational activities, with a focus on the HomeFree Affordable Housing Initiative.

What is driving your efforts? What market needs, insights or shifts led to the initiative?

We don’t really think that the trickle-down approach to healthier materials is going to be effective in the long run. HBN’s HomeFree takes a bottom-up approach supported by our research and tools for sharing information in an accessible way to help the entire marketplace move forward. We assist and support those trying to create new materials through things like Pharos — a tool that provides hazard, use and exposure information on 162,720 chemicals and 149 different kinds of building products. This is also supported by our independent research — including working with [architecture firm] Perkins and Will on topics including antimicrobials, recycled content, and materials supporting the circular economy. Our idea is to raise all boats with HomeFree and really to understand the sector's buying power as an opportunity to expand healthier materials into all parts of the market.

Can you share a little about some of the challenges you faced through this initiative?

We have three key challenges at HBN; and HomeFree, specifically. In terms of the largest scale, data quality and quantity is at the top. It's still really difficult to find reliable and understandable information on material content. This is certainly improving with Health Product Declarations® and some of the other tools out in the marketplace. The HomeFree product spectrums are built on HBN’s common product profiles. The common product profiles are reliant on the quality of the information that goes into them in order for us to create guidance for the community. A second challenge is cost. There is both a real and perceived cost-related concern that price premiums are associated with healthier materials. This is changing. There are certain product categories — for example, paint — where there are high-quality, high-performance and less toxic options out there. That is certainly starting to bubble up into other product categories, as well — such as flooring. Perhaps our biggest challenge is translating the complexity of this issue, particularly for those who are not chemists. The first two challenges filter into the last one and are at the heart of HomeFree. It is really about effectively translating information into actionable bites that people can understand and then use to change their current practice.

What were your keys to success?

One of the major success points for HomeFree — and the focus of the work — is our co-creative approach. It is working with a community in practice, bringing together leaders in affordable housing and leveraging their passion, commitment and expertise; in collaboration with folks who have material expertise, as well as experts in environmental health. That partnership really allows for the creation of solutions that are a good fit for affordable housing. We are not off in a room thinking about and developing a solution. Rather, HomeFree creates an opportunity to work in partnership with the folks who are essentially our end users. The Champions, which is our HomeFree advisory group, is made up of affordable housing organizations, architects and industry-leading organizations involved in building and operating housing across the country.

We're also working on specific initiatives with manufacturers. With Shaw, for example, we are working on a project to understand flooring options and identify healthier options without sacrificing performance and price. It’s really about working directly with the people who we are trying to serve in a partnership, keeping it real and being responsive to what they come up with. It’s about facing the challenges together, but also acknowledging the expertise in the room. This approach has really led to some of the breakthrough things for HomeFree; including the way in which we present information, break it down and make it actionable. In fact, we hope to expand on this work, and encourage professionals to subscribe to our monthly newsletter or donate to the cause.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition program.