Lorinda Niemeyer and Paul C. Hutton
Published 1 year ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Image: Magda Ehlers/Pexels
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What is 'material'? And how can a slight play on words help brands make more sustainable, healthier material choices in the built environment to reduce risk and benefit all stakeholders — from investors to employees and communities, to the planet?
In a previous
we looked at how outcomes of investment and design are increasingly held to a
higher level of expectations to benefit all stakeholders — an approach we call
the multi-stakeholder lens.
We also introduced what we see as an implication of this multi-stakeholder lens:
a paradigm shift in investment and design in the built environment, from a focus
on “what” we design to “for whom.”
But we realize that no discussion of stakeholder intent and benefit would be
complete without understanding what truly matters to these stakeholders. Here,
the idea of materiality takes center stage.
In ESG strategy and reporting, a company’s material issues are those that not
only pose significant risks and opportunities to the company, such as those from
climate change; but also the issues that reflect the impacts of the company on
the environment and society — including, for example, impacts of company
operations on human rights or on climate
through carbon emissions.
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This explicit focus on understanding the intersection between the financial and
social or environmental impact of issues — called “double materiality” — is top
of mind in the ESG discourse, as both lenses are important for companies to make
But material has a more, well, material definition. And we think bringing both
definitions together is critical to helping leaders reduce risk and create value
in the built environment.
Whether in the built environment or in product markets, the word material also
includes the “stuff” that lands in an end product — be it the building itself;
the finishes, equipment or furniture that makes the building’s spaces usable; or
even the cleaning products used to maintain them.
Materials have an impact on the environment and beyond. About 11 percent of
total global greenhouse gas emissions is attributable to construction materials,
compared with 28 percent from building operations. The carbon impact of
materials is referred to as “embodied
— which, once in place, may remain indefinitely. A fact often cited in the last
few years is that the global concrete industry, if it were classified as a
country, would be by itself the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas.
Achieving ambitious climate goals will not be possible without addressing this
quite literally “material” issue.
Choices about materials still too often focus on the use phase. However, we
estimate that over 90 percent of decisions that influence those downstream
impacts are made in the design phase. This is where we must shift our focus.
This imperative to look upstream for solutions has not gone unnoticed.
Architects have recently established voluntary targets for embodied-carbon
reductions through the Architecture 2030
program, including a 50 percent reduction by 2030 and zero emissions from
materials by 2040. Achieving these results will not be easy and will require
many innovations in the design process and materials technology.
Companies, investors and developers also have a part to play. In its new
Business Manifesto for Climate
in November, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development focuses
directly on reducing negative social and environmental impacts from the built
environment, which requires taking a “whole-cycle” approach to design and
It’s also important to consider the role of cleaning and other chemical-based
products used in the built environment. Extended producer
laws and policies seek to hold manufacturers responsible for the life-cycle
impact of their products, from their production through to disposal. For
example, extended producer policies related to paint and cleaning products are
already in place or proposed in states including Colorado, Oregon and
Maine, to name just a few.
These developments are just a few proof points that illustrate that the choice
of materials used in the built environment is, in fact, material. Given the
focus on climate change and net zero goals, waste reduction, and more
responsible use of natural resources, we think companies have no other choice
but to consider materials selection, use, and disposal in the built environment
as part of their broader risk management strategy.
Indeed, reducing risk and supporting longer-term goals for health and the
environment require making better decisions about what we build into the built
environment in the first place.
Building technologies and materials continue to evolve. Several promising
solutions are emerging:
The volume of materials already in use across the built environment is
staggering, and experts predict that the industry could add another 2.4 trillion
square feet of new space by the year 2060. Using typical materials and
technology, this would require three hundred billion tons of material.
What if this material, rather than generating greenhouse gas emissions, could
actually sequester or absorb
The material most often mentioned in the context of carbon sequestration is
wood, which is typically 45 percent to 50 percent carbon by weight. When wood is
used as structure, finishes or other building components, the carbon that was
stored in the tree becomes sequestered in the building. If that wood is reused
at the end of life of that building, it can continue to sequester carbon
indefinitely. Wood use in buildings is expanding rapidly, as technical advances
coupled with changes in building codes allow ever taller and larger structures
to substitute wood for steel or concrete.
As building designers actively promote the use of wood to sequester carbon, one
concern is that all the wood used is sustainably harvested. For that reason, at
Cuningham, we restrict the wood we specify to forest products harvested in
North America — and ideally through a certification program such as Forest
Concrete has received much media coverage for its enormous environmental impact,
and the industry is responding. There are different possible approaches with
concrete. One that Cuningham is already specifying is
CarbonCure, in which recycled CO2 is injected
into the mix and becomes a permanent part of the finished product.
Beyond wood and concrete, many manufacturers are rapidly developing materials
capable of sequestering carbon. They are available in
insulation, sheathing, furnishings and others. We believe the Architecture 2030
goal of an immediate 40 percent reduction in embodied carbon is already
possible, but it requires planning and commitment from both the client and
A surprising amount of our existing building stock is demolished annually. The
tendency for developers, builders and even many design professionals is to start
fresh — which means that large volumes of building materials are sent to
landfills every year.
Adaptive reuse allows the embodied carbon in those materials to remain in place,
with only a small percentage being removed and hopefully recycled. Given that
the structure of a building accounts for approximately 50 percent of the total
embodied carbon, even a complete gut-and-remodel approach can avoid significant
amounts of new greenhouse gas emissions. We encourage our clients to look for
existing buildings that can be repurposed before committing to new construction.
While these strategies focus on materials mainly for new buildings, not
building is also a strategy. Renovation and rehabilitation to bring existing
buildings to code, rather than demolishing and rebuilding, are also options.
Several assessments and tools exist to inform materials selection:
Whole-building LCAs can be a starting point for materials selection. The LCA
captures cradle-to-grave impacts of primary structural and enclosure materials,
starting with extraction and harvest of raw materials and extending through the
expected service life of the building, including maintenance and replacement of
building components (e.g., roofing). The focus is material choice and use.
Downstream recycling, operational energy or emissions modeling, and excavation
of the site itself are typically excluded from the analysis.
are comprehensive reports from manufacturers that detail the life-cycle impact
of a given material or product, from resource extraction and manufacturing to
reuse or disposal. Because EPDs cover the full life-cycle impacts of materials
and products, and are intended to be independently verified and registered, they
provide credible and comparable information about the environmental impacts of a
product that extend beyond information provided by other eco-labels or
certifications, which often cover only individual aspects of a material’s
The potential impacts of materials on human health are also critical to
consider. HPDs provide information on substances included in building products —
from carpet to sealants and beyond. The HPD Open
Standard, developed by
the HPD Collaborative, is a standardized
specification for the reporting of product contents and associated health
information. HPDs are harmonized with programs such as the International
Living Future Institute, Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute,
Clean Production Action, BIFMA, LEED, WELL and many others.
According to the HPD Collaborative, which maintains a searchable
more than 700 manufacturers now use HPDs to provide material transparency data
on over 33,000 products.
Materiality has many definitions. By considering material as material in the
broader context of ESG and business strategy, companies can make better choices
across the built environment that reduce company and investor risk; build trust;
and create greater economic, environmental and social value over the long term.
Published Dec 14, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Paul Hutton, FAIA, NCARB is a LEED Fellow, and Chief Sustainability Officer at Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.