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 article, 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.
What is material?
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 change through carbon emissions.
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 better decisions.
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 carbon” — 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 Recovery, announced at COP26 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 building.
It’s also important to consider the role of cleaning and other chemical-based products used in the built environment. Extended producer responsibility 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.
How can companies make better material choices in the built environment?
Building technologies and materials continue to evolve. Several promising solutions are emerging:
Materials that sequester carbon
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 it?
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 Stewardship Council.
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 carpeting, 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 design team.
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.
How can companies identify these material opportunities?
Several assessments and tools exist to inform materials selection:
Whole-building life-cycle assessments (LCAs)
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.
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs)
EPDs 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 life-cycle.
Health Product Declarations (HPDs)
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 repository, 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.