Dodge Report: Making the Switch to Less-Toxic Building Materials

It can be hard to know which eco-friendly materials to choose and how to make them work


It’s not easy being green. Even if you want to build using materials that are less toxic to building inhabitants — and also your construction workers — it can be hard to know which materials to choose and how to make them work with a project’s schedule and budget.

Dodge Data & Analytics’ recent SmartMarket Report notes that “the sheer number of products, chemicals and competing priorities that a project team has to consider makes optimizing materials selections for health a major effort.”

Sometimes contractors are part of the problem, according to the report. “Ironically, when a project team does succeed in getting more benign materials specified, industry sources report that it’s often contractors who reintroduce the nasty stuff.”

Builders may be reluctant to use unfamiliar products (and may price them too high in a bid as a result), or they may fail to read the specs closely enough or make the necessary budget and scheduling accommodations.

Some contractors are making the extra effort, however. The Dodge report highlights Hourigan Construction, which built the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Hourigan did the research to find products, especially coatings and adhesives, that fit with the project’s environmental certification requirements.

Workers noticed the difference. “Brock has its own smell — or lack thereof. It doesn’t smell like you expect a commercial building to smell,” said assistant project manager Tyler Park.

The company uses the research it did to choose or recommend products on other projects.

Better choices made easier

In the past, a big problem with choosing less-toxic building products has been the lack of information about the chemicals in these products (not to mention, in some cases, the lack of healthier alternatives). But over the last several years the materials industry has become more transparent, and some of that information has become easier to find as new product declaration platforms and ratings systems have emerged.

The Quartz Common Products Database includes composition, environment and health hazard information on 102 common building products. The listings are generic; you’ll find information about engineered bamboo flooring as a class of building product, for example. But you can check under each listing for links to material safety data sheets for specific brands.

SCS Global Services offers a searchable online directory of certified green products. Cradle to Cradle has a list of 187 building supplies and materials that it rates in five categories; one category is material health.

Portico is an innovative online platform for analyzing and choosing healthier products and materials for the building industry. It was created by HBN and the Google Real Estate and Workplace Services Team with founding partners that include powerhouses like Harvard University, Georgia Tech, the Durst Organization and Perkins+Will. The platform, still in beta testing, is designed to allow the key participants in a building project — owners, architects, contractors — to work collaboratively during the design and construction delivery process to choose healthier building materials.

According to the Dodge report, contractors can use tools like these to do their own materials research, or they can hire a materials consultant to advise them.

“You’d be surprised at how many construction companies — and even manufacturers and suppliers — don’t know what it is they’re using,” said Jay Bolus, president of certification services at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, originators of Cradle to Cradle, as quoted in the report.

As increasing transparency and knowledge on the part of contractors and owners drives demand for healthier products, the pressure will be on manufacturers to deliver.


Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.


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