Keeping It Simple

To ensure a healthy building, focus on choices that lead to certification.

By Rebecca l. Weber on October 16, 2015

green building

Even in health care settings that have an established culture of sustainability, external barriers—such as lack of local availability of a particular material or builders who are inexperienced or uninterested in alternative installation methods—pose real ongoing obstacles in the quest for optimal green building solutions.

But for those settings where integrating sustainable choices is still a relatively new approach, each step of the building and remodeling process may be complicated with psychological barriers like ignorance, resistance or simply being overwhelmed. The philosophical simplicity of opting for energy- and water-efficient systems, low-impact materials and layouts that promote health and will qualify for certification is quickly complicated, sometimes by factors outside the control of those who thought they were in charge.

At CleanMed 2015, keen insights were presented at the session on “Developing Selection Criteria for Building Materials and Interactive Healthy Product Selection Matrix.” Pat Lydon, sustainability program manager at Legacy Health System in Portland, Oregon, gives an elegant solution to the particularly complex pathway to green building certification: Focus on the steps that would likely lead to certification, rather than being overly concerned with the certification itself. In other words, keep it simple—at least to start.

Lydon broke this solution down into four actionable suggestions:

  • Don’t create barriers by making the process too time-consuming and complex.
  • Learn, adapt and improve (or plan-do-check-act).
  • Focus and align with your mission; prioritize based on most direct impact to health.
  • Decide which declarations and resources to use (Living Product Challenge, Health Product Declaration, Environmental Product Declaration).

This is a particularly wise approach in regions where the green supply chain is less evolved or established—and certainly does not mean that high standards and goals shouldn’t be set. Quite the opposite: Guidelines set out in the Green Guide for Health Care, LEED for health care, Living Building Challenge and WELL Building Standard can define parameters. But clarifying a few key essential areas for an initial sustainably minded project will in many cases mean a recipe for success in overall improvement, rather than a failure to comply with the rigorous details and additional costs of certification.

For example, the decision to avoid any red-list materials is simple enough in theory. Budget and time are almost always limiting realities, and when push comes to shove, managing to find affordable alternatives that can be delivered on time should be seen as a victory. The back-end resources spent on research and relationship development on one project can form a base for further development the next time.

Focus on the steps that would likely lead to certification, rather than being overly concerned with the certification itself.

Having measurable benchmarks in place allows us to recognize milestone success stories for what they are. Avoiding “worst-in-class” chemicals, materials and elements is a proactive decision with real consequences for people and the environment at every step along the chain. With some 80,000 chemicals in use and the reality that most of the manufacturing community doesn’t disclose product ingredients, architects, engineers and builders are often unsure about the real safety of a particular material. The flooring and furniture industries have been more receptive to the call for transparency and disclosure policies. We’re waiting for other manufacturers to follow their lead.

Social justice issues are another part of economic and social sustainability. The International Living Future Institute’s JUST Program may ensure a holistic inclusion of workers’ rights.

Regardless of your goals, preparing for pushback is an important strategy. A Google search for “green building failure” generates more than 69 million results. Concerns about quality, testing, performance, availability and price are all likely to be voiced in a given project. But by anticipating objections and enlisting possible critics as collaborators, you’ll be able to avoid confrontation and consolidate your gains.

To be sure, green building certification is valuable in both abstract and practical terms. It’s an investment in the well-being of patients, staff, construction workers, community members and the planet. For facilities that rent out space, it’s a premium real estate feature. But on the continuum of traditional systems on one end and net-zero energy and water on the other, let’s acknowledge our current limitations and focus on the best solutions available.

FALL15_PGH_GreeningSupplyChain_CleanMed_Session_Lydon

During CleanMed 2015, insights into green building were offered at the session on “Developing Selection Criteria for Building Materials and Interactive Healthy Product Selection Matrix,” led by Pat Lydon of Legacy Health System (above).

During CleanMed 2015, insights into green building were offered at the session on “Developing Selection Criteria for Building Materials and Interactive Healthy Product Selection Matrix,” led by Pat Lydon of Legacy Health System (above).


Try This Game

During CleanMed 2015, Andy McIntyre, market development manager of commercial at Knauf Insulation in Shelbyville, Indiana, created a game for attendees: Each team had to pretend they were a health care system on the West Coast with both new construction and major renovation projects, which all use a lot of adhesive. Presented with a matrix of possible new suppliers, they used criteria including location, use of red-listed chemicals, quality and price to determine whom they wanted to work with. The case study drove home the reality that in real-world scenarios, there often isn’t a single best option.


Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers sustainability, design and health for publications such as the New York Times, Dwell and Discovery.