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Disclosure and Transparency in a Multi-Attribute Design World

The gates were supposed to be steel.

When famed Bulgarian artist Christo first conceived his famous 2005 Central Park installation, he had intended to use steel. Then he changed his mind when he realized that vinyl was strong, lightweight enough for volunteers to easily install the gates, and could be colored to match the textile banners. Plus, the vinyl gates could be completely recycled.

Here’s the point: there’s rarely “one” reason designers pick a material. Indeed, the building industry is increasingly moving from a focus on single attributes (e.g., recycled content) to a focus on the lifecycle of a material or product. As this shift happens, there’s also a move toward multi-attribute guidelines and standards that reflect this more holistic approach.

Risk is but a single attribute.

A multi-attribute approach isn’t about ignoring one factor or another. It’s about balancing risk and understanding that there’s a difference between a chemical in a compound and risk from that chemical.

Some material advocates laser-focus on ingredient safety. They build “red lists” and decry materials and products that have any chemical of concern. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t weigh the likelihood of exposure or the amount or frequency with which any of us might come into contact with that particular chemical.

Take, for example, a car battery. Most car batteries have acid and lead, two chemicals that most of us would rather avoid. But we ride in cars every day because we know the likelihood that we’ll be exposed to these ingredients – and the risk to our health – is effectively zero. In effect, that car battery is a safe ingredient, especially compared with the risk posed by speeding, distracted drivers, and riding without a seatbelt.

Avoiding car batteries would be problematic for getting from place to place. Avoiding specific chemical compounds as a method of selecting materials is equally problematic because it too doesn’t take into account actual exposure.

In the case of vinyl, inaccurate information about single chemical attributes has led some manufacturers to tout “PVC-free” products. But free of what? Vinyl is made from chlorine, but, the risk to consumers is virtually zero. In fact, the risk to workers in vinyl manufacturing plants is almost nonexistent as well thanks to close-looped manufacturing and a culture of safety that dates back almost 50 years.

Five criteria for multi-attribute design.

Designers using a multi-attribute approach are often guided by the five CSI-recognized product selection criteria. These criteria, which are based on sound science, include:

  • physical characteristics
  • manufacturer information
  • installation requirements
  • cost
  • maintenance requirements

Taken together, these criteria will help answers important questions. For example, what is the product made of? How long will it last? What happens when it burns? How is it cleaned?  Can it be recycled? What does it cost to install? What’s its service life? And – most important – will this product serve the needs of my client?

Taken together, the CSI-recognized product selection criteria will lead to decisions that are balanced, sustainable, and resilient.