The Red List

By Ethan Griesbach

I am sure we have all read about the pressing need to improve labelling of food, in order to identify those that contain genetically modified ingredients or are grown organically.  A valid movement, but what about other products that humans interact with on a daily bases? What about building materials?  Although we do not eat our building materials – try telling my dog that! – the inclusion of harmful chemicals (i.e. worst in class chemicals) within them can be harmful to our health as well.

The idea behind improved labelling is that if we if know better, we can do better. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC) and select responsible manufacturers are optimistic, they believe that with the right knowledge of ingredients within building materials, purchasers will select products that are free from worst in class chemicals.

But what is a worst in class chemical and why is it important to avoid them?

Worst in class chemicals are: persistent; highly toxic (even in small doses); accumulate in living tissue; and concentrate as they move up the food chain.  The chemicals can be released to the environment at several stages of a building materials life, such as during manufacturing, and when in-use (i.e. through off-gassing, the release of emissions from a building product).

Common in residential, commercial and industrial building materials, they include: polyvinyl chloride; mercury; and lead.  They must be avoided.  Even in small amounts, they will damage human and ecological health.

Still not convinced? Consider the example of alcohol; which is a toxin (yet despite how you felt last January 1, it is not a worst in class chemical).  Imagine if the alcohol you consumed last New Year’s Eve – and that lovely hangover it brought – remained in your body till 2023.  You might have thought twice before consuming that second pint!

Your actions could be excused if you did not know any better; however, this is not the case. Beer bottles list ingredients and the potential side effects of alcohol consumption.  The informative label provides the consumer with the knowledge to do better (most of the time!)

Should we not take the same steps for worst in class chemicals?

Thankfully, several organizations believe that we should.

  1. ILFI – Living Building Challenge: Under the materials Petal, is imperative 11 – Red List; which notes that a project cannot contain certain worst in class chemicals.  These include toxic substances such as, but not limited to asbestos, cadmium, mercury, lead, formaldehyde and polyvinyl chloride (the full list found in the LBC codified standard version 2.1, available at
  1. Declare – the labelling entity of the ILFI provides a platform for ingredient disclosure.  Manufacturers voluntarily provide ingredient data to Declare, who validate the authenticity and present it on a ‘Declare Label’; which is affixed to the product.  Purchasers can access the Declare website (http://www.declareproducts) to find a list of products that do not contain worst in class chemicals.
  1. The HPDC is a customer led association with a goal to improve the environmental and health performance of supply chains.  To achieve this goal, the HPDC works with manufacturers to standardize language used in ingredient and health hazard reporting.  Remove uncertainty from product ingredient labels and a purchaser can be proficient in their selection of environmentally sound products.  Why is this important? Think back to the alcohol reference.  When ingredients are listed on the bottle, consumers understand that the beer contains alcohol.  But what if the word alcohol was replaced with another word – that still meant alcohol – you would consume it unknowingly.  The same incident can occur with worst in class chemicals and ingredient labelling for building materials.

Lastly, think about what this means for human and environmental health, responsible purchasers and the building industry.  Through the Red List, Declare and HPDC, purchasers know of worst in class chemicals and their presence in building materials.  They can readily determine which products contain worst in class chemicals and those that do not. This will pressure manufacturers to find alternative, less damaging ingredients for their products.  The end result will be a healthier environment, with fewer toxins in our buildings.

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Alpar Architectural deTerra biobased polymer wall and corner guards.  They have achieved the Living Building Challenge Declare Lable and Health Product Declaration




CollinsWood – Collins Pine FreeForm® Particleboard, is a Living Building Challenge Red List Free product.


Collins Pine Particleboard used in the construction of café tables.


Grey to Green Infrastructure


posted by Ethan Griesbach

Joni Mitchell famously exclaimed “paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.  With reference to infrastructure those lyrics are fitting, and I may propose could be tweaked to   “paved a free green service and put up a capital intensive, grey alternative”.

Ok, that does not sound as catchy – I will not pursue my song writing career just yet – however, the words still express truth.   No, the purpose of this blog post is not music lyrics or my lack of talent for writing them; this entry discusses the importance of ecosystem services and the use of green infrastructure design in our urban environments.

Natural ecosystems are more than stationary objects that we see dotted amongst our human-made structures.  They are living, interconnected systems, completing a multitude of functions.  From many of these functions – and I suspect many more still to be discovered – humans extract massive amounts of value – and might I add free value!

Because society obtains a value, the function can be classified as a service.  Do not believe me? Here is a quick list of services society receives from ecosystems, divided under the four main types:

Supporting: nutrient cycle and soil formation

Regulating: air purifying, waste treatment

Provisioning: food, water, raw materials

Cultural: Recreational, religious

I suspect that society would have a difficult time surviving with the complete loss of any or all of those free services.

But yet, a development will often result in the partial or complete destruction of an ecosystem – and therefore the eradication of a free organic service provider.  What is that you say? A Living Building Challenge development would not result in such a sad consequence? Good answer, smart thinking, and no I will not end here – although I could…let us keep the discussion going…

The loss of ecosystem services result in a multitude of complex issues: (a) reliance on capital intensive and centralized municipal infrastructure systems; (b) create a problem (i.e. increase stormwater flow or heat island effect); and (c) loss of ecological habitat.  Society is increasingly aware of the monetary, social, and ecological costs related to these issues.

But there is a solution, and it is called green infrastructure.  Replicating ecosystem services (ES) through the use of green infrastructure (GI) is an innovative and favorable alternative to traditional site development.

The application of GI to retain, restore, enhance and mimic ecosystem services will alleviate stress placed on municipal infrastructure; reduce or eliminate issues related to stormwater management or heat island effect; and maintain or renew natural habitats.   GI can go even further, providing health benefits for citizens, adaptation to climate change, financial savings for cities, and increase valuation of property.

My favorite part of GI is that one design can provide a multitude of services.  For example, a wetland can provide water purification, stormwater management, erosion control, habitat preservation and recreational use.  When was the last time a wastewater treatment plant provided that many spin off services?!

Now back to the Living Building Challenge.  As you so smartly pointed out earlier in this blog post, a Living Building Challenge development would maintain ecosystem services.  This is correct, and where it could not maintain them, it would mimic through GI design.  Here are a few examples:

  • Regulating services: air purification by using non-combustible sources of energy.  Net-zero water and on-site stormwater management.
  • Provisioning: Allows for space for agricultural

As we continue to plan our cities, society should gaze upon nature for solutions.  Thoughtful and meaningful consideration to retain, restore, enhance and mimic ecosystem services would benefit our built environment.