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better building materials guide pdf


Vision for this guide:
This guide defines the core information that building project teams need to know
to understand the consequences of building materials for human health and the
environment. This knowledge will empower practitioners to explicitly consider the health
and environmental attributes of building materials during building design, construction,
operation, and demolition. Thoughtful consideration of these factors will contribute to
buildings and communities that benefit people and the environment.

The built environment is the stage for our lives. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, we spend 90% of our time—living, learning, working, playing—indoors.1
The construction, operation, and disposal of our shared built environments contribute to a large fraction of world economic activity and have both positive and negative effects on human health and the environment. Materials make our built environment possible, and the resources required and processes used to create those materials affect our ecosystems—communities of flora and fauna and the land, air, and water on which they depend—and ourselves. Each materials choice makes a difference, and collectively, the effects of millions of choices have massive consequences at local, regional, and global scales.

Decisions about building materials go far beyond aesthetics, finish, function, and cost. They also
have direct implications for:
• the health of manufacturing workers, construction teams, and building occupants;
• the sustainability of the natural resources required to extract, refine, transport,
process, install, use, and ultimately recycle or dispose of building products; and
• the quality of natural resources, including air, water, soils, and ecosystem
services, across the life cycle of each building product.
The breadth of these issues extends far beyond familiar, single factors, such as emissions of volatile
organic compounds (VOCs) or the percentage of recycled content. Increasingly, we understand
that materials choices are complex and multifaceted, with considerations spanning multiple spatial
dimensions (buildings, regions, ecosystems) and temporal scales (minutes, years, decades).

For most building professionals, the array of considerations is daunting, and navigating the issues
requires new knowledge and skills. This guide will help build a foundation of understanding about
the fundamental issues, major tools, and best practices needed to help bring the consideration of
human health and environmental attributes into the materials selection process. This knowledge
will empower project teams to take leading roles in using materials selection to promote human
health and protect the environment across the entire life cycle of a building.

MATERIALS CHOICES We know from experience that the selection and
specification of building materials can contribute to either tangible benefits or significant economic, health, and environmental risks. Wood, stone, and brick illustrate beneficial choices: these are beautiful, durable, nontoxic materials with low life cycle environmental impacts, used
in many historic structures that have served generations.2 Lead in paint,3 asbestos,4 and VOCs,5 on the other hand, are familiar examples of how the absence of information
about human health and environmental attributes can lead to unintended consequences. Each
of these substances had a well-intended functional purpose, yet information about the product’s human health and environmental harms came to light only after widespread use.

Over the past several decades, buildings have become intricate systems composed of hundreds or
thousands of materials, many of them produced from complex, resource-intensive manufacturing
processes. The incredible proliferation and diversification of building materials and manufacturing
techniques have helped the industry create relatively safe, comfortable built environments.
However, these modern materials and buildings come at a cost. We can no longer intuitively
understand the nature of most commercial building materials. Moreover, the scope of the
industries involved in planning, design, construction, operations, and demolition long ago reached
the point at which the cumulative impact of decisions made on thousands of projects has global
implications for human health and the environment.