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A Peek Inside Google's Healthy Materials Program

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Google is way out front of other organizations—both public and private—when it comes to screening materials for hazardous ingredients in its workplaces.

By Nadav Malin

Since November 2010, Google’s facilities teams have been methodically adhering to stringent building product selection criteria for all of the company’s North American projects. To date, these have all been tenant fit-outs, but Google is moving into its first whole-building new construction project under the program and expanding it to other offices internationally in July 2012, beginning with pilot tenant improvement projects in Dublin, São Paulo, and Bangalore. Google had about 32,500 employees at the end of 2011, according to its financial report.

Google_Lounge.jpg

This indoor space at Google has sustainably forested wood floors, soy-based furniture, and ample daylighting.

Christophe Wu / Google

 

As of May 2012, the program had covered about half of Google’s portfolio in North America, with the largest concentrations of space at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and New York City.

Program Goals

“Maintaining a healthy workplace is a strong priority for Google,” says Anne Less of Mary Davidge Associates, a consulting firm that supports Google’s sustainable facilities programs. This mandate comes right from the top, with strong support from co-founder and CEO Larry Page, who has been known to walk around the offices with a particle counter. Among other benefits, Google’s focus on occupant health is helpful when the company competes for talent around the world.

Google’s healthy materials program seeks to avoid substances on the Living Building Challenge Red List and U.S. EPA’s Chemicals of Concern list. Extending beyond the LBC requirements, the program includes furniture and furnishings. The company is also pushing for transparency by requiring full participation in the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos product ingredient and hazard screening tool for any product in a category that Pharos covers, according to Less. [Full disclosure: BuildingGreen collaborates with the Healthy Building Network on development and distribution of Pharos.]

Google also aims to achieve at least LEED Gold certification on all its projects. The LEED credits include mandates for recycled content and regional materials—making it even harder, because products that contribute to those credits must also meet Google’s avoidance criteria.

Challenges

Google’s staff, consultants, and the design teams working on its projects have encountered a number of persistent challenges:

Certification domination: Manufacturers have been so well trained to think in terms of certification that some don’t realize that just having their product in Pharos is not enough. “Suppliers will constantly tell me: ‘I got the Pharos stamp of approval,’” notes Less, who then has to explain to them that Pharos is not a product certification and that manufacturers have to fully disclose in Pharos and meet Google’s health criteria before their products can be specified.

Being a lonely voice: “If we had more partners in this effort, there would be a lot more leverage,” Less notes. Design firms say that they are excited about this focus, they don’t encounter clients other than Google who will back them up.

Transparency: Manufacturers don’t always know about everything that goes into their products, and when they do, they often consider that information proprietary. Some prefer to provide the information privately to Google rather than disclose their ingredients publicly. To be fair, Google has many trade secrets of its own, something that Less hears about a lot from suppliers.

Avoiding formaldehyde: The industry has been trained by LEED to focus on added urea-formaldehyde (UF), but the LBC red list calls out all formaldehyde. That affects medium-density fiberboard (MDF), laminates, doors, and many other components. “There are alternatives, but they are much more expensive,” notes Anthony Ravitz, green team lead for Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services group. That means Google can use them for specialty items like countertops but not for more ubiquitous work surfaces and doors.

Furniture is a challenging category, mostly because there are so many components. Again, manufacturers may not know all the ingredients in their products, and even if they do, they may not have viable alternatives. PVC and bisphenol-A are common on parts and pieces of desks and chairs. Formaldehyde is common in work surfaces—in the laminates, adhesives, and substrates. And upholstered furniture has flame retardants, which California requires for fire safety (at least by some interpretations).

Duct liner: “We were surprised to discover a lot of chemicals of concern,” says Less, “which is troubling because the air we breathe goes through that material.” Formaldehyde, flame retardants, and heavy metals are among the substances that turned up in their review of product formulations.

Fabric window shades: Almost all have flame retardants, but fabrics on workstations can be specified without flame retardants or stain-resistant coatings as long as the manufacturer applies those coatings after weaving the fabric rather than before.

Google_Kitchen.jpg

This "microkitchen" in a building pending LEED Platinum certification features reclaimed barn doors along with other materials meeting Google's stringent health and environmental criteria.

Christophe Wu / Google

 

Successes

Market transformation is happening. Google and its project teams are building awareness and educating the market to push for greater transparency and cooperation. In the carpet sector, companies that started out being very uncomfortable with transparency have now become advocates for it. Manufacturers in that industry and many others have demonstrated further leadership through participating in the Health Product Declaration, the industry’s first common reporting standard for transparency around the health impacts of building materials. A list of manufacturers participating in the Health Product Declaration pilot program is on the website.

Lessons learned

Relationships with salespeople are key. They have advocated within their own companies for these issues. They are on the front lines.

Even without transparency, rigorous screening can make a difference. “When we visited their factories, we discovered that furniture manufacturers that have been working with the Cradle-to-Cradle program have made a lot of progress,” says Ravitz. Now that they have cleaner products, it would seem that more disclosure would only benefit them, Ravitz suggests.

Results

Google has yet to implement a systematic air-quality testing program, but the team is working on that. Ravitz notes, however, that many of the toxic substances they’re trying to avoid are not volatile and wouldn’t show up in air quality testing. That’s one of the reasons they are also focused on minimizing airborne particles, which often carry contaminants into people’s lungs, with high-efficiency filtration. In the meantime, they visit job sites periodically with a Photo Ionisation Detector (PID) sensor, which helps catch any unexpected VOC emissions.

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May 29, 2012