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The Young Architects Forum (YAF), a program of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the College of Fellows (COF), is organized to address issues of particular importance to recently licensed architects.

Q1 2020 Connection - Transparency in Use

By John J. Clark AIA posted 04-06-2020 16:20


Proving materials intentionality in the built environment

by Jill Maltby-Abbott, WELL AP

Let’s frame transparency in use through a familiar scenario: menus at restaurants. Starting with the wine list, what helps guide your selection? Are you told where your options are sourced from? Is cost per bottle/glass listed? Is the sustainability of production included? Transparency of production is provided to help inform your decision.

However, when you flip to the food options, are you greeted with the same transparency in selection criteria? While some restaurants are starting to increase the transparency of where food is sourced, the standard practice is to not list that information. Does the opportunity to know matter? Should the opportunity to know matter?

Transparency is here to stay

Globally, society has developed an appetite for transparency. The demand for transparency is coupled with third party verification or credible proof. To trust information, it’s important that it’s confirmed by a trustworthy source. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the range of transparency available, when it is readily advertised, when it exists but must be requested, and when it does not exist and must be encouraged.

AEC industry professionals experience a similar range in transparency with building products, but we rarely start with a validated menu. Actually, we rarely start with a menu at all. Much of the whimsy in the design process involves partnering with manufacturers and finding new products, making a pre-selected menu less than appealing. Our menu also becomes tricky as certifications available for building products begin to document ingredient analysis or the value chain emissions. Certifications tying both ingredients and greenhouse gas emissions together, further reporting on hand printing — or the good achieved beyond the product — and organizational transparency are also available. Ideally, our menu would have many sections for comparison, each with a similar layer of complexity.

Some categories of products have met the demand much earlier than others. Take carpet, one of the highest-achieving Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) divisions when it comes to transparency. Varying levels of transparency exist within carpet products. Some manufacturers readily advertise validated achievement, while others must be pushed to secure documentation or start the journey toward certification altogether. Designers must now source materials knowingly, across the entirety of the materials in a project. Transparency is vital to proving why decisions are made. Daunting? It certainly can be. Exciting? Absolutely!

Once you’ve engaged transparency, it’s time to consider optimization

Receiving a certification for a product can be something to celebrate. On a wine menu, “sustainably sourced” and “certified organic” have very different achievement criteria. If your team set out to collect several products with one specific certification type, you can start to become extremely familiar with the certification content. After seeing so many similar certifications, the urge to understand what sets them apart may start to set in. That is the tipping point. Own that urge to know!

You can make giant leaps in literacy by digging into the contents of a document. Ultimately, optimization of a product entails decoding a certification’s content and comparing it to similar products to make an informed decision. Optimization happens by reading the documents directly or using a few comparison tools listed in a tasting menu detailed at the end of this article.

Visibility through tracking: mood, contract documents, construction, celebration, and sharing

The best way to bring others into your process is to leave traces that allow folks to follow along. In the case of a dining venue, users can create collaborative Google maps with vetted restaurants to share with others. Mapping your visit means tracking in a live, visible way. Likewise, tracking materials research through installation should also be visible to the design team, the client, the contractor partner, and future teams.

Because of the divide in what certifications represent, many design firms, including DLR Group, split evaluation into two camps: environmental impact and ingredient health. Project teams can track materials using collaborative tools like Google sheets or Excel documents. For projects pursuing the Living Building Challenge (LBC), DLR Group uses platforms like Red2Green to indicate vetting and specification status. However, we’re not restricting tracking to certified materials. It’s important to track certified and non-certified products. Understanding the variance between certified and non-certified helps designers determine what can be easily sourced by contracting partners and what requires more coordination for future projects. Tracking to this level takes about as much time as microwaving your lunch. Tiny updates, over the life of a project, can go a long way.

Once a vetted material is installed, a celebration for the client, the design team, and the manufacturing community is in order. It can be expensive for manufacturers to meet our demand for transparency, so it’s essential they know when their product is installed.

Recently, in an exercise for a large technology company, we set out with the goal of testing how attainable LBC-ready materials are in the Seattle market. Ultimately, we found that 20 percent of the specific project’s materials (by type) would hypothetically be compliant with the rigorous criteria of the LBC’s Materials Petal. Because the team was tracking from initial mood through the submittal phase, we were able to fold in pricing feedback from our contracting partner. Having reliable pricing for 20 percent compliance helped us understand what CSI divisions have little to no cost premium. Tracking installation status enables the team to reach out to the manufacturers specified and celebrate the success.

Intentional tracking can affect design in the future. In 2016, the AIA discovered that 57 percent of architecture firms reuse pieces of specifications from project to project; an additional 17 percent reuse entire specifications. Only 26 percent of architects reported writing specifications from scratch.1 The industry continues to balance traditional production methods with automation in an effort to change the business-as-usual mindset. Tracking materials across the life of a project is one way to ensure the practice of “using what we used last time” starts with vetted selections or exposes an opportunity to collect new certifications.

Fortunately, materials transparency has an open-source culture. Firms are eager to collectively encourage products to certify, and reward those products which have met the demand. From Instagram to published databases to educating building users about the level of intention behind the composition of their space, sharing must go beyond those composing the drawings. Getting materials into the daily scroll on your feed is another means of jumping those business-as-usual hurdles.

Being greeted with more information than anticipated can sometimes be taken for granted. Whether we notice and acknowledge transparency, much less use it in our decision-making process, the materials we choose matter. Proving what we’re using deserves the same rigor as design because it is design.

1 B2B International. “The Architect Specification Journey: Understanding the Role of Building Product Manufacturers Today & Tomorrow,” American Institute of Architects. 2016.

Author Bio:

Jill Maltby-Abbott, WELL AP is a Seattle-based designer who leads DLR Group’s healthy materials initiatives and works in the firm’s Workplace Studio designing innovative spaces for tech clients across the United States.


AIAU Materials Matter series:
Parsons Healthy Materials Lab:
Embodied Carbon primer:


Declare product database:
HPD Repository:


The COTE® Top Ten Toolkit
Living Building Challenge imperatives
LEED MR and IEQ credits
ARUP’s “Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol”
AIA’s Materials Knowledge Working Group white paper on transparency & risk
Toxnot PBC’s “Product Transparency Playbook”
Architecture 2030 Carbon Smart Materials Palette