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healthy building materials

How to Choose Healthy Building Materials

By Stephen ColletteRise Writer
Oct 7, 2019

We all want to live in the healthiest home possible. We want our children to grow up healthy and active. Most of us are working with existing homes and do not always get to start from scratch. For those building new homes or renovating, there are opportunities to choose healthier building materials. The question is, which criteria do you use to decide?

a healthy house book
Photo Credit: EcoNest Co.

First, I want to acknowledge my colleague and friend, Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA, BBNC, BBEC, one of the authors of the essential book Prescriptions for a Healthy HouseThe breakdown and approach to this information came from her teachings. 


Certifications are a way to ensure that something has been vetted, ideally, some organization that knows right from wrong. Some industry-certifying bodies put green stickers on anything for a dollar; others are genuinely aiming for transparency. Programs certify a product based on various criteria, including whether it is transparent or excludes certain chemicals. So if you are relying on product certifications for your peace of mind, make sure you know a bit about the certifying body. Some labels on building materials are not certifications but may include product ingredient lists. Some of these product lists may not explain the names, so sometimes, you need to review ingredient information sheets.

It doesn't sound very easy, and it is. But let us break down the three-step approach to learning more about what chemicals are in your building materials.

Product Certifications

This category includes non-profits—who accept no advertising money from manufacturers. Different certifications focus on various aspects of green and healthy building products. Each product certification has a template layout of how they want the manufacturer to represent the information to the public. The fact sheets will have different categories and headings, subheadings where the required information needs to go. The layouts and information required will differ between certification programs.

healthy product declaration
Photo Credit: Healthy Product Declaration Collaborative

Health Product Declaration (HPD) is a self-declaration of product contents made by manufacturers. The HPD mandate calls for "…accurate, reliable, and consistent reporting of product contents and associated health information, for products used in the built environment." The HPD Public Repository is a database containing all published HPDs. A challenge of these self-declarations is that some companies will hide the nasty chemicals in "trade secrets." However, the HPD format does provide a way to allow companies to declare health concerns while keeping the ingredients secret. An HPD is a reporting format that doesn't tell you if a product is healthy or toxic. It gives you the ingredient information to draw your conclusions. You can access much through this website, but you have to provide them with your email address to get the full details on a product.

declare label
Photo Credit: Living Future Institute

Declare is closely related to the Living Building Challenge, a building certification process. The Living Building Challenge's Red List tightly restricts building materials allowed in their buildings. Declare helps you find materials that comply with the Red List. You can see the material's ingredients and health hazard warnings. They also show you its life expectancy and what to do with it after that.

pharos healthy building
Photo Credit: Pharos Project

The Pharos Project shows chemical names and differs by highlighting the substances and their concerns, within building materials themselves. Pharos Project was created by the Healthy Building Network, a well-respected non-profit. They explain themselves as, "Pharos is the most comprehensive independent database of chemicals, polymers, metals, and other substances." You have to sign in to access the information.

greenscreen for safter chemicals
Photo Credit: GreenScreen

Green Screen for Safer Chemicals focuses solely on chemical ingredients. They give very detailed ratings on chemicals based on numerous criteria and help steer you in the right direction when you have specific chemical concerns. They certify mostly chemicals but some building materials. Some of the sheets are free, and some are fee-based.

building green
Photo Credit: Building Green

BuildingGreen is one of the oldest and most respected organizations in the green building arena. They have been writing on green building products and have published guides over the years. They focus more on "green" and sustainable products, not specifically healthy. The downside of their website is that they have a paywall to access all of their content.

cradle to cradle
Photo Credit: Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle looks at the full life cycle of the building material, addressing how all aspects from extraction to manufacturing to end-use impact the environment. Materials have scores and are available for free.

Product Ingredients

The second level of knowledge is understanding product ingredients, as few manufactured products are made from one element. Health Product Declarations, Declare, and Cradle to Cradle all dig into the product ingredients in more detail and can be quite helpful in this next step.

You may also want to look into the Safety Data Sheets of the products you are interested in using. The manufacturer creates the legally required sheets in a self-declaration approach. There are numerous caveats with SDS in that they do not have to list proprietary ingredients. The most important warning is that the SDS is for occupational safety and not intended to support the avoidance of toxic chemicals. That said, this can be the first place to start looking for chemical ingredients within a product. Finding it may be difficult as some manufacturers do not make it easy to find them on websites. Ask for them as a starting point to search out the chemicals that they list.

Where Can You Find Ingredient Information for Building Materials?

The final group of information sources is the ingredient information sites. These are the same as before: Declare, Green Screen, Health Product Declaration, Cradle to Cradle, and Green Screen. Other websites can help you understand the chemicals, such as the EPA's ChemView website, which goes into detail about any chemical you want.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazzard Assessment is another excellent resource to learn about the concerns with specific chemicals. Perkins + Will is a multi-national design firm who created their Precautionary List. This list is an easy and accessible list for most people, albeit not comprehensive.

The Green Building Alliance website can help professionals navigate this complicated and confusing field. The Six Classes website is a non-profit that identifies the six types of chemicals of concern and enables you to avoid them in everyday life. I like this site and its straightforward approach.

Bottom Line

There is no comprehensive and accessible site to learn about healthy building materials, as it is a competitive field for your views. Comparing differing rating systems can be like looking at oranges and dinosaurs—there is nothing the same. In the same system, you may find companies are using different measurements to compare health concerns, and you cannot compare two products. You can, however, search through websites to learn about the various chemicals in building materials. Particularly if you or a household member has chemical sensitivities, you would ideally educate yourself to choose healthier building materials.

Proper use, handling, and installation of any of the products you purchase and add to your home are critical. All of this research can be for naught if you do silly things like cut and sandstone inside your home without a protective mask. Another rule when going down this rabbit hole is that the more natural the building material is, the healthier it is. If you are willing to eat your paint (clay or milk paint, for example), it will be healthier than a synthetic version of the same product. Products that are good for the earth are also good for your family's health.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-05T18:56:18+0000
Stephen Collette

Article by:

Stephen Collette

Stephen Collette is a Building Biologist, Building Science Consultant, LEED Accredited Professional, and a Heritage Professional. Stephen is the owner of Your Healthy House and lives in Lakefield, ON with his wife and 2 daughters.