Traceability and accountability in the built environment

Author: Redhouse Studio | | Categories: Architect , Architectural Design Plans , Architectural Research , Architectural Services , Architecture Firm , Biocycler , Bioshelter , Commercial Architecture , Habitat For Humanity , Haitian Vision , Landscape Design , Mars Habitat , Office Building Architecture , Recycled Building Materials , Residential Architecture

Traceability and accountability in the built environment

A Diffusion of Poison:

In 1923 they started adding lead to gasoline. They knew it was dangerous, they knew it would enter the atmosphere and soil, and they knew there would be fallout. They also saw the impact immediately as workers “began to fall like dominoes” at Dupont’s plant in NJ. [1] The big payoff? A quieter ride- car engines knocked a lot less. The plan came from Thomas Midgley Jr., and chemist that also convinced industry to use CFCs as refrigerants which would become the main cause of a depleting ozone layer. Midgley is among the pantheon ill-consequential scientists that include Alfred Nobel who died in self-loathing after reading his own (mistakenly written/antemortem) obituary calling him the merchant of death for his invention of Dynamite. [2] Unlike Nobel he was not able to redeem his legacy by establishing prizes for peace-making, science, and literature.

The movement for organic food started in the 1940s when folks realized the fertilizer and pesticides used in monocultures were in fact poison. It did not really pick up until the 1990s, and laws in the US were not passed till the 21st century. “Organic” definitions and proper labeling remain contentious debates.

C8 (Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)) is a chemical used to make non-stick plastic coatings (Teflon®). It is linked to several diseases including cancer and because of its proliferation, it can be found in the blood of 99% of Americans. In May 2000 3M started phasing out the production of C8 because of pressure from the USA EPA and number of lawsuits. Dupont quickly took up the formula to make their own and is still producing it. [3]

History is full of examples where industry knowingly put toxins like lead, PCBs, DDT, and C8 into the environment for short term financial gain not knowing or caring if they would irrevocably alter the genomes of all life on earth.

The building industry is particularly guilty: Lead, arsenic, benzyne, and ethylene are constituents of building materials used today. These toxins become diffused with previously recyclable and clean materials – see our blog that likens this diffusion to the heat death of the universe – contaminating them forever.

Much like the movement for organic food, many are looking for accountability in building materials. Why not envision a world where our habitats are healthy too.

Material Provenance:

Like food provenance - a movement in fair trade practices that shows the origin and life cycle of food from farm to market - provenance in building materials can only be possible with transparency, and block-chain technology may hold some answers to achieving this transparency through distributed ledgers visible to consumers.

IBM Food Trust is block chain technology that can help consumers trace their food from a QR code at the supermarket through all the various “transformations” (processing, packaging, shipping, etc) back to the farm anywhere in world “within seconds.” The transformations can be linked to GPS coordinates that can be directly uplinked by smartphone at the farm/factory/warehouse where the transformation events happen and can be verified by satellite. It works in tandem with GS1 codes (the barcode system used around the world) and allows users to upload photos and add notes to the blockchain system to further verify origin and transformation.

Regen Network is a group that is using blockchain and GPS to enable small scale farmer to plug into carbon capture credit. Currently there is very little financial incentive for farmers to perform carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) activities because it is so expensive to prove. Regen looks to breakdown that barrier by developing technology that makes it easier to record carbon offsets of practices like no-till farming, cover cropping, crop rotation, and rotational grazing.

The same traceability to food can be applied to building materials. All building materials have an origin. All building materials are processed into usable form which can put manufacturing workers at risk. Most building materials are transported to site for building and that journey has a footprint and story.

Traceability and accountability can help us confirm that our woods are not poached from the rainforest; It can save human life and liberty if we can tell our products are not mined by child slaves; it can preserve wildlife if know our metals are not smuggled by warlords that are causing the extinction of mountain gorillas in the Congo or other endangered species.

Some regulation and labeling programs do exist around health and safety. If you go to Lowe’s or HomeDepot you may see many typical building materials are known to cause cancer in the state of California. There’s nothing special about California that makes these materials carcinogenic, but California is among the few places that require manufacturers to disclose their materials are dangerous through Prop 65. Further traceability could tell you which of the constituents of the materials are toxic, where they came from, who was required to administer the carcinogen, and why it is needed. If all of that information was available you may ask is there a better way?… i.e. why can’t we build without carcinogenic materials?

There are ways to prove that wood is harvested sustainably, The Forest Stewardship Council has a certification for well managed forests, and their mark is generally trusted. Many illegal logging operations exist though, and the US and Canada are not as strict as the EU at certification. Worldwide illegal logging is a $30-100billion/yr industry. [4] GPS verified block-chain certification could tell you the exact point a shipment of lumber came from and you see how its replacement forest is growing with satellite imagery.

Conflict metals - minerals and metals that are mined is regions that are ever locked in conflicts that enable forced labor and smuggling to be carried out with impunity - are major concerns for electronics. The Democratic Republic of Congo has struggled to mitigate the smuggling of coltan, tin, and tungsten used in cell phones and other electronics that benefit rebel forces clearing wildlife and terrorizing the population. [5] Here again traceability would help. If the consumers knew the origins of materials they’d likely opt for the reputable source as movements toward fair trade and labor practices continues to gain popularity. [6]

Carbon Capture and Carbon Neutrality are claims often made in building projects but folks rarely show the math. When carbon credits become a real commodity we’ll likely see standardization and transparency. In the meantime its hard to trust manufacturers at their word without transparency.

We are working with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and Africa’s largest bank, Standard Bank Group, to develop traceability in building materials along side food provenance. Utilizing resources like IBM Food Trust and Regen Network, we believe both agriculture and construction can create positive impacts like CCS, ecology regeneration, and fair labor practices. The only way to prove the impact is through transparency. Visit and stay tuned.

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