LTD Talks: Material Transparency

Since the launch of the Health Product Declaration® (HPD) Collaborative, the design and construction industry has seen steady momentum in the global movement towards material transparency. We hosted a table talk session at Humanscale’s showroom in d3, the aim of which was to understand the implications, positive and negative, of materials used to create our built environment. This led to an in depth discussion on the importance of standards, the impact of the materials we use, and what we can do to create awareness about it. 



A handful of incredibly hard hitting members of the local A+D industry, sat down one morning at the Humanscale showroom in d3, for an exhaustive conversation on material transparency, its market perception, the impact on productivity and wellness, and any regulations and initiatives being taken to implement it. Here is a comprehensive log of the discussion.

Clockwise from top left: Katherine Bruce, Sustainability Consultant at AESG, Frazer Butcher, Managing Director at Humanscale, Marcos Bish, Managing Director at Summertown Interiors, Diane Thorsen, Design Director at Gensler, Simon Walter, Head of Real Estate at Nokia IMEA.

The Importance Of Standards

The quality of design, at least in the interiors sector, is no longer judged solely on the aesthetic value of the final outcome. The year 2010 saw a fundamental change in what is considered good design, with additional levels of quality now being added to the checklist. Design is no more about how good a space looks to its inhabitants; it’s also about how it makes them feel, both physically and mentally. Poor quality materials not only create durability related issues, but also pose as health hazards. 

So, designing a space that ticks all the boxes can prove to be a challenge, not just from a financial perspective, but also from an educational one. While the goal to create a healthy space is a shared one, it is not uncommon for experts to struggle when picking products that can do the job. The sheer number of options and lack of clarity often proves to be a challenge. 

This is where global standards, such as the HPD or Living Product Challenge, help immensely. “Certifications give suppliers recognition and credibility for creating products that provide health and wellbeing benefits, and it also puts those manufacturers and designers under the spotlight,” says Katherine. “It highlights what you can achieve with these products and the impact they have on various areas in the project. The performance, longevity, and what you can achieve, is limited only by the materials used to create them. There are so many products out there that are designed just for the heck of it, and they don’t really deliver because they’re made from poor quality or plain bad materials. Consumers can’t always tell the difference. In situations like these, certifications and labels help to identify the good products from the bad.” 


An increase in manufacturers going for certifications and labels, and offering full material transparency, sends a strong message to the rest of the industry

Diane Thorsen, Design Director, Gensler


Some certifications are especially hard to pass, such as the Living Product Challenge, and when awarded, only serves as a testament to the quality of the product and the dedication of the manufacturer towards creating healthy and sustainable workspaces. As the first manufacturer to successfully design and manufacture products that have passed the Living Product Challenge, Humanscale proudly flexes their sustainable muscle in this conversation. 

“We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Frazer. “The process hasn’t been easy, for both the Smart Ocean Chair and the Float Height Adjustable Table. You’ve got to prove you do more good than than in more than just one area – there’s sustainability, health, wellness, the manufacturing facility and, most importantly, there has to be a very high level of transparency into the sourcing and quality of materials used.

“We’ve even gone so far as to remove the material for stain resistant coating – a popular and extensively used one industry wide. Nevertheless, it was a red list material and bio-accumulative, so it had to go. No other manufacturer has been able to pass all these rigorous testing processes.”

Living Product Challenge

Given the momentum, we expect other major manufacturers are either already in the process of having their products certified,  or have serious plans to do so, which leads us to believe that there will be a spike in interest pertaining to the exact risks and hazards of the materials used in the manufacturing process.

“What would be the impact of an influx of manufacturers offering full transparency into materials used?” asks Lena. 

“An increase in manufacturers going for certifications and labels, and offering full material transparency, sends a strong message to the rest of the industry,” says Diane. There are so many aspects of materials that affect our health and wellbeing, from the gases they emit to their effect on the environment during manufacturing and disposal. There’s definite value in labels, such as Declare. Not only do they reassure consumers of the quality of the product, but also lead them to question others that aren’t certified, or lack transparency of materials. “People are our greatest assets,” she says. “We must do what we can ensure that we provide them with the best experience. Going through this process and taking up the responsibility of being fully transparent is, in a way, a challenge to other players in the industry to do the right thing.”

“The value goes beyond just awareness,” emphasis Marcos. “Certifications and material transparency informs clients and designers of all the products and materials that are providing true holistic value. They not only raise awareness throughout the supply chain, but also drive innovation and improvement within firms. In Summertown, we see new certifications and labels as benchmarks to drive improvement from within, whether or not it’s in our procurement or our CSR.” 

Certification and Price Tag

The Real Cost of the Materials We Use

To really put things into perspective, Katherine provides an interesting analogy about the problems that can occur when we use poor quality materials, either intentionally or because of a lack of transparency. “We’re so conscious about the food we eat, but not as much about the air that we breathe,” she says. “We breathe in about four times more air than we eat in an entire day, and can take in a total of as much as 12 kgs of air. This means that indoor air quality is just as important. Also, it’s not the materials alone that are the issue, it’s their exposure to the elements, such as heat, that end up giving off VOCs, which are incredibly hazardous and can create endocrine disruptors, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and most commonly, sick building syndrome. 

According to Katherine, another major reason for material transparency, is so we can look out for VOC content VS Emission levels. In almost all cases, these emission levels are far more important, not the actual content, as it determines the amount of VOC released when exposed to heat. 

From a real estate perspective, Simon emphasises the importance of using experts. “It’s scary when you think about it, about all the problems associated with these wrong use of materials,” he says. “It really makes me concerned about our people. But that’s why, as clients, we engage experts. It is important that we apply what we know, but also try and understand what we don’t fully know. It is our responsibility towards current and future generations – if we plan for the future, we should at least get the present right. For example, we received reports of formaldehyde in our phone booths, that were emitting toxic levels of VOCs. Immediate action was taken and an email was sent to business heads in all our global markets. At least from a real estate point of view, we try and take action quickly.” 

“Manufacturers also put a premium on certified products, like organic food,” says Katherine. “This leads to the market perception that these products are always marked up and not always worth it, even if there’s no premium. By default, all products should be labeled or certified in some way, to improve awareness and perception.” 

High costs can be a difficult barrier to move past, especially in a cost and time sensitive market like the Middle East. There is no doubt that most products that come with labels have a slightly higher price. “With the current state of the industry, where the majority of projects end up being value engineered in some form or another, how do you go about convincing clients to opt for ones with certifications?” asks Lena.

“We start by asking our clients what they want to achieve,” says Marcos. “Wanting a certification like LEED or WELL should not cost significantly more than a standard project. In fact, it should be the norm to build and deliver a project at that level. That is why, from next year, we are offering recertification for projects. I don’t see a reason why there should be more costs. People are misusing labels to add markups, which are detrimental and discouraging.”


Knowing what we know now about red list chemicals is a bit like finding out a big secret. You can’t ‘un-know’ it. As an ethical company, we just can’t do that to our people and the clients who use our products.

Frazer Butcher, Managing Director, Humanscale


“Is that the general assumption then, that opting for certified products or building certifications means a markup in price?” asks Lena. A recent study conducted on LTD showed that a whopping $65 million was spent on the research and development of new sustainable products and practices.

“It is, yes, but we’re changing that,” says Frazer. He further explains how Humanscale structures the cost into their product development. Removing chemicals is a cost intensive process, but again, being a Tier 1 manufacturer, they make sure clients don’t have to bear the costs. “We stopped using chrome 6 because we found out it was carcinogenic,” he says. “If a client really does want it, we use chrome 3, and even though the latter costs more than the former, we will not charge that to the client. Even though we’re a business and hence need to look at profitability, knowing what we know now about red list chemicals is a bit like finding out a big secret. You can’t ‘un-know’ it. As an ethical company, we just can’t do that to our people and the clients who use our products.”

“There’s also the conception that fit-out costs are higher when it’s a LEED or WELL project, but the human cost of poor quality builds are much higher,” says Diane. “The A+D industry needs to be educated, and that is exactly why I became a WELL AP. So, you can explain that a space doesn’t have to cost more, and we can choose those products and people who have put in the effort, thus ensuring that you are looking after your people well.  As designers and contractors, there’s an awareness that we can bring to the marketplace, and with that awareness, and push for better products, we can create a space that is really healthy.”

Awareness and Education Is Key

“Are other manufacturers truly unaware of the harmful effects of the materials they use? Or they know but just don’t care?” asks Lena. This question truly probes into whether costs are still a stronger driver than wellness.            

“I believe manufacturers and clients will do the right thing once they’re well informed,” says Diane. “It’s a matter of educating the market. VOC emissions are harmful but invisible. It also takes a while at times for these emissions to have an effect, but it’s definitely harmful. However, because it’s not as explicit, clients tend to play it off. When we have conversations with clients, we make sure it isn’t just about LEED and WELL certifications, but about the wellness of people. The design needs to work for the people.

“A client once relayed an amusing story of employees feeling sleepy around 3 pm every day in a particular location. We later found out that their desks were manufactured in a factory in China, where the glue used was high in a certain VOC emission, which was the cause of the daily slump. They had been completely unaware of this for years. So, you see, education is very important, and these labels certainly help.” 


Any ethical company will increase their budget to accommodate better sustainable design into their offices.

Simon Walter, Head of Real Estate, IMEA

On the flipside, there is a feeling of too much information being available, and not all of it accurate. It can also be overwhelming, at least to clients looking to make a decision that will affect their organisation. Information can overlap and even change with region. “Start with small steps,” says Marcos. “I don’t believe clients need to overwhelm themselves with all the details. As contractors and consultants, we start with understanding what the client really wants to achieve – LEED, WELL or something else – and we move incrementally from there.” 

Diane further adds that going for certifications usually ends up just ticking a box, but forgetting the follow-through. “It’s much better to start with many small steps, but get them right. It’s the sum of many small but important parts that make the whole,” she says. 

Lena poses the question of whether the government should be involved, as then awareness can spread faster and change can be made more effectively through the involvement of politics. 

A healthier population is no doubt better for the economy and general health of a nation. The sedentary lifestyle that people are headed towards is not a good fit at present, but a lot of people don’t realise it. It requires someone to take a stand. “Look at nicotine,” says Frazer. “It took a while for the general public to realise how bad it is. Then the government stepped in and took measures to increase awareness. The same should be done for the materials and products we use.”

“The shock factor is usually effective,” says Katherine. “If not, that then at least sharing our knowledge with clients and being completely transparent. We also need a bigger library of case studies of successful projects and certifications, so we can make a case to the general industry.” 

When the question about budgets comes in, Simon confidently responds with a confirmation. “Any ethical company will increase their budget to accommodate better sustainable design into their offices. Plus, the more we learn, the better informed we are. And when everyone’s well informed, there’s no need for hard justification.”

No Change is Too Small

While it seems like there is a lot of work to be done still, every and any action taken in the right direction is a major one. The experts collectively agree that we do need to be quick, but there is no need to do everything in one go. What’s more important is being aware and putting a plan in place. 

“You start with incremental changes, and build it one by one from there,” says Marcos. “Put your green hats on every time a decision has to be made. Look at things from a green perspective, and make decisions with sustainability and the health and wellness of people in mind.” 

Speaking from a real estate point of view, Simon adds, “Whenever we look at a new office space, we have to look at any existing and new standards. Policies keep changing and we have to stay aware. There’s no way to implement new policies and trends immediately, but we work with our consultants and internal teams to make it the norm moving forward. Also, we don’t want to shock our own people as well. Taking everything away and re-doing it at once doesn’t help.” 

Of course, it makes sense. Quick wins are possible through a few small changes. As an example, Katherine recommends activated carbon filters to improve air quality. “They’re easy, fast, and improve air quality quickly,” she says. As mentioned before, air quality is hugely important, and in some cases, a direct correlation to productivity levels can be found.


“Put your green hats on every time a decision has to be made. Look at things from a green perspective, and make decisions with sustainability and the health and wellness of people in mind.”

– Marcos Bish, Managing Director, Summertown Interiors

In the effort to make big and quick changes, there are companies offering products-as-a-service. Of the more interesting ones is one that supplies and installs circadian lighting when a client moves into a new space. The entire set up is taken back at the end of the lease, and is put to use for another happy client.

Material transparency and other related elements have their impact not only on the sustainability aspects of the business, but on aspects you wouldn’t hear of 10 years back, like talent retention. 

“There’s always a push and pull with regards to using better materials and implementing sustainable practices and policies,” says Simon. “Yes, the conversation does tend to revolve around cost, because we are a business at the end of the day. But we care about our people as well, and taking care of them is an integral part of our value set. We also want to become an employer of choice, and we want to attract the right kind of people. For these reasons, I personally don’t want the budget to become a problem. Within reason, I’d like to make as many small changes as possible, pushing Nokia towards a more sustainable future.”  

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