Google's Plan To Make Our Buildings Less Poisonous

Around 2010, Google was expanding its Mountain View, California, campus and also rapidly building elsewhere. Google cofounder Larry Page began asking his real estate team about what was in the building materials, recognizing that a healthy environment would lead to happier and healthier employees.

"We approach our spaces the same way we develop our products, and our office is a product," says Robin Bass, a member of Google's real estate and work services team, a sustainability specialist, and a key contributor to Portico's development. "'Focus on the user and all else will follow' is a mantra, and that’s where our focus on people and the focus on health in the environment stems from. There are a lot of smart people [at Google], and if they smell something in a new space they’ll ask about it. That’s where the healthy materials program began."

Bass is part of Google's 12-person environments, experience, and ecology team—a multidisciplinary group of architects, engineers, and designers responsible for health and sustainability in all of the tech company's spaces worldwide, which amounts to 70 offices in 40 countries. An architect based in San Francisco, she began consulting with Google in 2012 and joined the staff in 2014, but her commitment to healthy buildings began when she was a freshman at the University of Virginia and attended a lecture from green-design guru Bill McDonough.

"What clicked for me when I heard Bill McDonough speak was really the concepts of 'design as the first signal of intent' and 'waste as a design flaw,'" she says. "Bill connected the dots on so many issues with the status quo of the design and construction industry. It changed the way I saw my future and the future I wanted to help create."

At Google, Bass thought that her work could become more effective because of the company's size. Google builds a lot and prioritizes sustainability in all its structures. "The importance of green buildings and healthy materials has to be a bigger conversation than one green building here or there," she says. "We have to scale up to cities, neighborhoods, campuses to make an impact. The same can be said of materials. We can't have one or two healthy materials. We need every manufacturer of every product in every home improvement store to be working on this."

Bringing Big Data To Healthy Materials

While Google built its business dealing in information, it didn't have the most efficient system in place when it came to its construction management. There was no central database to track the information it gathered about building materials and collate which ones met its stringent standards. It was all done on a per-project basis, each with its own set of spreadsheets tracking material specifications. The need for a database became apparent.

"A lot of these tough questions [about healthy materials] are really difficult to do in alignment with design and construction schedules," Bass says. "You need to make decisions quickly when there is no information. That's something we struggled with from day one of this effort. That was a big reason why we needed a tool: get the people out of the way and create a platform."

The Portico platform includes a database of products organized by manufacturer, product category (like textiles, seating, carpet, systems furniture), and whether or not it meets LEED and Living Building Challenge standards, two green building certification programs. Google also created its own numerical scoring metric for each product. Products are ranked on a 16-point scale according to the level at which they disclose ingredients (for example how granular they can get for chemical concentration measured in parts per million), how transparent the entire formulation of a product or material is, and the identification of hazards associated with each material. If a product doesn't meet a certain points threshold, Google won't specify it in a project.

Building materials and products enter the library in a handful of ways. If designers have all of the necessary disclosure information, they can enter it into Portico. If there's a material the designers are considering, but they don't have the relevant information, they can send a request for a material disclosure list to the manufacturer (this is done through an automated form). The manufacturer can then respond directly to the Portico database. The information-gathering process is systematized. Its incentive to respond? Whether or not a product meets the criteria determines whether or not Google specifies the product. An architect specifying flooring for a single-family home might request a few hundred square feet of a product—peanuts for a product company and a sale that might not be worth the information-gathering effort. Google—whose offices are substantially larger—might buy hundreds of thousands of square feet. Even if the architect or designer using Portico to request information from a manufacturer isn't Google, having that product in the same database Google might use for future projects sweetens the deal.
"We can't have one or two healthy materials. We need every manufacturer of every product in every home improvement store to be working on this."

Portico also helps with project management so designers, clients, and builders can track what materials are being specified, where they are in the disclosure process, and whether or not the roster of specified materials meets green-building compliance goals, whether that's for Google's internal goals or for other programs like LEED. Deciding what materials to use in a project is a complex process, which is far from static. For example, architects and clients can agree on a material in the design stage but by the time it gets to budgeting and construction, the price could've changed, making the materials impossible to use. Then the design has to change to meet the budget.

"Leveraging Portico makes materials sourcing a conversation," Bass says. "It’s not a yes or no or a binary answer. It’s really where are you in the journey to understanding what’s in your product and what can you do to limit health implications."

The Manufacturers' Incentive

Google's biggest contribution to healthy architecture might simply be that it's Google. Understanding what's actually in a product is really about understanding the supply chain, and manufacturers are often tight-lipped about specific formulations. The flow of information is just as challenging for architects as it is for manufacturers. However, dollars can sweeten the deal and get manufacturers to divulge more information.

"The bigger the company, the more incentive [a supplier has to share information]," says Deidre Hoguet, director of sustainability and material exploration at Designtex, a textile manufacturer that specifies materials to Google and uses Portico. "Having Google, which builds enormous numbers of square feet every week and purchases a lot of products, ask about ingredients is different than having the one customer who’s building one office inquire. It's a different conversation."

Even for a manufacturer like Designtex, materials disclosure is a challenge. When it seeks information to submit for third-party certifications, like Cradle to Cradle, obtaining details from suppliers—it designs products and contracts them out to manufacturers in the United States and abroad—is a long process. "We’re a customer of another customer," Hoguet explains. "The fabric supplier is a customer of a yarn company who is a customer of a fiber company. The cascade of supply-chain information is often a bottleneck."

Enter Google. "Portico was a golden ticket for me," Hoguet says. "We've been talking to mills and suppliers and dyers for years and it was very hard to get information from them. But when we are able to say, 'There’s this very big customer who buys a lot of product, and you’ll only be able to sell to them if these chemicals aren’t in there,' it became easier."

The Bigger Problem With Building Materials

The database is still in its nascent stages, and Google is still developing its system, so Portico's full potential remains ambiguous. Additionally, the question remains about how much designers and eventually end users of a building are wiling to rely on the algorithm Google uses to calculate a product's score. We trust Google to find information, but do we trust it enough to tell us what's healthy? Even Google acknowledges that it can't solve the healthy materials problem alone. "We need 100 Googles asking for this info, leveraging their purchasing power, and engaging in the conversation about understanding what's in products," Bass says.

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