Building Materials: a Ubiquitous, Invisible Consumer Product
by Anneli Tostar, CEO and co-founder of Tangible Materials, Inc.
Look around you. Chances are you’re in a building, made up of four walls, a floor (or several), and a roof. Any idea what’s inside those walls? What raw materials they’re made of, and what kind of impact they have on the world and on you? I would assume not. I couldn’t tell you what the walls of my apartment are made of—whether the paint is toxic or if the walls are wood framed—and I work in the industry.
This is kind of absurd when you think about it. We spend 90% of our time indoors, and yet we have no idea what materials are used to actually build these structures. The odds are high that your home or workplace is made out of materials that are super carbon intensive and harmful to your health.
The real estate industry produces about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions–more than any other industry (*This calculation disperses oil & gas sector emissions across other industries e.g., emissions from gas boilers in buildings are attributed to the real estate industry, not the natural gas industry. This avoids double-counting emissions). In 2019 alone, real estate was responsible for emitting 10 GtCO2e in 2019. That’s 1/200th of a degree of warming, in one year, by one industry. Absolutely nuts.
In addition to emissions from electricity and fuels used directly in buildings, about a third of all real estate emissions come from materials used in the building (also called “embodied carbon”). 11% of global GHG emissions at the latest estimate come from building materials. That’s more than flights (2.5%) and the fashion industry (4%) combined, both of which have gotten considerably more attention from the press in recent years.
If that weren’t bad enough, the construction industry also has a huge social impact — and often not for the better. Many building materials contain toxic chemicals, directly harming the health of frontline communities (in the places where these materials are produced) and building occupants themselves.
Buildings are a ubiquitous, invisible consumer product. We as consumers make decisions around where to live and which offices to rent, but we have little say in what materials actually go into these structures. We may have some control if we’re responsible for hiring the architects or building it ourselves, but even then, many architects and contractors couldn’t tell you the ingredients in the drywall or ceiling tiles we see all around us, or where these products were manufactured.
Why is this?
First, although the construction industry employs about 1 in 20 people in the U.S., decision-making is often extremely fragmented among stakeholders. While the owners and developers of buildings are the ultimate decision-makers, they aren’t typically in the weeds on individual materials. Architects make many of the decisions around choosing materials and then pass on these decisions to the general contractors (GCs), who manage the construction process. The GCs then delegate the purchasing decisions to their subcontractors, who often just go with the drywall manufacturer they already know. The owners of the buildings are only loosely connected to the actual purchasers of materials, and so information gets lost along the way.
There has also not been much of an incentive to keep a record of the materials used to construct buildings, and this is true globally. My uncle in Sweden lives in a cabin that was constructed in the late 1800s, and recently he decided to install a new bathroom in what was formerly a closet. Only by opening the walls did he find out that the insulation in this particular structure was actually old newspapers, which worked remarkably well to insulate the cabin during the cold Swedish winters.
Lastly, data on materials hasn’t historically been available at scale. Only in the last few years has there been a critical mass of environmental product declarations (EPDs) and health product declarations (HPDs) that can tell you the carbon profile and “ingredient list” of a given material. Luckily, there has been a big push to get manufacturers to conduct life cycle assessments (LCAs) and share what’s actually in their products. We’re now at the point where we have sufficient product-specific data and available proxies to make “directionally correct” decisions towards reducing the carbon impact of construction materials.
All of this coincides with legislation around building material sustainability cropping up around the world. In Canada, all federally funded new construction projects are to demonstrate a 30% reduction in embodied carbon by 2025. Similarly in California, carbon reduction requirements extend to commercial and residential projects through Assembly Bill 2446. Embodied carbon legislation poses a challenge to real estate developers who don’t even know what’s in their buildings, much less what the carbon impact is or how to reduce it.
The thing is, we’re not in the 1800s anymore. We can use data and technology to power decision-making and record-keeping in a way that enables us to build smarter and more sustainably. Typically, real estate firms hire a sustainability consultant to help make better decisions on material selections, but we can’t expect every construction project in the world to require ad hoc advising from experts. Over the next 40 years, global building square footage is projected to double, equal to building the equivalent of New York City every 35 days. There simply aren’t enough consultants to go around. We have to use technology if we want to decarbonize our buildings at scale.
At Tangible, we’re building a software platform for sustainable building materials. We’re making it easier for architects and others to choose more sustainable options—from low-carbon drywall to wool insulation to locally-sourced mass timber—and for owners and developers to calculate the carbon and material health impact for their buildings. As a result of this record-keeping, we’re making it easy to share this data with whomever would like to learn about what’s in their buildings, from subsequent building owners to individual tenants like you.
We shouldn’t have to sacrifice the health of our planet or our communities simply due to a lack of tools. Given how much time we spend in these ubiquitous, invisible consumer products, let’s use the power of data and design to help us make better decisions and build a more sustainable world.
✍️ The Draw-down
Weekly climate art by our MCJ Artist-in-Residence, Nicole Kelner.
🍿 The Lean Back
Learn about Renewell Energy in the latest Pique Action film.
🎙My Climate Journey Podcast
🔥 Jason talked to Taj Eldridge, Director - Climate Innovations at Jobs for the Future and General Partner/CoFounder at Include Ventures (among many other hats he wears), about ways to think about diversity and inclusion in climate, how they go together, and what types of initiatives can be most important to bring about the progress that we all desire.
🐄 Yin talked to Alejandro Carrillo, a rancher from El Paso, TX, about regenerative ranching, why dung beetles are so important, the epigenetics of cows, the differences between Mexican and American agriculture policies, their effects on ranching and a whole lot more.
🏡 Cody caught up with Eric Reinhardt, CEO and co-founder of Helio, about home electrification, how Helio can provide home estimates and net zero roadmaps at scale, and how he sees Helio growing in the future.
AirMiners Launchpad engages with entrepreneurs in an intensive six-week program for early carbon removal teams or individuals who are interested in the $100M XPRIZE Carbon Removal. The curriculum covers engagement with carbon removal buyers, customer discovery, carbon markets, pitch practice, and technoeconomic assessment to position carbon removal startups for success. Apply HERE by December 16th. Applicants from underrepresented backgrounds are especially encouraged to apply!
👩💻 Climate Jobs
Climate Strategy Director at Lego (Denmark)
🗓 November + December Events
Be sure to click the event title for details & RSVP info. For more climate events, check out the #c-events channel in MCJ Slack.
🙋 AMA with David Antonioli TODAY: Verra accelerates action on climate change and sustainable development through standards that drive investment to achieve measurable high-integrity outcomes for global stakeholders. Check out David’s podcast with Jason here. (11/30)
💁♀️ Women in Climate Meetup: A monthly meetup for women who work in, or want to work in, climate. (11/30)
🇩🇪 MCJ Collective x Terra.do - Berlin Social: Converse and connect with entrepreneurs, operators, investors, academics, explorers, students and more who are all passionate about climate solutions. (12/01)
👋 MCJ Community Welcome Call: Connect, share and learn with MCJ team and community members. (12/01)
🤝 MCJ Career Transitions Meetup: This session will be a networking mixer where attendees will have the opportunity to join different breakout rooms based on function or sector to connect with others looking for similar roles or employees working in that space. Details here. (12/07)
☀️ MCJ Los Angeles Meetup: Grab a coffee or cocktail. Take a seat. We'll make some new friends and nerd out on your favorite topics- renewables, regenerative ag, CCUS, IRA, heat pumps- the list goes on! (12/10)
💭 If you have feedback or items you’d like to include, feel free to reach out.
🤝 If you’d like to become an MCJ community member, apply today.