Until recently, it was possible for architects to know very little about the contents of the products they specified, but a recent push across the building-products supply chain for greater material transparency—motivated as much by incentive programs as client goodwill—is upping their accountability factor by affording access to a trove of information detailing product ingredients and their potential environmental and health impacts. As more manufacturers get on board and release disclosure documents like Health Product Declarations, the volume of information will only grow.

With all that new knowledge comes a new kind of responsibility, especially when common products and categories are found to contain substances that could be harmful to the health of building occupants. How architects can manage that risk and understand the liabilities is the subject of a white paper released today by the AIA’s Materials Knowledge Working Group (MKWG). “Materials Transparency and Risk for Architects: An Introduction to Advancing Professional Ethics While Managing Professional Liability Risks” is the product of more than a year of work by the MKWG and follows a position statement issued by the AIA Board of Directors in December 2014 encouraging architects to promote transparency through the products they specify.

"The interest in transparency is new to architecture, and any new practice or aspect of practice comes with uncertainty, and uncertainty has risks," says Mike Davis, FAIA, president at Bergmeyer Associates, in Boston, and a member of the MKWG. "There's a lot of risk around architecture anyway, and we don't want to have architects doing something that brings on inordinate or unmanageable risk."

The report includes five guidelines to help architects understand the implications of material transparency: the need to share information about products' environmental and health impacts with the entire project team; an understanding that materials transparency can afford a competitive advantage; that advocating for materials transparency and sharing information with clients can bring risk; that architects are already familiar with risk management, even though those associated with materials transparency are new; and that the AIA provides resources for architects to learn how to navigate materials transparency.

"This is a rapidly evolving aspect of practice," Davis says. "What we hope happens is that it becomes more common for architects to request this information and to be comfortable working with it. The real change would be if the practice realizes that it's more risky to not know this stuff, that it's more negligent to turn a blind eye to it."

You can read the full white paper here.

This post has been updated.