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Mike Woolsey
2022-08-25 04:59

For decades, HVAC systems have primarily been viewed as a collection of devices designed into a system and installed to deliver air for breathing and control comfort. Little attention has historically been paid to the safety of the ingredients that go into HVAC devices.

With a growing body of new information about the human health consequences of building product ingredients, manufacturers can optimize their products by reducing hazardous ingredients to safe concentrations or eliminating them entirely. General awareness of the hazardous chemicals in building products is increasing social pressure on building owners and designers to avoid building products that contain hazardous ingredients.

Hazardous Materials in Buildings

The study of the ingredients in building products is a relatively new field. Some design firms have developed their own lists of hazardous ingredients to avoid, while others rely on public domain lists maintained by certifying bodies. According to ILFI “The Living Building Challenge Red List represents the ‘worst in class’ materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem that are prevalent in the building products industry.”


Screening building products against such lists as part of building product selection is increasingly common as a means of adhering to corporate policy, gaining certification various green building programs, to enhance occupant health and to minimize risks of future product obsolescence.

Investor-driven Demand for Sustainability

A motivating force behind the increased interest in materials transparency is increased investor scrutiny of corporate Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies. As ESG reporting by companies becomes more prevalent and more clearly defined (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, 2022), a pattern is visible whereby companies place increasing emphasis on climate change, natural resource use, pollution, workforce well-being, and product


Investors are buying companies with ESG policies that align with their views. ESG investing grew 25-fold between 1995 and 2020, according to the US SIF Foundation (US SIF, 2022). ESG sustainable fund growth also continues to outpace the broader fund market. According to Morningstar’s 2022 Sustainable Funds US Landscape Report (Stankiewicz, 2022), “Assets in sustainable funds landed at a record $357 billion at the end of 2021, more than four times the total three years ago”.

The availability of ESG investor financing seems to motivate companies to respond, partly by using their money to construct more environmentally friendly buildings and operate those buildings in a more socially acceptable manner. For example, in their 2022 Environmental Report, Alphabet (aka Google) shares: “At our Charleston East campus, we’re working to achieve the Living Building Challenge Materials Petal (which includes Red List Free materials and net-zero waste).”


When companies commit to buildings that are healthier for people, they turn to architects and consultants who are expected to design buildings that meet their ESG goals.

Architect-led Materials Sustainability Demand

As the community of architects seeks to prioritize clients’ growing ESG requirements, the AIA has published a series of documents and research reports to educate the community on various ESG-related topics. In How materials transparency affects your practice (AIA, 2022), AIA discusses their “influential role in reducing negative human health, social, and environmental impacts by way of better building product selection.” In that document, AIA defines Materials Transparency as the “disclosure by manufacturers of the environmental, health and social impacts of their products,” which serves as the definition for this article.


AIA also exerts social pressure by being more vocal about their desire for greater contractor support in implementing the healthy and sustainable products specified. According to The Architect’s Journey to Specification (AIA, 2022), well over half of architects want contractors to do their part in implementing sustainable solutions. This desired response suggests dissatisfaction with the common practice of substituting other solutions that may not meet the project’s sustainability goals, often under the guise of reducing the project’s first cost.


Architects seldom specify all of the products used in a building – they often turn to consultants, including mechanical engineers.

The Engineering Community Responds

In the October 2020 article Material Concerns For HVAC Products (McConahey, 2020), the author pointed out that the architecture community is widely aware of materials transparency due to the materials transparency requirements of LEED, the Living Building Challenge, and WELL, but that ASHRAE “has been relatively silent on materials used in HVAC products.”


McConahey tabulated some potentially hazardous chemicals that are typical ingredients in various HVAC components. So while HVAC engineers commonly design systems to address airborne hazardous substances in indoor environments, the HVAC system components specified may add to the hazardous chemical concentration in the building.


ASHRAE, recently issued statements on the topic of occupant health. ASHRAE’s Multidisciplinary Task Group for Health and Wellness in the Built Environment, in their January 2022 Report (ASHRAE, 2022), made several recommendations to ASHRAE, including:

  1. Recognize that the principal purpose of most buildings is for human occupancy and that the health and wellness of occupants must be a priority.
  2. Acknowledge that energy, resource conservation and other aspects of the ‘carbon footprint’ of a building are legitimate concerns for ASHRAE members. However, these concerns must not override concerns about the health and wellness of occupants.
  3. Realize that the design, construction, operation, and occupancy of buildings have tangible impacts on the health and wellness of building occupants.


Eventually, the recommendations of the report are expected to result in further action by ASHRAE to prioritize occupant health. Presumably a new ASHRAE Standard would be developed to address various occupant health issues, including selection of materials with

ingredients that do not pose hazards to the occupants.

Swegon responds

Having observed these developments, Swegon studied ways of credibly addressing the specifier’s concerns. Swegon has a long history of obtaining third-party verification of product performance. The first work by Swegon to disclose product ingredients was in 2007 to address industry disclosure requirements in Europe. In 2020, Swegon received a Declare label for the GOLD air handling unit. Recognizing the growing need for Materials Transparency, Swegon took specific steps that led to new Declare labels for noise control and air distribution products and a revised Declare label for the more recent version of the GOLD RX air handling unit.

To disclose ingredients impacting human health, Swegon chose the Declare labeling program, administered by ILFI (International Living Futures Institute). ILFI describes the Declare labeling program as “a materials transparency platform for manufacturers to rise above the greenwash and showcase the health attributes of their products through ingredient disclosure.”


Declare labels feature concise information intended to make the specification of healthy products efficient.

Materials Transparency

The ingredients used to make products with the Declare label are disclosed to 100 parts per million (100 PPM). Small electronics and motors are disclosed according to the requirements of RoHS. These disclosure levels are intended to provide reporting consistency so that products can be easily vetted and compared.

Ease of Use

Rather than simply listing building product ingredients, the Declare label conveniently communicates whether or not a product contains hazardous ingredients so that design teams don’t need to involve additional materials consultants.

Specifier Acceptance

Specifiers desire credible product labeling and are broadly accepted by design teams. Declare has the highest conversion rate among the many product materials certification and labeling programs available. Once specifiers learn of the Declare label program and how it works, they are more likely to specify products with the Declare label than any other Materials program.


The Declare label serves as evidence that a building product meets the materials requirements of the Living Building Challenge. HVAC equipment represents some of the costliest products on a typical building project. Products representing 90% of the project budget must be vetted. It is therefore difficult to avoid vetting HVAC for freedom from hazardous ingredients.


The Declare label also serves as evidence of materials transparency for buildings seeking LEED, CHPS, WELL, and Enterprise Green Communities certification, extending the label’s usefulness to a broader range of projects.


Swegon is proud that an optimized version of the GOLD RX air handling unit is now listed in the Declare online directory and is Living Building Challenge Compliant.


AIA. (2022, 07 26). How materials transparency affects your practice. Retrieved from AIA: https://www.aia.org/pages/150126-how-materials-transparency-affects-your-pra

AIA. (2022, 08 01). The Architect’s Journey to Specification. Retrieved from AIA: https://www.aia.org/resources/85766-the-architects-journey-to-specification:46

ASHRAE. (2022, 08 10). ASHRAE Multidisciplinary Task Groups. Retrieved from ASHRAE: https://www.ashrae.org/file%20library/communities/committees/standing%20committees/environmental%20health%20committee%20(ehc)/mtg-hwbe-final-report.pdf

McConahey, E. (2020, October). Material Concerns for HVAC Products. ASHRAE Journal, 48-56.

Stankiewicz, A. (2022, 01 31). Sustainable Funds U.S. Landscape Report – 2021: Another year of broken records. Retrieved from Morningstar: https://www.morningstar.com/lp/sustainable-funds-landscape-report

Target Corporation. (2022, 07 25). Sustainability & ESG. Retrieved from Target: https://corporate.target.com/sustainability-esg

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (2022, 08 05). Response to Climate and ESG – Risks and Opportunities. Retrieved from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: https://www.sec.gov/sec-response-climate-and-esg-risks-and-opportunities

US SIF. (2022, 07 25). US SIF Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends 2020. Retrieved from US SIF: https://www.ussif.org/files/US%20SIF%20Trends%20Report%202020%20Executive%20Summary.pdf