Many people that know me also know that I am very involved with the San Diego Green Building Council. One of the programs I allocate quite a bit of time to is our highly regarded Green Assistance Program (GAP), which gives our volunteer community an opportunity to work on improving the operations and maintenance of facilities belonging to other local nonprofits. A big part of that process includes evaluating indoor air quality and identifying the no- and low-cost upgrades that can improve health for occupants.

Few people, even in the design and construction industry, realize the impact of indoor air quality on human comfort. It is subtle, and often very subjective. However, clear objective standards do exist. (more…)

My wife and I have been lucky to have three kids that (so far) haven’t ever played with fire, or knives, or consumed dangerous cleaning supplies, or anything like that. It didn’t take burning down the house, stitches, or stomach pumping to teach each of them the danger inherent with certain things—a quick touch to a hot oven provides instantaneous feedback.

This is the primary concept of the feedback loop, explained by Wired Magazine: (more…)

As many people know, LEED v4 took a lot longer to be finalized than originally anticipated—largely due to political struggles involving key stakeholders and certain large enterprises. As many of my friends and colleagues know, I despise politics. Therefore, rather than get into all the muck, let’s dig into one of the more controversial subjects in LEED v4, and try to understand its impact on standard of care for the industry

What is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)? The always informative Stuart Kaplow has a great description at his blog, Green Building Law Update:

An environmental product declaration (EPD) is a method of quantifying the environmental impacts of a product. It is analogous to the nutritional label on a box of cereal. In the context of green building, EPDs will provide a way describing the environmental impact of a building material or product.

EPDs articulate the conclusions of a life cycle assessment. The aim of an EPD is to facilitate the comparison of the range of environmental effects attributable to a product in order to provide a sound basis for making informed decisions.

Life cycle assessment is widely accepted to encompass 5 stages: raw material acquisition, manufacturing, transportation, use, and end of life.

In other words, an EPD is a third-party assessment of certain material characteristics based upon objective criteria. If manufacturers produce an EPD for a given product, it offers design and construction professionals handy insight into the environmental impact of that product.

How EPDs affect Standard of Care

When we talk about environmental impact, an important part of the equation also involves impact on human health—since we are also part of the environment. One of the components to an EPD is toxicity. This is where things start to get really interesting. There are multiple approaches to assessing toxicity, including certain ISO standards that have been adopted by various European countries. In particular, ISO 14025 is referenced by the USGBC. Unfortunately, that standard was last updated in 2006, making it somewhat out of date in the fast-paced world of high performance design and construction.

As Kaplow points out in another blog post:

Among the loudest critics of the LEED v4 Materials & Resources credits related to EPDs is Perkins+Will architect Douglas Pierce, who authored a White paper, “LEED V4 Should Lead On Material Health Transparency By Accepting Only Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) That Comply With the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Truth in Advertising Law”. Pierce highlights that EPDs and their use in LEED V4 “have a large loophole related to toxicity”. The White paper argues that toxicity must be detailed or risk violating the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides.

In other words, the standards for defining toxicity related to EPDs still have some work left. The difficulty here is immediately apparent, as architects like Pierce may in effect be forced to make legal interpretations. As Kaplow explains:

The White paper is legally not correct, .. but who would seek legal advice from architects (even a well respected architecture firm like Perkins+Will)? However, the White paper is useful in identifying the shortcomings of EPDs and in particular ISO based EPDs.

Will we need to include legal counsel as part of the design charettes in the Integrative Project Design process? (I actually do think that that is a very wise suggestion.)

Should attorneys be reviewing BIM files and specifications? After all, those do constitute “contract documents” and who better than an attorney to evaluate the merits of a contract? (I think that is a horrible idea – especially at the hourly rates most attorneys charge…)

Moving Forward, to a healthier built environment

Regardless, in my opinion, the best aspect of the whole discussion around objective third-party standards related to Environmental Product Disclosures, is that we are even having the discussion in the first place.

Only through intelligent discourse, backed by evidence, can we move forward to improving both the environmental and health impacts of the products we use to design and construct the buildings in which we live, work, play and come together.


I am an outsider. Among construction defect and quality management professionals, my involvement with green building makes me stick out like a sore thumb. Among green building professionals, advocates and activists, my responses to claims that green buildings are better quality leads to some very awkward moments. Without adopting more sustainable practices, existing design and construction professionals will face irrelevance. Without addressing the increased risk inherent in high performance buildings, true sustainability will be unachievable.

Yesterday I was sitting at the park, flipping through the latest news stories on my iPad, while my daughters were playing. One article in particular caught my attention—in much the same way that a lightning bolt striking my head would have caught my attention—and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Architect and writer Lloyd Alter, is a powerful ally in educating and informing people of both the importance and the beauty, that sustainable design and construction bring to the evolution of the built environment. He is an outspoken proponent of green practices in general, and LEED in particular. Any time that the “plastic people” (as Alter refers to lobbyists and others representing the interests of big chemical companies) try to smear LEED or green building for their own benefit, his column at TreeHugger is the place to typically find the most well-formed rebuttals.

In fact, Alter was clearly prepared for a fight in response to a piece I wrote analyzing the failure of the first LEED Platinum project. (He acquiesced after I replied to his comment, but boy was I worried about getting tarred and feathered at TreeHugger…)

Which is why when I read the following opening sentence from Alter, I knew something was up:

I am nervous about writing this post; no doubt the lobby groups that promote plastics and fossil fuel use and hate green building will jump on it.

Indeed, the story that Alter shared is astounding. Here is an excerpt from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regarding their findings associated with a fire at an office building in La Farge, Wisonsin:

Over the course of 18 hours, the officers and firefighters from La Farge, along with those from numerous surrounding departments, were faced with a growing array of challenges, including the location of the fire, the materials used in the building’s construction, the limitations of the town’s firefighting infrastructure, and more. The fire would eventually destroy a significant portion of building, resulting in an estimated $13 million in property damage and related losses.

After Chief Stittleburg contacted NFPA, and as more became known about the details and circumstances of the fire, the more it came to resemble a cautionary tale in the use of “green” or “sustainable” construction materials and what they can mean to firefighting efforts. The rooftop PV array, designed to reduce the building’s reliance on fossil fuels, also presented serious challenges to firefighters. In some respects, the La Farge incident became a kind of “perfect storm” fire, one that grouped a handful of challenges I’d seen elsewhere into a single event. NFPA accepted Chief Stittleburg’s invitation to visit La Farge and review the fire, and I was asked to travel to Wisconsin to see for myself how these factors combined to create an especially challenging fire situation—and to bring back the lessons learned at that fire.

Sifting through the ashes…

There were a lot of factors that contributed to not just the fire itself (although according to local news, the actual cause of the fire was never determined), but the manner in which the fire spread, and difficulties associated with fighting the fire. Here is a breakdown:

  • Solar photovoltaic panels on the roof caused numerous problems, especially because during the fire the panels energized the metal roof preventing safe access
  • Continuous concealed airspaces were probably the greatest contributor to the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the fire (more on that later…)
  • Combustible insulation fueled the fire, whereas fiberglass insulation is generally considered noncombustible and is often used as a firestop
  • A major factor in the rapid failure of certain structural components during the fire was the use of lightweight materials including engineered lumber products (also a factor in the failure of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters) and steel-stud framing
  • Due to the spread of the fire through concealed spaces, the fire sprinkler system was relatively ineffective
  • A rupture of the sprinkler system in the attic resulted in a depletion of significant domestic water stores for the region


The story of the fire in La Farge, Wisconsin is not an indictment of green building practices. What it is, is yet another illustration of just how important quality is throughout the built environment.

When you have a large area of a roof that doubles as a source of electricity, guess what? You have to take necessary precautions to avoid inadvertent discharging of that electricity, which could in turn cause serious threats to life-safety and health. If the circuits of PV panels do not automatically shut down when there is a short in the system, or fire is detected, then safeguards need to be implemented. Why do we have Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) required in bathrooms and kitchens? Because electricity and water don’t mix. Neither, apparently, do fire and energized PV panels mix.

Secondly, one of the first things I learned when researching and analyzing fire-resistive construction defects is the importance of managing concealed air space within wall cavities. Open air space within wall cavities allows fire (and the accompanying smoke and heat) to rapidly spread between building areas. In fact, a vertical open air space acts just like a chimney. It doesn’t matter if your building is “green” or not—the basic laws of physics and building science still apply.

Third, as Alter points out, why on earth would anyone use combustible materials for insulation when “green” noncombustible products are readily available? More frustrating for me personally, is the fact that the insulation in question is none other than recycled denim insulation. I was involved in the investigation of a project using this type of insulation. Not only was the insulation to blame for widespread mold (improper installation in a high humidity region), but the manufacturer refused to release any testing data related to the product’s fire resistive qualities. Let’s just say that that case did not end favorably…

Poor quality is still the biggest risk to sustainable design and construction

At one end of the spectrum in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry, there are folks like Lloyd Alter who continue to push for ever-increasing standards of building performance. At the other end of the spectrum, are people like firefighters that are just hoping that buildings will meet minimum standards of quality so they can go home and see their kids at night.

The fire that devastated the headquarters of Organic Valley in La Farge, Wisconsin doesn’t show the failure of green buildings. It shows the failure of our industry, once again, to meet basic standards of quality.


For nearly 11 years, I served as a secret weapon in the defense of the nation’s largest homebuilders against numerous construction defect claims involving thousands of building units. Most of my colleagues and clients were often surprised when I mentioned that one of the top builders in the country was a non-profit: Habitat for Humanity. Collectively, we have often wondered what might happen if a public-benefit housing provider ended up in litigation. It appears we may see what happens soon enough.

Hurricane Katrina was devastating to a large number of inhabitants of Louisiana, Mississippi and adjacent areas. Fortunately, there have been some truly wonderful people who have stepped in with support. One of those entities is the Make It Right Foundation that was started by Brad Pitt. According to their website, the organization has built 87 homes in New Orleans, out of 150 it has committed to building.

These homes are not like most homes. Although the homes sell for a target price of $150,000.00, all are high-performing, LEED Platinum-certified, designed by award-winning architecture firms and utilize concepts inspired by William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle design principles. Not to mention that a big part of the intent behind this project is to leave the future homeowners with buildings that will be much more resilient when (not if) the next big hurricane rolls through town.

Ultra-affordable, cutting edge architectural designs, extremely high performance, using the latest sustainable materials and practices, built in a short time frame using a lot of volunteer labor — talk about high risk!

Once again, Murphy’s theorem proves true

Approximately 30 of the homes built by Pitt’s foundation utilized a novel sustainably sourced material manufactured by Timber Treatment Technologies. The product, TimberSIL, is made from the rapidly renewable Southern yellow pine which has been treated with sodium silicate and heat, which essentially encases the wood fibers in glass. This is much more environmentally friendly than standard pressure-treatments that are applied to wood for protection when exposed to the elements. (The chemical that was at the center of the case made famous by Erin Brokovich is used to chemically treat telephone poles.)

Unfortunately, the new treatment hasn’t proven as effective as the manufacturer and others had hoped:

Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which has built 100 energy-efficient new homes in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Lower 9th Ward, is considering legal action against the manufacturer of an innovative glass-infused wood that was used in some of the homes’ outdoor steps and front porches. The wood has begun rotting, despite being guaranteed for 40 years, a Make It Right spokeswoman said…
But now, decks and steps that were built as recently as three years ago are showing signs of rot, with the wood taking on a dark gray tinge. “It was unable to withstand moisture, which obviously is a big problem in New Orleans,” [Make It Right spokeswoman Taylor] Royle said.

Make It Right Foundation will make things right

The foundation will remove and replace the TimberSIL product everywhere it was installed, at an estimated cost of $150,000.00 over a period of six months. That includes locations where no deterioration or other resultant damage was found. According to Brad Pitt himself:

“Make It Right is ambitious and tries new things all the time in order to make our homes better,” he said. “Where we find innovative products that didn’t perform, we move quickly to correct these things for our homeowners.”

Aside: I really want to highlight this point. Make It Right Foundation is spending its limited resources to fix construction defects, even if those defects did not result in damage. Builders – if you’re tired of increasing insurance premiums from construction defect claims, maybe it is time to consider a much more rational and cost-effective approach: just fix the damn problem before you get sued. But I digress…

According to The New Orleans Advocate, spokeswoman Royle stated that the organization is currently exploring the possibility of legal action against the manufacturer of the TimberSIL product:

“We are evaluating our rights under the law and under the product warranty,” she said. “We hope to have a candid discussion with the company and have asked them to put their insurance carrier on notice. We prefer to resolve this short of litigation, but we are prepared to pursue all legal remedies if necessary.”

Not an isolated occurrence

The New Orleans Advocate also mentioned this nugget:

Earlier this year, renovations at a 19th-century inn in western Massachusetts stalled after contractors who had used TimberSIL to build deck rails said they realized the product would not hold a coat of paint or withstand the region’s climate. Replacing the material was expected to add $100,000 to the project’s originally contracted price tag of $760,000, according to local news reports.

Lessons Learned

There are several takeaways in this story:

  • For-profit builders (and their over-compensated legal counsel…) could stand to learn a lot from non-profit builders when it comes to customer service.
  • With new materials and techniques come risk: design and construction professionals need to anticipate that risk and be prepared to respond accordingly.
  • There is nothing sustainable about throwing out a bunch of building materials that are poorly made, inappropriate for their environment or improperly installed (see the LEED Platinum case study nobody wants you to read).


Image of Make It Right Foundation home under construction courtesy Mark Gstohl

For the week of September 9th, 2013, there are some important events that professionals in the construction and legal industries should be aware of.

Zero Energy Zero Water Building Conference

My colleagues and co-conspirators at the San Diego Green Building Council will be putting on a really cool mini-conference focusing on how Net Zero Energy/Water will apply to the San Diego built environment. The event takes place on Wednesday and Thursday at the San Diego Energy Innovation Center.

Join us for a two-day conference covering, Energy & Water, two of the most critical topics facing our community, our state, and beyond.

During this event we will share best practices and stories from leaders in the industry who are already tackling these issues and implementing solutions in their building designs and projects.

You can still register for the event up until 10am on Tuesday. Walk-ins are welcome. For full details, visit the event’s registration page.

Forensic Professionals Meet For Beers

Long-time friend Janae Long is putting on another networking event for forensic and legal professionals on Thursday at the Mission Valley Gordon Biersch.

This is a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make some new ones, all while enjoying some great beer. And apparently, Janae has some surprises in store:

Please join us on the patio of Gordon Biersch. There will be a surprise guest this time. Looking forward to seeing you all. Now that fall is upon us, it’s time to catch up with others and renew efforts to connect with new contacts.

For details, visit the event’s information page.

See you there!

I plan on attending both events, although I may not be able to attend 100% of the session for the Zero Energy Zero Water event due to prior commitments.

Geedra is a secure, cloud-based, photo-driven database for collecting, sorting, managing and sharing pictures taken in the field. It is incredibly user-friendly and has been designed from the ground up for documenting construction conditions. Using any modern web browser, you can tag, sort and filter photos by location, trade, CSI division, etc.

As a construction defect investigator, I take a lot of pictures. So do my colleagues and peers. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for an individual inspector to produce 20,000 images in a single year. The question then becomes, what do you do with all those photos?

Some firms have developed their own proprietary photo-driven databases for managing photographic evidence for construction projects. The cost for building your own database application is incredibly expensive.

Geedra Construction Photo Management Software

I’ve had the good fortune of speaking to Rob Mathewson, the founder of Geedra, on several occasions. Besides being a really genuine and smart guy, Mathewson is extremely committed to removing the obstacles for managing construction photo documentation.

Geedra is a construction photo management system based on Amazon’s cloud platform. Photos can be tagged by geographic location (or with GPS), room/floor location, trade, subcontractor, CSI division – or you can add your own comments and descriptions. Photos are displayed in a grid-based system and can be sorted/filtered based on any of the aforementioned tags or comments. Geedra allows users to email individual or multiple photos to other parties, or you can prepare PDF-based reports with additional comments. What are the system requirements? Nothing more than a standard web browser.

The company is marketing their product for both active construction-phase activities and post-construction documentation. By enabling building scientists and forensic investigators to quickly upload, tag, sort, and comment on large volumes of photos in a short time, Geedra is an ideal solution for the construction defect industry.

Preventing (or at least limiting) Construction Claims

Recently, Geedra’s blog featured a guest post from Virginia construction lawyer Christopher Hill (still no relation). In it, Hill explains from a lawyer’s perspective, just how valuable photos are in a construction dispute. As he writes:

Because in my construction law practice, having great photos can win a case or even cut the case off at the pass. A photo cannot lie (I know, Photo Shop exists but I’ll deal with that later). A photo has a perfect memory (unlike most of us). A photo shows exactly how a site looked at a certain point in time. All of these characteristics of a good photo are great.

Almost more importantly, though; a good photo can be very persuasive. Judges and juries are people. No matter how great a picture you, as an advocate or witness, can paint, you can’t do the real thing justice. A photo that shows the problem (or lack of one) that is the key to the case is the best evidence and most viscerally relevant depiction of the information and the state of things when the construction was still going on.

Using Construction Photos to Improve Quality

In my most recent article for Retail Design & Construction Today, I discussed the importance of photos during active construction:

By requiring that contractors and subcontractors photograph before they start, and after they finish, owners can maintain a dynamic record of the job’s progress. This requirement will also dramatically impact claims resolution processes by offering demonstrable evidence of the work completed, even after much of it is concealed by finish materials.

While Geedra can’t eliminate defects, the service certainly makes it much easier to prevent them or detect them through verification. With verification, comes trust. Without trust, improving quality in the built environment remains elusive at best.

My personal experience beta-testing Geedra has been very positive. I found the application easy to use, extremely powerful, and very responsive. To get a feel for how Geedra works, sign up for a free account. The video below is a walk-through of the key features and functions:

Video Link

The iPad is an ideal tool for construction inspections, replacing a clipboard full of paperwork, and expanding the opportunities for improving the inspection process.

The picture accompanying this article is a self-portrait from a recent visual inspection as part of a construction defect investigation. For obvious reasons, I cannot elaborate on any details pertaining to that particular case. Instead, I want to reflect on what it is really like using an iPad for construction inspections.

What the iPad replaces

In a typical visual inspection, my colleagues and I often have half a dozen or more pieces of paper on our clipboards for each and every unit/home. With two to three people inspecting each unit (one each for interior, exterior, roof), that’s about 20 pages of paper to be filled out for each unit. Since most inspection schedules involve eight units each day (for visuals), each inspector typically completes around 50 pages of paperwork.

This paperwork is usually comprised of floor plans corresponding to each unit/home, and checklists corresponding to specific conditions for that case. In a construction defect investigation, that paperwork often becomes evidence, in addition to all the photos taken. Amazingly, in all my years of inspections, I have only seen field paperwork disappear on a few occasions. (Twice I have seen high winds rip paperwork right off of inspectors’ clipboards.)

How the iPad replaces all that paper

The key with getting the most out of any technology is how one uses it. When it comes to a device such as the iPad, the key is using the right applications. Let’s break down how many inspectors interact with paper, and some applications that replace that functionality:

  • Checklists
    This is the biggie. If you haven’t read it, Atul Gawande’s seminal work, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, is the book on how properly implemented checklists can literally change the world. In construction inspections, checklists provide a road map for inspectors to ensure that every applicable issue has been addressed.

    Determining which application to use for your checklists depends on the end use of that data. If you are processing your field data using spreadsheets (Excel), building an extremely user-friendly template using Apple’s own Numbers for iPad is the way to go. If you have a FileMaker database, upgrading to the latest version of FileMaker will enable you to quickly roll out an application for the iPad that syncs perfectly with your existing database.

    If neither of those options works for your situation, you can use what I use: PDF Expert. This powerful application allows you (among other things) to add annotations and comments to a PDF form. If you use Adobe Acrobat to produce an fillable PDF form, PDF Expert will allow you to quickly and easily populate data in that form.

  • Floor/Roof/Site Plans
    Again, this depends on your existing workflow. If you or your firm do not typically receive hard copy or digital versions of plans prior to inspections, you may find yourself sketching room layouts, site plans, roof plans in the field. There are several applications for the iPad that can help in this regard. Autodesk SketchBook Pro for iPad and iDraw are my favorites. Both allow for grid-based sketches, a variety of shapes, line thicknesses, colors, text boxes, etc. But if you really need to quickly and accurately sketch a floor/roof/site plan with dimensional accuracy, look no further than TOTAL for iPad. This application can also be used for checklists, but may require some additional configuration.

    If you are working off of paper or digital plans, again PDF Expert is the way to go. Using a PDF plan as a virtual “base sheet” for your annotations, PDF Expert facilitates very quick entry of location-specific data during the investigation. One app that I will be experimenting with soon is PlanGrid, which was built by and for construction professionals for this specific purpose.

Usability, security, and the learning curve

When it comes to usability, your mileage may vary. Put another way, if you have never used an iPad before, don’t expect it to save you any time on an inspection. As with any tool, you’ll need to spend some time getting to understand how to best implement that tool in your own workflow. Also, you can expect that using the iPad will result in changes to your existing workflow. I think a fair comparison can be made between the transition many of us inspectors went through going from film cameras to digital. Some things end up being easier, some things are more difficult.

I have been using my iPad every day for about a year. I use it for a lot of things that I would have used paper for in the past, as well as for things I would have used my laptop for. So for me, I am quite accustomed to typing on the device and I can type almost as fast on an iPad as I can write on paper. That said, don’t expect to write paragraphs of text during the limited time available on a typical inspection. I used the “stamp” function in PDF Expert to create reusable icons/graphics that I could use to indicate certain things, like window types, staining, cracking, etc.

Get a stylus! For quick yet precise sketching on an iPad, a stylus is much more effective than your finger. Plus, construction inspections for me typically result in dirty fingers. I have a screen protector on my iPad so I’m not as worried about scratches, but after a day in the field, my screen was covered in finger smudges.

One of the biggest fears that I hear expressed about using a digital device for field documentation is losing data. “There’s no paper trail!” Well, that’s what the cloud is for. PDF Expert syncs with Dropbox (which I use), Apple’s iDisk, and other cloud-based services. So as I complete an inspection, everything I have entered into a PDF form is automagically synced with multiple servers with redundant back-ups. Paper doesn’t do that. Also, every one of the applications I mentioned above has the ability to send a file via email. So you can send a copy of your just-completed inspection forms back to the office or to yourself. Again, paper doesn’t have that ability.

What happens if the iPad gets stolen? That is a very real concern, although most of us would admit that the device is more likely to be misplaced or dropped. First things first: make sure that you have set the screen to lock automatically and require a passcode. Second, make sure you have configured Apple’s free Find my iPad app. That will allow you to locate the device using GPS, remotely lock the device, send a message to the device, or if necessary, remotely wipe all data from the device. (Don’t worry, that data has been synced with your iTunes account and through any other services you use.) For more on best practices for businesses using iPads, see Apple’s iPad in Business – Security (PDF).

This is just the beginning…

As I continue to use the iPad to improve the quality of my inspections, I’ll report back on ways to get even more benefit out of the device. So if you haven’t done so already, subscribe to the A/E/C Brief to stay in the loop.

Construction attorney Christopher Hill (no relation) has invited me back for another “Guest Post Friday” at his blog, Construction Law Musings.

The post is now up and is entitled, True Sustainability – Trust, But Verify. Please check it out, and feel free to leave comments at Chris’ site.

I’d like to extend a sincere Thank You to my good friends at OAC Management Incorporated for providing the inspiration to write that post. Chris invited me to do another guest post for his blog shortly before I left for Colorado to attend OAC’s Quality Assurance Observation training. One evening, the firm’s business development manager, David Fjelstad, took my father and I up to one of the resorts in Vail following an intensive day of training. Sitting in the Chop House at Beaver Creek, I realized that the concepts we were learning represent a practical method for improving quality in the built environment. (Of course, it may have just been a lack of oxygen in my brain…) At that point I knew that I wanted to write a guest post for Chris Hill that touched on this very important topic.

The QAO Training is an excellent path for professional development for anyone in the A/E/C industry. I truly feel that we are at the beginning of a revolution in the built environment, and I agree with Erik Peterson and the executives at Old Republic Insurance: Quality Assurance Observation Certification has the potential of eclipsing LEED© Certification in both relevance and its impact on true sustainability in the built environment.

Image courtesy photologue_np

A core concept in high performance building is to create a strong thermal barrier between the inside and outside of a home. Building materials at exterior walls therefore need to include products that offer thermal resistance – in other words, insulation. The problem is finding insulation products that are efficient, cost effective, sourced from sustainable materials, and are safe. Asbestos performs well, is relatively inexpensive, but poses serious health risks to humans. Spray polyurethane foam (SPF) has been specified and recommended on a number of high performance projects, however, as we are learning, it poses serious risks of its own., Treehugger, and others have written in the past about toxic emissions produced during application (the EPA is currently evaluating that issue), as well as the decidedly non-green aspects of SPF (“greenhouse gasses”). There is now clear evidence of an even more serious threat that will certainly impact production building: SPF insulation, improperly applied creates an exothermic reaction that can result in fire. Here are comments from Tristan Roberts of

But when SPF is implicated in building fires, it really turns my head! We’re talking not about more vague, statistical likelihoods of future risks–we are talking about lives and property being endangered or lost in the moment. We wrote about that last year in the context of an effort by a fire marshals group to get the word out about unique fire risks from green building. That article referred to the tragic fire at the Alstonvale Net Zero House in Hudson, Québec, which occurred immediately after SPF installation, and reduced an almost-completed home to rubble.

The search for a sustainable, energy efficient, cost effective and safe insulation product continues.

I encourage you to read the full article which includes links to several resources regarding this very serious issue.