Healthy Building Network and Google combine forces on Portico materials tool

BIG, Google

Any design team hunting for building materials that meet the Living Building Challenge’s exacting standards is familiar with the predicament: How does one find, sort and compare environmental and health-related data on those materials?

It’s a daunting task. And it’s one reason many owners, designers and builders find LBC’s Materials Petal the most difficult part of LBC. LEED project teams face a similar specifying challenge, albeit with less intensity.

Fast Company magazine digs into a fascinating collaboration between Google and the Heathy Building Network that was designed to address that problem. That partnership has yielded Portico, a “materials analysis and decision making tool” meant to serve as a Rosetta Stone for the various certification programs and databases that address products and materials. From the Fast Company article:

Third-party certification systems—like Cradle to Cradle, Greenguard , and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative—have aimed to make the information about chemical content in products and the potential health risks they pose, but there are so many different systems, each with their own rubric for assessing risks that it adds yet another layer of confusion, even though they were designed to clarify. It is expensive to obtain certification, and product manufacturers are choosy about what they get certified and by whom.

Portico grew out of Project Pharos — an earlier clearinghouse effort spurred by an exchange of ideas between Healthy Buildings Network founder Bill Walsh and LBC lead author Jason F. McLennan.


More than a decade ago, Kendeda Fund (which publishes this blog) became an early funder of HBN and Project Pharos. Diane Ives, advisor for the Fund’s People, Place and Planet program, says she and HBN’s Walsh knew they faced a tough challenge. First, they would have to convince competitive manufacturers in a decentralized sector to find value in disclosing information. Then, they would standardize the information gathered, Finally, they’d have collate it so it would be usable. And that process wasn’t a one-time thing — new and updated products constantly would require changes in the database. Add in the need for a revenue model, and the fact that so little is known about the health implications of many chemicals used in buildings.

Diane Ives, Kendeda Fund
Kendeda’s Diane Ives credits the Healthy Building Network for its “push the ceiling” approach.

“HBN, to their credit, made a 180-degree turn at one point that was quite transformative,” Ives says. “They decided to stop holding up the floor and to start pushing out the ceiling. In other words, instead of trying to beat information out of worst-in-class manufacturers, they worked to lift up and strengthen best-in-class manufacturers. That meant building relationships with those who were using best-in-class products — like Google.”

Separately, Fast Company reports, “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.” Once Google realized Pharos offered a foundation for their materials information-gathering efforts, the company married its capital and technical abilities to HBN’s nascent project. It helped that Google is a huge real-estate player, because that market position gave the project leverage to pry information from materials makers.

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.


Now, Google is working with HBN to open the more robust platform to other users. Harvard University, the Durst Organization and Perkins+Will, the Atlanta-based architecture firm, were among the first “Early Access” partners. Last fall, they began using and testing Portico last fall. Kendeda jumped in to provide funding for HomeFree, an HBN-led network that advocates healthier materials in affordable housing, to join in the Early Access Program. And now Georgia Tech’s Capital and Space Management office has been added to Early Access group. That means that Lord Aeck Sargent and other members of the design team can apply the tool to the Georgia Tech Living Building project.

BIG, Google
Plans for Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., call for canopies to shade buildings and reduce energy loads. Image by BIG .

The Early Access feedback loop for designers and owners fits into Portico’s philosophy of promoting feedback to manufacturers. HBN’s Lawrence Kilroy stresses that both Pharos and Portico were founded on a belief the platform benefits by sharing better information about the demand for healthy, sustainable products. From Fast Company:

“Our aim is not to eliminate a material, but to facilitate a debate,” [HBN’s Lawrence] Kilroy says. “The campaign is about having discussions about materials, and when manufacturers do that they’ll find a better way to make them. We’re not trying to dissolve an industry; it’s about trying to improve their products. Working with someone like Google, which has a large market presence, elevates the conversation.”

The ultimate goal is to bring order to the search for healthy, environmental materials, so that project teams can find what they need and manufacturers can get a better idea of the evolving market. HBN Chief Financial Officer Susan Sabella says the organization hopes to publicly launch Portico early next year, and expects that companies will be able to participate through a subscription or licensing model.

“We are currently embarking on a business planning effort specific to Portico,” she writes in an email, “and will be using our early partners, including Georgia Tech, to get feedback on additional tool requirements, as well as pay structures that would work best for the type of system Portico is.”


  1. I wish to work on extending the work carried out to develop Portico, where Sustainability Index of building materials can be evaluated in comparison to each other. The index would vary from one geographic location to another, this brings realistic scenario in front of designers for the location building is being designed. I wish to work with your team and Google on this, as I am planning to pick this as my PhD. topic. Need funding for my PhD and a taker like Google to make the Sustainability Index IT based dynamic tool.