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A Peek Inside Google's Healthy Materials Program

Google is way out front of other organizations—both public and private—when it comes to screening materials for hazardous ingredients in its workplaces.

By Nadav Malin

This article originally appeared on BuildingGreen.com.

June 26, 2012
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This indoor space at Google has sustainably forested wood floors, soy-based furniture, and ample daylighting.
Courtesy Christophe Wu/Google
This indoor space at Google has sustainably forested wood floors, soy-based furniture, and ample daylighting.

Since November 2010, Google’s facilities teams have been methodically adhering to stringent building product selection criteria for all of the company’s North American projects. To date, these have all been tenant fit-outs, but Google is moving into its first whole-building new construction project under the program and expanding it to other offices internationally in July 2012, beginning with pilot tenant improvement projects in Dublin, São Paulo, and Bangalore. Google had about 32,500 employees at the end of 2011, according to its financial report.

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As of May 2012, the program had covered about half of Google’s portfolio in North America, with the largest concentrations of space at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and New York City.

Program Goals

“Maintaining a healthy workplace is a strong priority for Google,” says Anne Less of Mary Davidge Associates, a consulting firm that supports Google’s sustainable facilities programs. This mandate comes right from the top, with strong support from co-founder and CEO Larry Page, who has been known to walk around the offices with a particle counter. Among other benefits, Google’s focus on occupant health is helpful when the company competes for talent around the world.

Google’s healthy materials program seeks to avoid substances on the Living Building Challenge Red List and U.S. EPA’s Chemicals of Concern list. Extending beyond the LBC requirements, the program includes furniture and furnishings. The company is also pushing for transparency by requiring full participation in the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos product ingredient and hazard screening tool for any product in a category that Pharos covers, according to Less. [Full disclosure: BuildingGreen collaborates with the Healthy Building Network on development and distribution of Pharos.]

Google also aims to achieve at least LEED Gold certification on all its projects. The LEED credits include mandates for recycled content and regional materials—making it even harder, because products that contribute to those credits must also meet Google’s avoidance criteria.

Challenges

Google’s staff, consultants, and the design teams working on its projects have encountered a number of persistent challenges:

Certification domination: Manufacturers have been so well trained to think in terms of certification that some don’t realize that just having their product in Pharos is not enough. “Suppliers will constantly tell me: ‘I got the Pharos stamp of approval,’” notes Less, who then has to explain to them that Pharos is not a product certification and that manufacturers have to fully disclose in Pharos and meet Google’s health criteria before their products can be specified.

Being a lonely voice: “If we had more partners in this effort, there would be a lot more leverage,” Less notes. Design firms say that they are excited about this focus, they don’t encounter clients other than Google who will back them up.

Copyright 2012 by BuildingGreen Inc.

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