The Future of Sustainable Buildings: An Interview With Diana Fisler, Ph.D, Johns Manville’s Building Science & Innovation Leader

In one week, we’ll be hosting the live webinar, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings,”  – a deep dive into the trends and evolutions in sustainable building practices. In anticipation of this presentation, we took a little time to sit down with one of our co-presenters, Diana Fisler, Ph.D., Building and Science Innovation Leader at Johns Manville, to get her thoughts on the shifting trends toward sustainable living. Read on to hear what she has to say about green building design, the influence of political policy on building construction, and what we can anticipate in terms of manufacturing transparency.

What’s your background and how long have you been with JM?
I have a PhD in Geosciences, which, in practice, makes me a materials scientist.  I’ve been with JM almost 20 years.  My current role as building scientist and innovation leader means I get to do a lot of interesting work around new trends in building construction and performance.
When did you start to see a shift in the direction of building design?
Green building standards have been evolving for a long time.  Since we are in the insulation business we’ve seen increases in code R-value requirements over the years. We’ve had recycled content in our products since the early 2000’s, and many of our products went “formaldehyde-free” and with bio-based binders in the past 10-20 years, and that has been well-received by the market.  As far as documentation to green building standards, we started to get requests for “green” documentation from Europe at least 10 years ago, but the trend wasn’t really impacting our US business significantly until a few years ago.  At that point, we started to see a steady stream of inquiries for green and healthy documentation such as health product declarations and documentation for LEED credits.  In the past ten years, the public has become more sophisticated about chemical exposure in buildings.  Builders are saying that today, there is a basic expectation that buildings will be not just energy efficient, but also healthy for the occupants.
Do you know what we can anticipate for new iterations of building design in the future?
There will definitely be a continued expectation of fewer chemicals of concern in the building space, both residential and commercial.  In office buildings, we are seeing increased attention to designing workspaces for productive and comfortable occupants.  Builders and specificers are voluntarily looking to established green building standards such as LEED and ASHRAE, and are starting to explore new, occupant-based standards, such as WELL.

On the construction operations side, labor shortage is a huge problem, which will start pushing the industry toward more factory-built construction.  This will bring additional opportunities for high-quality building components that will be then assembled at the jobsite.

Do you have an opinion on how much political policy makes a difference in commercial focus on healthy/sustainable building design?
Years ago codes were the key driver in implementing energy efficient design.  They still play an important role, but what we are seeing now is an expectation from building occupants that their buildings will be energy efficient, comfortable, and healthy.  That expectation is getting communicated to builders now.  Another way that government policy influences the market is through incentives from power providers for example through rebates for new air conditioners and other appliances. So I would say both are important, market awareness and political policy. 
How would you describe LEED to someone just entering the conversation?
LEED is a voluntary rating system that gives builders and manufacturers a framework for building better buildings in the form of a checklist of credits.  The primary aim is to reduce global warming and resource use, but secondarily the rating system encourages healthier buildings and communities through guidance on indoor air quality, as just one example.  There are different levels of certification too, from the most basic to the very demanding performance levels of LEED platinum.
How much work goes into making an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) a reality?
The Environmental Product Declaration is the document that takes the most work by manufacturers, when compared to other transparency documents.  It requires gathering production data, some of which is not routinely collected as part of manufacturing, and then having a third-party review and issue the document.  Having an EPD shows a real commitment to transparency on the part of the manufacturer. 
Do you see more and more businesses in the building industry adopting transparency into their manufacturing processes or is JM unique on that front?
JM is not unique in increasing transparency.  Many building product types are choosing to band together to offer an industry-wide EPD for their products.  Johns Manville has participated in industry EPDs for mineral wool and roofing products, as well as company-specific EPDs for some of our fiberglass insulation materials. A company-specific EPD offers the LEED designer the possibility of demonstrating lower environmental impact vs the average product available.
Why should a company consider getting their buildings LEED certified?
There have been a number of studies showing that the payback for basic LEED certification is good.  Going for a LEED higher level of certification such as LEED platinum can provide the builder a showcase with a beautiful, well-designed building.  There was an interesting study that came out showing that when you design to energy efficient standards, the occupants of the building exhibit fewer health problems, even if you do not take into account healthier materials.  Healthy, happy occupants can make for a good reputation for a builder. 
What are the first steps you think engineers/specifiers should take if they are looking to specify materials that meet green building design standards?
I would start with basic transparency and ventilation.  At first, it can be daunting to try to deliver the documentation required for LEED, The Living Building Challenge, and other standards.  If the engineer/specifier knows what is going into the building in terms of chemical ingredients, and is ventilating it properly, that’s a good start on the path to a high-performing building.  Specifiers should ask for Health Product Declarations (HPDs) to make informed decisions.  ASHRAE 62.2 can also be a good guide for ventilation and indoor air quality.
Are there any building standards that must be met that have come about in recent years because of new technology or policy?
The green building standard that is specifically designed for code-compliance is ASHRAE 189.1.  It has been adopted for some military construction so far.  Beyond that, what you will see is the green building standards lead the way with non-mandatory provisions, then the best and most reasonable to implement will then work their way into adopted codes over the next 3-5 years.  So you see requirements move from green building standards into the international energy code, which most US codes are based on, and ASHRAE 90.1, which Canada and some US locations use.

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable building trends and resources, we encourage you to sign up for our live webinar, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings.” Donna Laquidara-Carr, Ph.D., Research Director Industry Insights from Dodge Data & Analytics, will join Diana next Wednesday, August 16th, at 2:00 PM ET to dive into the details of a global shift toward healthier buildings. Click here to register.