August 7, 2012 | Amanda Kolson Hurley

About a decade ago, healthcare architect Peter Syrett and interior designer Chris Youssef were designing a hospital cancer center and wanted to make sure that carcinogenic building materials weren’t used in its construction.

To their dismay, information on hazardous substances in building products was hard to find. So they searched it out themselves and started compiling it.

The result is Transparency, a free online database of known and potentially harmful substances in building materials, unveiled late last year by Syrett and Youssef’s employer, the architecture and engineering firm Perkins+Will.

A still-expanding resource, the database catalogs dozens of such substances—think bisphenol-A, phthalates, and VOCs—and offers research findings on their potential adverse effects, as well as indicating the types of products they are often used in.


What if Buildings Were Labeled Like Cereal Boxes?

Syrett and Youssef want building products to be labeled like cereal boxes. Syrett told The New York Times: “People make sophisticated choices every time they go grocery shopping…There’s no reason it can’t be the same with building products.”

Thanks to their efforts, architects and other building professionals can now make more informed decisions. They can specify and install materials that don’t just seem healthy, but actually are (relatively—there is no perfect building material, of course).

The database is an important milestone in the ongoing drive for greater transparency in the built environment. At IMT, we are passionate about transparency, too, especially around building energy use.

Transparency is one of IMT’s core beliefs. Until everyone has clear, accessible information on buildings’ energy performance, the market can’t capture the full value of energy efficiency, and we won’t be able to improve it to the fullest extent possible.

How can an owner make a commercial building more efficient, if he or she doesn’t know how much energy it’s consuming?

How can a small business owner, looking to lease office space, be sure that a building marketed as “green” is truly efficient, with the lower utility bills to match? Ditto for an apartment-hunter, weighing rent against likely utility costs.


Honest Buildings, Informed Consumers

We are fortunate to have many partners who share our belief in the power of transparency. In the public sector, they are crafting and implementing policies that require buildings' energy use to be measured, benchmarked, and disclosed: lifting the curtain on energy efficiency for all to see. Cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, have set a precedent for others to follow.

In the private sector, there are startups like Honest Buildings, an online platform that presents information–including energy-use metrics, design and construction details, and occupant reviews–on thousands of buildings around the country, while connecting owners, tenants, and service providers, much like LinkedIn.

IMT is pleased to collaborate with Honest Buildings, supplying local policy summaries to their platform via our sister website,

Although Honest Buildings is an early and strong player in this space, they won't be alone for long. As New York and other cities publish the building data they've collected and analyzed, expect more entrepreneurs to rush in, developing tools that will make the dry data points meaningful, accessible, and actionable with just a few touches to your iPhone.

In a few years, apartment- and office-hunting in these cities may be a very different animal. We won't just take a marketer's word for it that a building is green: we'll have the data to know for sure.

And that's great news. Only with transparency can we make significant cuts in building energy use, which accounts for a whopping 40 percent of our total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting energy waste in buildings is essential if we're going to make our cities truly sustainable.

Program Area(s):


Meet the Author

Amanda Kolson Hurley

Want to get regular updates from IMT?