In a world where user-generated content and online Wikis are the norm, architect design firm Perkins+Will is making an attempt to make sustainability and healthy environments more easily achieved with the creation of its Precautionary List. Though not a proper Wiki—a Wiki being an open, online encyclopedia that anyone can add information to—the basic principles remain the same. The Precautionary List began as a resource for Perkins+Will team members to alleviate some of the difficulties when talking to vendors about the chemicals in their products. And given the list’s industry-wide value, opening it up to the public seemed to be an obvious and fruitful move.

“We have been searching for tools we can use in the firm to begin to weed out the worst-in-class chemicals from our specifications and the building products that we specify,” says Robin Guenther, FAIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins+Will, New York. “Given our size and the complexity of the organization as it were, we couldn’t find any tools in the marketplace that we could really use. We decided to develop this list.”

“We realized that once we were done with that and made it universal within our firm, that this was an important enough thing that we should share it; that it was important enough that it should not be housed or siloed within Perkins+Will. That’s why we opened it up to a broader audience,” says Peter Syrett, AIA, LEED AP, Associate Principal, Perkins+Will, New York.

As Guenther noted, the Precautionary List was designed as a way to address “worst-in-class” chemicals—the 25 most harmful chemicals that the firm most often came across in products and the ones with the worst effects on users. Some of these worst-in-class chemicals include more common ones like arsenic, mercury, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), as well as things like Bisphenol A, Hexavalent Chromium, and Pentachlorophenol.

But this is by no means a comprehensive list. “We identified a lot more than 25 but we wanted to start on a reasonable, manageable number of chemicals,” says Syrett. “To turn the ship of our own firm, to scrub our specs, and to change the way that we look at materials ourselves is a big endeavor just for our firm. We wanted to take what we identified as the worst-in-class and then we’ll move out from there.”

This isn’t just a list of harmful chemicals, however. Included in each chemical’s entry is such information as where the chemical is usually found, known health effects, suspected health effects, the regulatory history of the chemical, green building ratings, and soon, direct links to the various studies that have proven the effects of the chemicals. Though Guenther and Syrett don’t necessarily want the list of chemicals to get longer—the less worst-in-class chemicals still in use, the better—the Precautionary List is still “a dynamic living tool that, ultimately, we will work on and edit, and continue to improve as time goes along,” says Syrett.

Getting started seems like a daunting task, but once you understand the basics of the tool, it becomes easily maneuverable. The front page of the Precautionary List is somewhat impenetrable without knowing how to navigate through it. As Guenther describes it, “It’s really a list of lists.” But once you understand it, the site becomes easy to function and utilize. In the left sidebar (image to right), there are varying ways to sort the information. It can be sorted by category, name, divisions and sections, and health effects. However, contained within all of these different searches are the same 25 worst-in-class chemicals.

What this list—or list of lists—does is it allows designers to go directly to vendors and ask things like, “We are looking to avoid arsenic. Do your products contain this chemical?” And Guenther feels that this is an integral part of the conversation that’s been missing. “I think most of us have been completely unaware, or largely unaware of some of these worst-in-class chemicals in the building products that we’ve routinely specified,” says Guenther. “It hasn’t been a transparent conversation, and so what we’re hoping this list does is encourage transparency and accelerates the dialogue.”

And even given the list’s somewhat limited scope, it’s still a valuable tool for designers and architects. “It’s meant to inform so that you can have an intelligent and more pointed conversation with your own team and everyone you work with about the particularities of a product,” Syrett adds.