Smelling the carpet: Making buildings healthier, along with the people in them

Ask Anthony Ravitz how Portico started and he describes his first day at Google in 2006, when his new manager, George Salah, Googler number 35 and the company’s first facilities manager, handed him a carpet square and said, “Here, smell this.” Ravitz dutifully sniffed the carpet. “What do you smell?” Salah demanded. “I don’t smell anything,” Ravitz said. “Exactly!” said Salah triumphantly.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are approximately 85,000 known chemicals in the world. Twenty-one thousand of them are registered on the Chemical Substance Inventory mandated under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and only six are federally regulated. That means the buildings in which most of us spend roughly 90 percent of our waking hours are built using materials with unknown impacts on human health and performance.

building interior
Google’s office in Warsaw was designed thoughtfully and built with healthy materials

Turning those unknowns into knowns is the goal of the [e]Team, a division of Google Real Estate and Workplace Services (REWS), focused on health and sustainability (the “e” stands for environment, experience, ecology). “As a real estate team, buildings are our products,” says [e]Team lead Robin Bass. “We focus on the people in our buildings the way Google engineers focus on the user.”

Because of this, material health has been a long-term priority for Google. In 2004, Mary Davidge, a Silicon Valley designer, began working with Google on the design of our offices. Her work on Building 43 in the Googleplex was our first serious study of material health issues.

In 2009, Google hosted a talk featuring the Black Cloud project, a group of scientists, game theorists, game designers, and students from UC Berkeley. Google co-founder, Larry Page, attended the talk and afterward showed the grad students his handheld particle counter. “Larry held it to the ground,” Ravitz recalls, “then he pounded his hand on the carpet and all the numbers jumped up.”

googler riding a bike
Googlers ride bikes outside of Building 43

Larry’s particle counter was registering contaminants from numerous sources. Until that point, the REWS team focused on filtering particles from the air and reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). But the particle counter sparked a conversation about other contaminants from the building products that Googlers come into contact with. If you go into a grocery store and pick up a candy bar, you can check the ingredients and decide whether to buy and eat it. You can’t do the same at a hardware store, but the products you buy there can also impact your health.

This raised two big questions: how could Google source better products to put in buildings, and how could we improve access to this kind of information? In 2010, the REWS team started looking for answers.

As part of a push for greater industry transparency, the healthy materials program began with lists of chemicals to avoid and manufacturers to call. In hindsight it isn’t surprising that the initial program met with limited success. “It’s a very complicated onion to start peeling,” says Bass. “People spent hundreds of years making a lot of products without asking what was in everything they were making.”

An object as simple as a light fixture has hundreds of components, each with its own complicated supply chain, which might pass through numerous companies. And limited demand for healthier materials meant limited incentives for manufacturers to use them. The plan was to use Google’s market power to create those incentives. “We thought it would be a simple effort,” says Bass. “We’d ask manufacturers what’s in their stuff, they’d tell us, we’d move on. Instead people came back with a bunch of questions.”

Clearly something had to change. Transparency was a big challenge in two ways: one, manufacturers didn’t know much about what was in their products; two, what they did know, they didn’t want to, or have to, tell anyone. Google needed to create a way to engage the manufacturing world, and it was neither scalable nor effective to have a team of people only dedicated to making phone calls. The team had five people doing this globally at a time when the company was tripling in size. “We basically created a healthy materials call center,” says Bass. “It wasn’t sustainable. We needed a tool that could do the work for us.”

The team found a partner in the Healthy Building Network (HBN), a small NGO with deep knowledge in the space and a shared vision for the kind of change that was possible. HBN was developing Pharos, a tool which combines manufacturer transparency and independent research to provide in-depth health and environmental information about a wide range of building products. The Pharos Chemical and Material Library is a catalog that identifies health and environmental information for chemicals, polymers, metals, and other substances.

However, both Google and HBN were running into the same obstacles with manufacturers who weren’t accustomed to disclosing anything about their materials. We were asking them to stop using various chemicals and to publicly disclose their proprietary formulas. After meeting with resistance from manufacturers, the team took a step back, concluding that they needed to build and manage their own system.

After four years of work, in 2016, Google and HBN launched Portico, a first of it’s kind building materials analysis and decision-making tool. For the first time, everyone involved in a construction project, from owners and designers to contractors and manufacturers, could work together to leverage the data in Portico to find healthy materials and improve indoor environments. Specifically, any company hoping to sell products to Google could use a three-step framework to optimize for human health:

  1. Inventory of ingredients (What are you using?)
  2. Assessment of ingredients (What do we know about what you’re using?)
  3. Optimization of ingredients (How can you make those ingredients healthier?)

Here’s how it works. Designers working on Google building projects can enter the products they plan to use into Portico and if the product is in the system, existing records and a score are displayed. If a product is entered that hasn’t been logged, an information request goes out to the manufacturer. Portico asks the supplier to use three third-party standards that are central to the framework: the Health Product Declaration (HPD), GreenScreen For Safer Chemicals, and Cradle to Cradle Certification.

To date, Google has used Portico on over 28 million square feet of building space and catalogued more than 30,000 products, but the team is still working on scaling. Over the past year, HBN launched its Early Access Partners program, and Portico’s partners now include universities like Harvard University and Georgia Tech and real estate companies like Perkins+Will and the Durst Organization.

“Ultimately,” says Bass, “the aspiration of this work is to make sure that every product on every shelf of every hardware store in every corner of the world is free of toxins and adds value to people’s lives. This has never been an effort that Google has felt we could solve by ourselves. We need a thousand companies, architects, and manufacturers all working together on this.”