UCSF Sustainability Stories


Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, March 2018


UCSF Incorporates the Living Building Challenge Red List into Nine New Buildings

Photo Source: UCSF Brand Library

Gail Lee, UCSF’s Sustainability Director, is working hard to get UCSF ahead of the curve of regulations when it comes to avoiding toxic materials in UCSF’s furniture. You might not realize it, but furniture often includes a range of toxic chemicals hidden in its glues, glosses, fabrics, and foams. Nasty components such as halogenated flame retardants, phthalates, formaldehyde, perfluorochemicals (PFCs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can impact the health and well-being of both building occupants and workers responsible for manufacturing the materials. Occupant and worker exposure to such chemicals raises health concerns, especially for pregnant women and children, as these chemicals have been associated with health impacts such as endocrine disruption, lower IQ, reduced fertility, and cancer.

With UCSF having a mission focused on advancing health worldwide and eight new building projects coming online this year, aligning its purchasing power with its commitment to global health is a powerful strategy. UCSF will be investing over $40 million in furnishings with these large, new projects, which include two existing buildings, Mission Hall and Clinical Sciences Building (CSB), and seven new construction projects: Weil Neurosciences (B23A), UCSF Center for Vision Neurosciences (B33), Precision Cancer Medicine Building (PCMB), Minnesota Street housing, a new child care center, 2130 Third Street, and the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Research Building.

It is exciting to report that the two existing buildings and seven new buildings have agreed to embrace the Living Building Challenge Red List for the furnishings. The Red List, created by the International Living Future Institute, is known as a rigorous standard for the built environment; it includes the worst-in-class materials prevalent in the building industry. While the Living Building Challenge is focused on greening entire buildings, the Red List can also be applied to furniture. According to Lee, the Office of Sustainability got pushback on applying the Red List to all building materials, in part because the list includes PVC (polyvinyl chloride), found in piping, which does not yet have an affordable replacement. However, there are safer and affordable alternatives for flooring and wall and window coverings. The remodel of Mission Hall is the first building to apply the Red List vetting process.

“This is great news because the Living Building Challenge prohibits many chemicals of high concern,” exclaimed Veena Singla, Ph.D., Associate Director, Science & Policy at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), upon hearing the news. “I’m excited about this because a typical couch can contain two pounds of toxic flame-retardant chemicals—together these capital projects will likely avoid many tons of unnecessary and harmful chemicals,” said Dr. Singla, who has been actively working to get flame retardants out of furniture. See an update on UCSF’s work on flame retardants here.

Innovative Partnership: One Workplace

Implementing a strategy to require furnishings to comply with the Red List is a challenge, in part because it can take time and purchasing power to get manufacturers to reveal the makeup of their products and to create the market demand for manufacturers to produce new products that avoid chemicals of concern. UCSF has created an innovative partnership and program to tackle the challenge.

Through a partnership with One Workplace, which partners with over 700 furniture manufacturers, UCSF now has access to the leading providers of office furniture that incorporate sustainability, including Steelcase. The contract provides UCSF discounts to a range of manufacturers who will be vetted by One Workplace to ensure that the products identified comply with the Red List. These larger projects force vendors, who want UCSF’s business, to be more transparent about the materials they are using.

By joining forces with four major healthcare systems, and several of Silicon Valley’s biggest technology companies, who are also working with One Workplace, UCSF is helping to create the market demand for products that avoid chemicals of concern. The four major healthcare system clients are all involved in the Healthier Hospital Initiative, which works with manufacturers to identify furniture and fabrics that meet the Healthier Hospital challenge to eliminate the use of many Red List chemicals. “By demanding and implementing rigorous standards like the Red List, the industry will evolve and offer greener and more sustainable materials,” added Severine Secret from Go2 Design Studio, a consultant hired by One Workplace to advise on implementing sustainability criteria and the Red List into projects.

Lee summed it up by explaining, “We have a great contract with One Workplace. It provides great pricing and makes it easy to meet the Red List criteria when it comes to selecting new furniture.”

The Vetting Process

On a project-by-project basis, One Workplace is analyzing the hundreds of components that go into furniture. Some manufacturers have had their products Red List Free certified, while others need to be vetted by One Workplace. They gather information from manufacturers, review certifications, and determine compliance with the Red List.

According to Terry de la Cuesta, IIDA, LEED AP, EDAC and Executive Director Healthcare Environments at One Workplace, furniture products meeting the Red List requirements must have an ingredient disclosure of an acceptable format to be used in the Living Building Challenge project. Steelcase is doing it on an as-needed basis. “The business case for labeling isn’t there yet since they invest so heavily in a wide range of furniture-focused sustainability initiatives and certifications,” explained de la Cuesta. Most major healthcare furniture manufacturers have a published list of the items that meet the Healthier Hospital goals.   

A big challenge to meeting the Red List is that it requires avoiding PVC plastic components, which can be difficult to avoid. Another barrier is cost; however, due to the volume of purchases possible through One Workplace, the cost is going down. Keep in mind that the products offered by One Workplace are not like your basic office chair from a chain store that might break down in a few years; they offer high-quality products that are a long-term investment at comparable prices.

Call to Action: Use One Workplace for Furniture Purchases

If you are shopping for regularly used items for your office such as task chairs or tables, the UCSF community can purchase these items from One Workplace through BearBuy. One Workplace is under contract with UCSF to procure discounts from manufacturers that have committed to produce Red List-free products. They feature Steelcase and other high-quality furnishings at a group discount to UCSF.

Learn More

Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment
(PHRE) Blog

Pediatric Environmental Health Web Tool Kit

Green Science Policy Institute

“You Asked. Can My Couch Give Me Cancer?”

Center for Environmental Health

Environmental Working Group