The Importance of Healthful Materials in Design for People

Cover image credit: Campbell Hall School of Performing Arts. Image courtesy of Richard Hammond @ Gensler

by Anthony Brower and in partnership with Allison Wilson, Jill Kurtz, Lindsey Piant Perez, Michele Oishi and Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

Prepared on behalf of the American Institute of Architects Large Firm Round Table Sustainability Committee

Buildings are fashioned by the choices of people who design and construct them. When completed, those choices impact the inhabitants for a lifetime, but how many of us realize the true scale of this impact. Over the course of my career I have designed more than 51 million square feet of commercial space for more than a half-million people. Now consider that I am just one of more than one hundred thousand architects in the US alone. Some may suggest that as an individual, I represent a small portion of the impact to be made by architects and builders, but I prefer to think that I have a half-million people counting on me.

Winston Churchill once observed the correlation between design and culture: “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” When this was said, the intent was to convey the use of space to accommodate large fluctuations of intended function; however a new stage of evolution is already upon the building industry. One that will certainly engage the health and wellness of the occupants of our buildings and requires we alter our philosophy and approach to design.

For the human body to operate effectively it needs proper nourishment, and just like the human body, buildings need to consider the ingredients of the products they come to embody. In order for us to put our design on the right diet, we need to start reading the labels and in doing so, promote our manufacturers who are beginning to understand the makeup of these products, as well as how they will work together as a completed system. Material transparency is a valuable first step toward designing healthier environments made with healthier products. Buildings that use healthy, sustainable materials can have a positive impact on people and the environment. Considering these realities, it is imperative that designers have the information needed to make truly informed decisions regarding the chemical makeup of the products we use. The key to delivering this value lies within the details of how each individual element contributes to the whole. To do this, we need to completely understand building product ingredients, so we can make educated choices that will inform the complete lifecycle of our designs and positively impact the people who experience them. We want people to live and work in environments made with healthful materials.

In today’s market of building products, manufacturers don’t always have a rigorous system set up to quantify material sourcing and content. While product transparency may be standard practice in the food industry—food producers are required to list ingredients in descending order—the chemical makeup of many materials used in buildings and interiors is still in its infancy when it comes to public disclosure.

This puts designers in a tough spot. I often wonder where each ingredient came from; what happened during multiple refinement stages along the way; were end of cycle products included and if so what are those elements made from? The interaction of chemicals within two products can have significant consequences, and just because each individual element within a type of flooring or coat of paint might be able to pass a chemical screening, that doesn’t mean the resulting assembly, which combines chemicals from several sources, will.

Creating a culture of full disclosure will take time and product transparency is just the first of several necessary steps. In lieu of defined system, designers can educate themselves on the different materials found in the marketplace. Choosing not to specify products whose main ingredient is on many of the various red lists is one way to begin. Tackling product types based on degree of human contact potential is another. Maybe we should focus on the interior finish materials installed at scale, such that we do as much right as we can by the half million people under our charge. Whatever direction works for you, consider a collaborative approach and a point of view that continues to move the conversation forward in a positive manner for the design community, manufacturers, clients and end users.

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