Feb 13, 2013
THEME: Sustainability, Wellness

Advocating for Transparency: Six Tips for Thinking About Building and Material Health

Perkins+Will has a strong commitment to promoting material health and transparency in the built environment, which includes creating the industry’s first free, universally accessible database of its kind. The Transparency website and accompanying Precautionary List outlines “…our belief that products that are harmful to humans, animals, and the environment should not be used in our projects, and to that end, we seek to inform our clients of available alternatives so as to permit them to make informed decisions.” 

This issue is crucial. Americans spend almost 90% of their time indoors, and the CDC reports that many indoor environments have pollutant levels of 2 to 5 times higher, and occasionally more than 100 times higher, than outdoor levels due to occupancy activities, building materials, and ambient conditions. The fact that building materials play such a large role in human health and wellbeing is more than enough cause for architects and designers to raise an eyebrow to this issue.

In addition to the negative effects that some building materials can have on humans, the materials we select can also have a profound impact on the natural environment. By evaluating the life cycle of a product or the carbon footprint it carries, we are better able to make holistic and informed decisions about the materials we use in our projects.

At the most recent Greenbuild, the subject of transparency in building materials came up frequently in the plenaries and education sessions, and similar topics have continued to resurface throughout the industry. Whether you have the philosophy of designing with nature, designing for human health, seeking innovation, or you simply value a transparent business model, this issue is important. 

At Perkins+Will, we’ve discovered there were many ways to increase engagement with the transparency movement; here are our top six.

1. Involve manufacturers early. Reaching out to manufacturers of products that you are researching for your projects is a critical step in understanding what the product is made of and all the technical information associated with it. At the same time, this will alert manufacturers that there is a growing demand from designers for this information, with the goal of enacting positive industry change in the long run. 

2. Change your thinking. Carrie Burke of Parabola Architecture + Industrial Design spoke at Greenbuild about focusing on material health as a way to get back to what is timeless about architecture. She asked the audience to envision a world without joint fillers or grout, which certainly inspired me to think about materials differently. Our goal of creating healthy buildings and interior spaces can be dramatically enhanced by designing in new ways, from new problem-solving perspectives, and by not always relying on the same products from project to project.

3. Step up to the challenge. Architecture 2030 has issued a challenge for products akin to their challenge for buildings as a whole. The 2030 Challenge for Products emboldens architects and designers to specify building products that meet a reduction goal with their embodied carbon footprint. Francesca Desmarais, the Director of the 2030 Challenge for Products, noted that 6% of all US energy consumption comes from building construction and materials. These materials are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the various stages of their life-cyles, and despite this seeming like a small percentage, there is a great opportunity for the design and construction industries to positively impact CO2 reductions through material selections. 

4. Look at the life cycle. Evaluating the complete life-cycle of a product helps us decide where to focus our efforts at reducing the project’s environmental footprint. Jennifer O’Connor with the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute noted that designers are in the best position to decide about products after asking for more information. All designers should ask manufacturers for Environmental Product Declarations or about Life Cycle Assessments in order to better evaluate a product. Everything from raw material extraction to recycling, reuse, or disposal affects a product’s life cycle.

5. Learn from others. Tools such as the Precautionary List, the Health Product Declaration, and the Athena Impact Estimator are just a few ways to start gathering your own knowledge base on the materials currently found in the built environment. These resources are critical to defining your own design philosophy and the goals of your users and clients.

6. Have patience and be persistent. Transparency is a new frontier for those involved in the built environment. It is important to remember that this process, like any other industry shift, takes time. The more architects and designers that ask questions and seek collaborative partnerships with product manufacturers, the easier it will be to access and share this knowledge in the future. 

We are encouraged to see more and more designers, manufacturers, and clients addressing issues of transparency and specifically of material health.  Why does the issue of designing with healthy materials and increasing transparency about the composition of our building products matter to you?

Written by Haley Russell

  1. Duane Pinnix
    5:16 pm on February 20, 2013 | Reply

    Great topic for the future of our industry. We look forward to the day that manufactures openly support the sharing of information critical to successful development of energy models. Architects do a great job of developing options using new materials, but gaining good technical data on the thermal performance of these materials remains a struggle.

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  1. […] Advocating for transparency. Haley Russell, an interior designer at Perkins+Will in Washington, D.C., explores how to build material health and transparency in the built environment. […]

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