In America, every person is considered innocent until proven guilty. When it comes to our built environment, though, you might reconsider assuming that every substance used is benign.
At a panel recently held at our Boston office, Heather Henriksen, Director of the Harvard University Office of Sustainability, explained why. “The U.S. has evaluated the public health impacts of relatively few of the 80,000 industrial chemicals available,” she said. “In this country, you legally don’t have to prove something is safe unless it goes into your mouth.” Pausing, she added, “I find that terrifying.”
Henriksen’s clarion call for greater disclosure was echoed by other speakers at the event, which marked the launch of Perkins+Will’s revamped Precautionary List of hazardous materials and retooled Transparency site for material research.
Robin Bass, lead of Google’s [e] Team, said the tech giant became interested in material health when its engineers began asking about the funny smells in its new facilities. Bass’s group, which oversees health and sustainability issues at Google’s real-estate holdings, was stymied by the lack of environmental information available on products and finishes. “For a data company, this was not going to fly,” she said of the inconclusive answers. “We could not take this garbage to our C-Suite, telling them that our program is based on half-baked ideas.”
Throwing its weight—and consumer buying power—behind material transparency, Google has since partnered with Perkins+Will, Healthy Building Network, Harvard University, and the Durst Organization, among others, on Portico. A one-stop-source for building-product information, the digital database, which is still in closed beta testing, aggregates the research of all of the partner organizations, noting material ingredients, hazards, and concerns.
According to Healthy Building Network founder Bill Walsh, the time has come for the collective effort. “Getting environmental information shouldn’t be that difficult, but it is,” he told the crowd. “We’re at a plateau, but now we are moving forward.”
Perkins+Will’s Precautionary List, which debuted 10 years ago, has been instrumental to the charge. Suzanne Drake and Mary Dickinson, co-leaders of the firm’s material performance research lab, took attendees through the updated list, which is the cornerstone of the Transparency site. Now users can filter by substance name, project area, product, and environmental and carcinogen hazards; they also can access a wide range of resources on the site, from primers for novices to in-depth information for the more experienced.
Robin Guenther, Principal at Perkins+Will and an expert in sustainable health care, noted the firm’s longtime commitment to using sustainable materials. Referencing the natural wood and brick used in its groundbreaking Crow Island school, created in 1940, she told the crowd, “As architects and specifiers, we create the future of the built environment. Through specifying healthy products, we can influence the marketplace.”
Not only can we, but we must.