Suzanne Drake and Mary Dickinson lead Perkins+Will’s Material Performance Lab, through which they distill the latest healthy-materials research and share the findings across the firm. As interior designers, they’re embedded in project teams, helping to ensure that sustainable ideas remain core to our practice. And as advocates, they develop white papers based on their work, speak at conferences on their evolving industry, and lead firmwide initiatives, such as Transparency, that help push manufacturers to find non-toxic alternatives. Together, they are working to redefine how buildings affect human health.
Last month, with Suzanne in our San Francisco office and Mary in our Dallas office, they spoke by phone, and I got to listen in.
Suzanne Drake: So, Mary, how did you get into this field of ours?
Mary Dickinson: Material health was really bred into me during my time at Auburn University. We had these urban studios where we interacted with the architecture group. Students go into the surrounding counties and work with those who aren’t as fortunate, in terms of housing, and build homes that make a massive impact. The intricacies of that process were really interesting. I also got to know some impassioned architects who were working in sustainability. Eventually, I started pushing the interiors department on the topic, and of course material health became part of those conversations. It’s amazing how far we’ve come since then, and it’s only been ten years.
When I graduated, I was looking for work with a firm that was known for innovation. So immediately Perkins+Will was in the crosshairs, because I could extend what I’d done in school. How about you, how’d you get here?
SD: My whole career has relied on quite a bit of luck. I only applied to two colleges, University of Florida and Florida State, because my parents couldn’t afford out of state tuition. So I was accepted to both schools, but I didn’t realize until then that FSU didn’t have an architecture program. That’s how much research I did. But I ended up at UF at a time when there was a very highly regarded architecture department. Like I said, dumb luck. And then during school, I switched over to interiors.
MD: It’s kind of funny that you rolled the dice for college, maybe that’s one of the reasons we get along so well. I applied to both veterinary school and interior design school, and decided that whichever letter I got back first would define my destiny. So, if we’re letting chance set our own path, what about after school? Did you have a set notion that you would go into sustainability and material health?
SD: No, career-wise, the only plan I had after graduating was to take the NCIDQ and get registered in whatever state I ended up in. But I was very focused on getting into the commercial design world. I spent a few years in different markets before I ended up at Perkins+Will’s Atlanta office, doing tenant improvements. I was becoming aware of the idea of a life cycle for products, and that products have a bigger impact than we had assumed. That was all simmering in the back of my brain.
In the early 2000s, in that office, healthcare was the bread and butter. Because it was booming and they needed an extra hand, I got to work with architects and interior designers who’d been doing healthcare for decades. That was when I became aware of healthy-material advances. When I read about issues with PVC specifically, I started to combine all these ideas. And it was like a thunderbolt when I realized how differently we could be working. It became clear to me that healthy materials are the interiors version of sustainability. By the way, even now, no one has fully addressed that. Architects have energy and water use, and so on, and people in interiors had never felt like they had a parallel impact. Especially if you’re just going by LEED, and contributing to the recycled-content credit, well, that used to be about it.
What about you, when you graduated? Were you specific to healthcare at that point, or were you doing everything?
MD: I came in specifically on healthcare, and it was really beneficial. It teaches you things. In a healthcare setting, we have to make sure we aren’t removing a chemical that will cause the product to fail—stain retardants, for example. We’ve learned the cleaning staff rarely gets there in time to prevent permanent staining. So instead of using some stronger treatment, we specify a wipeable fabric as opposed to a knit. Designing differently like that often solves multiple issues. So when I started to work in other disciplines, taking ideas from one team to cross-pollinate the others, there was a lot of growth.
SD: I think it’s so much easier to interface with various interior designers and manufacturers in diverse markets after working across so many disciplines.
MD: Well, yeah, healthcare is the most stringent of the stringent, right? After that, the other disciplines seem…I don’t want to say easier, but things can be done in a snap. Were there any signal moments, early in your career?
SD projects: At the beginning, I was just absorbing these issues, and applying the information wherever I could, although not in any concerted way. Soon I started doing really concerted materials palettes and tracking everything on massive spreadsheets showing all the different criteria and health issues. When I arrived in our San Francisco office, the office had healthcare projects in California—LPCHS, for instance—but no dedicated healthcare team. So I had to figure out how to apply this information to other market types that I was assigned to, like S&T and tenant improvements. Moving outside the healthcare realm forced me to broaden my thinking. Materials health is not just for sick people and babies. What about you? When did it all come together?
MD: I came to the firm in 2007. In 2008, we started our effort on the new cancer center at Baylor University, which was a pretty big project for the Dallas office. At the same time, my mom got
diagnosed with cancer, and I was going down to the Baylor Cancer Center with her for treatments and doctor’s appointments. So I got to understand, from a patient’s standpoint, what they were going through—how do you design for a patient’s eyes when they’re going through an infusion? At the same time, the firm was producing its first version of the Precautionary List, and I had become a sustainable leader. To echo your sentiment, hearing about the list, as a material designer, this immediately felt like an area where I could make a difference professionally. Not to mention personally. I couldn’t just sit there, with someone going through treatment, while designing a cancer center that might actually cause cancer. I went a little overboard when I found out about the Precautionary List. I was ready to throw every offending sample from the library, send emails to every representative, that kind of thing. But there’s a better way, and it’s about building relationships. That began a decade-long dialogue with manufacturers. I ask them what we’re doing in the industry around material health. I tell them we’re ready to push the limits, as designers.
SD: I think it would be really cool to ask a manufacturer’s rep how they got where they are. A lot of times I’ve talked to reps in various positions. Some say, “whatever, we’ll make what we can sell.” But others are learning about all this stuff at the same time that we are, and understand that we’re all in the same boat. But they’re fighting a different battle than we are. Ours is only external, because our firm supports this effort, but theirs might not. There may be a moment where a rep has to ask the firm, “wait, are our values actually aligned?” But the values of Perkins+Will are aligned with my own. I feel supported to do whatever we need to do, all we need to focus on is logistics.
MD: Hey, wait, didn’t you write a book? How did you do that?
SD: Well, like anyone, I always thought the idea of a writing a book was always pretty cool. My dad went through this whole thing after he retired where he started to recreate himself. He started blogging, and wrote a post every day for a year, and ended up turning those posts into a book. So I said, “Oh my gosh, if my dad can do it, I can do it. I need to one-up my dad here!” Then in real life, the recession was happening, and I got laid off from that other firm I worked for. In the interim, I was picking up freelance work, and was getting concerned that I wouldn’t be a full-time interior designer after all. As if they didn’t need as many interior designers anymore! Well, Plan B had already been percolating on the side for a few years—I’d started a business, Your Green Advisor. It was more of a lifestyle-based approach to sustainability consulting, and geared towards small businesses. A big firm can afford to hire somebody like Perkins+Will, but a small mom-and-pop shop, or a large household…who can you turn to? So to establish my credentials, I wrote EcoSoul while I was underemployed.
SD: Having a partner in crime has made my job so much more satisfying. We’re both kind of creating our own paths. We’re not exactly following a clearly designed job that was exactly as advertised.
MD: It’s hard to imagine finding a better match. Our collaboration has been so helpful for the Material Performance Lab because we have different strengths and dive into each topic differently. You’re really good at research. You’ve been at the forefront of our work with white papers, pulling together all these various parts of our industry and finding the gaps, then working to fill them in. I’m a good match because I come at things from the project management side, and develop viable tools that work for teams.
SD: You are the reality check. You determine what we need to work on next, especially during the launch of the Transparency site. Any deep dive is mine, because I love to pick one thing and go into the weeds with it. It’s hard to squeeze that into the hours I have each day, but we’re just so devoted to this stuff that it doesn’t really matter.