Why Materials Matter: At Home Education
During the past 15 months many of us have been stuck at home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Some of us began sourdough starters, other learned music, and many escaped into favorite books and tv shows. Personally I found myself questioning all the objects, furniture, and just stuff in my small apartment! Was it safe? Was it healthy? What about the paint, the floors, or the furniture? Through WRNS’s scholarship program I purchased the AIAU’s 5 part series Materials Matter; where leaders in the industry introduce the history, complexity, and sustainable impacts of the materials in the built environment. My goal was to answer the question: after a pandemic, how can designers make the healthies material choices?
“Often we tend to think of climate change and human health as separate things…but they are inextricably combined,” says Nadav Malin of BuildingGreen. The building industry has a lack of information about the safety of materials and their effect on the human body. Even when we do know of a dangerous product, or chemical of concern, it can take incredible social or political power to have it removed. Asbestos is an example of a carcinogen which took decades to be removed from the building environment, even though we knew it was dangerous. Alicia Deniels Uhlig, of the International Living Building Institute, emphasizes that, “there is a significant lack of information on building materials in today’s industry…Material transparency is fundamentally important to everyone, whether you’re an architect, contractor, or building owner.” There is evidence of bio accumulating chemicals in our bloodstream right now and architects have an incredible opportunity to limit occupant exposure to chemicals of concerns. Looking around my apartment, with second hand furniture and peeling historic wood floors, I began to wonder what chemical are in these products…is that information even accessible…and did anyone think of investigating?
”Disclosure is about exposing information, and assessment is about interpreting that information for better choices,” says Nadav Malin. Environmental Product Declarations, EPDs, and Health Product Declarations, HPDs, are comprehensive sources to understand a product effect on the environment and what they are composed of. However, EPDs and HPDs are only “nutrition labels” and is not a third party judge of whether a product is “good” or “bad”. They can be paired with the EPA’s Chemicals of Concern list and the International Living Future Institute’s Red List which highlights chemicals that should be avoided at all cost. Green Building Certifications, like GreenGuard and the Living Product Challenge certify a product based on set criteria and developed standards. Certifications like these area good places to look for approved products. Hearing this information got me thinking of the possibility of building an internet search engine plug-in that would filter out products without these defined criteria. How can we influence the building industry to highlight products, resources, and systems that are putting human health first?
In response to the COVID19 pandemic, I believe our society is eager for new insights into public health. As a design professional I was excited to learn what resources are out there to identify these chemicals of concern, products to avoid, and processes to makes the best decision moving forward. A surprising realization was that, until recently, the industry had not looked at human health + sustainable design, in a holistic way. Why have architects and designers been complicate for so long? Moving forward, materials that meet 3rd party certifications of disclosure and assessment will be the priority. Without adapting the industry to acknowledge and implement change around human health in the built environment, we are not only harming our clients, but the public, and the environment.