In designing more sustainable buildings, architects should pay closer attention to the materials they use.
Carpets, flooring, paneling, paint and other products often carry toxins or unrecyclable materials such as plastics. Greener alternatives exist, but the design industry has embraced them slowly.
The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the American Institute of Architects and design firms have begun addressing the issue of materials. The USGBC’s Minnesota chapter recently held a quarterly meeting on “human health and materials.” The AIA offers an “architecture and design materials pledge” that many sustainably inclined interior designers want their colleagues to incorporate into their practices.
USGBC associate director Brent Suski said human health is essential to the organization’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate program. “Because we spend nearly 90% of our time indoors, buildings are much more than just spaces to live, work and play,” he said. “They have the power to make people healthier and happier and to help save our planet.”
He said that green building strategies help create better environments for building occupants and construction workers while reducing toxic exposure in the supply chain.
Commitments and reporting systems are a big part of reducing the amount of less-than-stellar building materials now part of the construction pipeline. Associations like the USGBC and other nonprofits offer reams of recommendations on how to clean up materials. Reporting systems analyze which products to avoid and which to reward with sales for their low environmental impact.
Several speakers addressed the issues and challenges of finding and using greener materials.
BKV Group sustainability director Rachelle Schoessler-Lynn addressed the AIA pledge, which is a bit of a primer for any discussion of materials in architecture. The pledge instructs professionals to make decisions based on health, equity, the climate, sustainable ecosystems and the circular economy.
Typically, the most significant impact architects can have on building occupants’ health is selecting sustainable interior materials, Schoessler-Lynn said. Architects and designers should seek materials with low carbon impacts by studying “environmental product declarations” and “lifecycle assessments” data, starting with analysis of the highest impact items such as structure and wallboard.
The next step, ecosystem health, favor products practicing restorative soil, water and air practices and “thoughtful” supply chain management. The following organizations offer certifications and suggestions for good product choices: Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, Forest Stewardship Council and the Living Product Challenge.
Schoessler-Lynn said the final two categories would be less familiar to practitioners. Social health and equity identify companies with products that ensure human rights and positive community impacts in their operations and supply chains.
The circular economy, meanwhile, rewards reusing existing buildings, choosing materials that can be recycled, or providing take-back programs in which corporations collect products when they cease to function.
She conceded that trying to meet the pledge’s recommendations while selecting materials for projects looks daunting but starting small may be the best strategy.
“I say just do one thing, do one thing every day, or every week or every month,” she said. “Learn something new and see if you can find a spot where you can at least get one of the pledges started.”
Healthy Building Network has been a resource for the industry since 2000, offering data tools, research and education on building materials. Chief executive officer Gina Ciganik said she has worked to simplify the organization’s highly technical data so a wider audience can understand it.
The organization created “red to green” guidelines for material selection. Red means bad, orange indicates reduce it, yellow suggests good and green is best. Trying to avoid red products initially will lead to a less toxic building throughout the materials’ selections, Ciganik said.
Data visualization available through Healthy Building Network and other tools should greatly assist in selecting low-carbon materials, she said. But plenty of challenges remain. The building network will release a report in September showing that of the 36 affordable housing projects it studied, most materials used fell into the red zone.
While the climate future may look grim and the erasure of toxic materials seemingly impossible when so many manufacturers rely on petrochemicals, Ciganik’s staff tell her to stay optimistic.
“We’re on a path to planetary health,” she said. “We believe it’s solvable.”
MSR Sustainable Practice Design Director Simona Fischer said her firm decided to reframe its materials’ library product categories instead of products. Using the example of flooring, she said creating a hierarchy of what’s more sustainable allows for quicker elimination of the worst options. To help fellow architectural firms and designers, MSR Design created a sustainable materials action packet and a sustainability tracker that are downloadable from its website.
Another valuable item, Fischer said, has been a material library document given to manufacturers outlining the firm’s goals for health and carbon in addition to what certifications they like to see.
“We end up in a lot of conversations where people say, well, it’s not possible to disclose this kind of thing,” she said. “When you have a document, you can say, ‘Here’s what we’ll take in our library, and here’s what we won’t,’” Fischer said. “It becomes a very easy process for us to screen (companies).”
Speakers brought up two continuing challenges. Many architects and designers have favored companies and products and struggle to try a new supplier. Manufacturers selling greener products will be unable to survive without sales, said Lisa Britton, director of sales and marketing at Industrial Louvers, Inc.
Britton said designers often write specifications for green products but do not enforce them. The result is they do not buy materials “that have positive environmental attributes,” she said. “We think if they did, we’d probably be making more choices in the right direction.”
Secondly, the panel noted that the LEED certification allows a few points for healthy materials. Many people do not even take advantage of health credits after earning them, Ciganik said. The answer could be making modest changes that offer additional credits earlier in the design process.
Healthy materials will become more popular when more developers, builders and clients demand them. Ciganik has heard a desire to learn more about restorative materials from hospitals, childcare centers, design studios and other organizations. “I believe Minnesota can find the path forward” and stop using toxic products, she said.