Interior Chemistry

Feb. 21, 2014
Advances in science and technology are changing materials at a rapid pace, but we designers can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

There is no question that science and technology have afforded us tremendous improvements in overall quality of life, including the materials we use in the built environment. Today’s products are more durable, colorfast, lightweight, affordable, and efficient than ever before—but at the same time, we need to be aware of the inherent risks in the chemicals used to achieve these results, and we need to be able to accurately evaluate the safety of the products we specify for clients.

seeing red
Along those lines, I recently attended a presentation at the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) Conference led by Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services Green Team Lead, Anthony Ravitz. He described the company’s new office building in Mountain View, Calif., which is being built with the goal of creating the healthiest work environment possible.

As I listened to the material choices presented by the project, I was reminded of the frustrations I face in my own practice, including the plethora of so-called Red Lists. Every organization and green rating system including the Living Building Challenge, LEED v4, Pharos, Perkins+Will and, now, even Google, seems to have its own bulleted list of “worst-in-class” materials and chemicals that should be avoided in healthy interior environments.

With all of these lists, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where they overlap, but the potential gaps among the lists concern me even more. How does a product get on one list and not another? How are the specific risks determined, and how should these lists impact the design process?

Amid all this confusion, one thing has become crystal clear to me: health and sustainability knowledge should not be considered proprietary information used to gain a competitive advantage. All of us should share what we know. After all, that’s what we’re demanding of product manufacturers, right? As Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

In the end, transparency in material ingredients must be a partnership between manufacturers and designers. I’m convinced that when we work together, anything is possible. During the past 21 years, I’ve seen many product manufacturers successfully undertake environmental and safety initiatives after pressure from the design world, proving that we are a vital part of the change equation.

As just one example, I recall a commercial textile manufacturer who, in the early days of the Cradle to Cradle certification program and under pressure from interior designers, changed the chemistry of its dyes after the amount of toxins, chemicals and pollution it was discharging came to light. The river near the plant had long been polluted with those chemicals, but after changes in formulation and process, the wastewater returned to the river was cleaner than it was extracted. This was the beginning of manufacturers responding to market pressure to do the right thing, and showcases the positive outcomes that come with engineering advances and product transparency.

asid in the conversation
As a primary driver in this conversation, ASID has long been pushing for sustainable interior design. Our organization was instrumental in the development of LEED for Commercial Interiors, and more recently, the ASID Foundation made a significant investment in the development of Health Product Declarations. (For more on HPDs, see Hot Topics for Materials in Healthcare in the November 2013 issue of I&S.)

These are meaningful achievements, but we must strive to do more. I believe that we need more evidence-based design that showcases the connection between healthy indoor environments and positive outcomes, and research that evaluates the role materials play in overall human health. The University of Minnesota in particular is working to bridge design and public health research to determine ways the built environment can make people healthy instead of sick, but we need to encourage more to take up the topic.

We now have the capacity to create energy models of buildings and evaluate how daylighting can impact mental health and productivity; we should be able to model indoor air quality before occupancy in the same way. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us. We make a choice every day to design spaces that will make people healthy or not—the power of one better choice every day can be profound. Share your knowledge and work together to leave a legacy of a healthy planet for the future generations yet to be born.

Rachelle Schoessler Lynn, FASID, CID, LEED Fellow AP BD+C, is the national president of ASID and a senior associate with MSR in Minneapolis. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the web at asid.org.

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