The late Finnish architect Alvar Aalto once observed that “modern architecture does not mean the use of immature new materials; the main thing is to refine materials in a more human direction.” The design industry has taken these words to heart, as evidenced by the trend toward wellness and its focus on the relationship between materials and human health.
“One thing is for sure, we have entered a new age of market transparency, and it has changed the conversation about building materials for good,” writes Bill Walsh, founder and executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Healthy Building Network (HBN), an organization focused on research and education of healthy building practices, in a blog post. “We are now having the right conversation about how to better understand the products we build with; how to make better, more informed decisions; and how to catalyze the resources of the building industry to promote the best environmental health outcomes and societal well-being for all.”
Global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will is at the forefront of this market transformation. In 2008, the visionary design practice ignited the industry movement toward healthier building materials with its Precautionary List, a widely referenced compilation of the most ubiquitous and problematic substances that people encounter in the built environment, created in partnership with HBN.
Hosted on its Transparency website, it allows design professionals to search for key substances and chemicals of concern using filters like project type, product type, and health and environmental impacts.
Since then, Perkins and Will has doubled down on its efforts to better understand the impact of materials used in projects by forming an in-house Materials Performance Lab—one of seven research labs at the firm.
Max Richter, LEED AP BD+C, associate and senior architect in Perkins and Will’s Vancouver studio, and Mary Dickinson, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, associate principal in Dallas, are co-directors of this lab, which includes members from multiple studios worldwide. Both Richter and Dickinson were intrigued by what they saw happening in the industry and encouraged by their firm’s vision for a healthier tomorrow.
Inspired by Innovation and Excellence
“I came to Perkins and Will specifically because of the commitment here to design excellence, the advocacy and a reputation and track record for delivering amazing sustainable projects,” Richter recalls. “I got very interested in the issues around materials and health, and was quite inspired by the Precautionary List that Perkins and Will released in 2008, and so when I joined in 2010, it was because I felt a real alignment with the direction of the company.”
During her interview process with multiple firms, Dickinson says she fell in love with Perkins and Will because of its innovative and visionary work. She joined in 2007 on the interiors side and became increasingly involved in sustainable design initiatives, which hadn’t quite caught on in Texas at the time—a fact that she was eager to change.
“In Texas when I started, sustainability wasn’t really catching on, and we felt laggard compared to where the Vancouver office was, and to me that was a challenge,” she says. “We wanted to represent our brand, we wanted to represent the firm, and we needed to pull ourselves up—and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since. We’ve really been pushing in regard to material health, health and wellness, sustainability and resilient design,” she says.
Beyond professional development, Dickinson recalls how she was personally motivated to push for market transformation while working on her first project, the Baylor Cancer Center in Dallas, where her mother was receiving cancer treatment.
At the time, she heard a presentation from Perkins and Will principal Robin Guenther, in which she posed a pointed question: “Shouldn’t we be able to design a cancer center without carcinogens?”
“It hit me in the heart first in terms of needing to take this on,” Dickinson says. “That’s when I realized that I had a much higher impact as a designer in terms of the occupants and the users of a space. That passion has grown, and now I’ve been able to match that up with how I can act, how I can affect change, and we’ve worked really hard on our process, and so I think that is really what kick started the motivation for me.”
Likewise, Richter recalls working on LEED projects in the early 2000s and being struck by the apparent contradiction between specifying materials that contained known carcinogens and a project’s sustainability goals.
When the Living Building Challenge launched in 2006, he was excited by the fact that for the first time, questionable materials were identified and eliminated from consideration in design projects. Firms like Perkins and Will were sending a message to the industry by declaring certain materials should not go into any building if sustainability is the objective.
“As architects and designers, we don’t think we should be using these [harmful] materials, and we need to take action, and we want to include this process of investigation and discussion with clients in all of our projects. That was really inspiring and made me want to join the firm,” he explains.
Putting Research into Practice
Following the launch of its Precautionary List, Perkins and Will realized the project would require regular maintenance and a dedicated staff to manage it.
“As the firm continued to invest in new research and new innovations, our research lab was brought together, and one of the instrumental parts of that research lab was to keep up the work of the Precautionary List, to keep the research and the sources up to date. It needed to continually evolve with the market and send market signals,” Dickinson recalls.
Perkins and Will has a firmwide mandate to review products against the Precautionary List for every project. The purpose of this requirement is twofold. First, it raises awareness and understanding of chemicals of concern; second, it provides a designer with the framework to make an alternate selection, after considering all factors relevant to design and performance and advising the owner.
When a designer learns that materials containing relevant quantities of substances of concern are being considered for a project, they are encouraged to inform their colleagues, and to consider that fact in the design process. The process of design can inspire deeper knowledge and healthier product selections regarding which material selection is right for a particular project and owner.
The Materials Performance Lab acts as a kind of support system for the firm’s studios around the world, with a team of more than 50 practitioners conducting research into materials and their impact on human health and the environment.
“Right now, one of the big questions is: How do you make the connections and make decisions when holding human health, environmental health and carbon in tandem to make product and material selections?” Dickinson says. “That’s something that we’ve been diving into recently.”
Richter notes that in addition to hosting monthly firmwide calls to answer questions and provide support, part of the Materials Performance Lab’s goal is to delve deeper into issues surrounding material health and publish the findings of its research.
“In the past, we’ve published reports on topics such as flame retardants, PVC, antimicrobial [products], etc. We’re in the planning stages of hopefully doing at least one, possibly two white papers next year,” he adds.
Taking Steps Toward Market Transformation
Compared to just five years ago, both Richter and Dickinson see increased interest in and support from private companies around health and wellness issues.
Much like in the early days of LEED when sustainable design wasn’t widely adopted, the industry is slowly but surely making the connection between materials and the health of building occupants—a necessary first step, but not the end goal.
“I think the next step is going to be looking at the implications for all the people in the full cycle of the product,” Richter explains. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you’re trying to make a really sustainable, healthy project and someone living around an area where products are getting manufactured could be [negatively] affected by the production of that material. So, we’ve taken a big step to get people thinking about and focused on health and wellness. But the next question we need to ask is: How can we broadly consider the health of everyone involved with the process?”
To answer it, Dickinson says organizations like the AIA Material Knowledge Working Group, as well as associations like ASID and IIDA will be “instrumental in being able to help create harmonization and some clarification around [third-party] certifications, product declarations and different ways of looking at products.”
In other words, viewing a product or material’s impact through different lenses of optimization such as carbon footprint, human health, environmental health and social impacts to understand the correlations between them will have a big impact on market transformation.
According to Richter, the most significant change in the industry to date has been the availability of transparent information about material health. With more tools and resources accessible than ever, designers and architects can now quickly find out if a product or material poses a health hazard.
“I think what is happening is that manufacturers are starting to react to transparency to make really inventive shifts in terms of products,” Richter says. “And you’re going to start seeing quite interesting innovations develop because of the amount of transparency in the market.”
Additional Resources on Healthy Materials
In addition to Perkins and Will’s Precautionary List 3.0, there are a number of tools and resources available to design practitioners to determine if a product contains chemicals of concern to human health. The Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree initiative contains a comprehensive list of resources, including certification programs, assessment tools, webinars, articles and other guides.
The goals of HomeFree are to raise awareness of toxic building materials and their associated health hazards, build the capacity of affordable housing practitioners to make informed decisions, and transform the current practice of affordable housing products specified to healthier options for everyone.
Learn more about HomeFree and to view the list of resources here.