Healthier Materials: Where to Begin?

Materiality, Sustainability
Melissa DeLacy, LEED AP BD+C
As architects we naturally want to avoid materials that are hazardous to human health and the environment, but the reality of understanding and tracking which building materials to specify or avoid is anything but simple. Unpacking this complex issue is an exercise in planning, pragmatism, and patience.​

Our first foray into developing a healthier materials program focused on gathering a preliminary base of information and gaining buy-in within the office. While this was an exciting start, without actionable goals and a clear strategy, our efforts to vet and integrate rating systems, red lists, declarations and other data quickly became unwieldy. This changed with Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol.

Published in 2018 by the American Institute of Architects, this well-researched guide helped to cut through the noise by identifying key resources and it provided the implementation framework we were missing. After signing on to the AIA 2030 Commitment in 2019, we began a broader examination of all our practices, including advancing our approach to healthier materials. Here are a few takeaways from our process.

Start Slow and Have a Roadmap

Probably the most critical step in developing JENSEN’s Healthier Materials Plan was defining our baseline materials goals. We wanted to aim high enough to have a measurable impact on occupant wellness. At the same time, to foster a shared commitment across our studio, it was important that our goals feel achievable and aligned with our design values. Early on we decided to focus on interiors (materials and furnishings within the building envelope) as a manageable first step that would offer the greatest benefits for building occupants. But this didn’t mean foregoing a more far-reaching vision. Throughout our plan we also identify future goals, so we always have an eye on where our roadmap is heading.

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Be Purposful and Practical

We defined a workable set of targets by starting with established green rating standards (primarily the USGBC’s LEED certification and the International Well Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard), then cross-referencing and combining them with other criteria for chemical transparency and chemical avoidance. For example, LEED requires at least 20 different permanently installed products to demonstrate chemical transparency (through a health product declaration or similar disclosure) whereas WELL, a green standard concerned largely on health and wellness, requires 50% by cost, with emphasis on interior finishes and furnishings. We combined these two to formulate our goal: To prioritize the collection of documentation for interior finishes and furnishings by requiring at least 20 of these to have compliant chemical transparency documents.

For chemical avoidance, applying the Living Building Challenge’s comprehensive “red list” of harmful chemicals seemed unachievable at this point. Instead, we borrowed from WELL’s Feature 25, a more manageable, targeted red list focused on reducing toxic materials used within a building. To start, we are prioritizing high-impact choices such as carpet, insulation and ceiling materials. Long-term, our goal is to continually expand our red list, eventually moving into waterproofing, building enclosures and other specification divisions.

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Build on Existing Practices

JENSEN’s outline specification, an itemized list of our preferred materials and products is a tremendous source of institutional knowledge as well as a document that inevitably touches every project we design. So it was a logical starting point for our Healthier Materials Database. The database is where we’re systematically capturing our analysis and information gathering, beginning with typically specified interior finishes and furnishings as well as other materials that have potentially large impacts on indoor air quality (such as sealants or adhesives). To be clear, this is an onerous task, but embedding our healthier materials database with our existing design process makes it more accessible to the office as a whole. With relevant health information in one place, we can begin to understand which products meet our goals and where we need to identify healthier alternatives that also fulfill our expectations for technical performance and aesthetic quality. The database becomes a platform the entire office can reference and contribute to.


Stay Flexible and Accountable

At JENSEN we enjoy working with a wide range of private, corporate, institutional, and nonprofit clients. While our plan aims to have all of our projects meet our baseline healthier materials goals, it also allows for a shift in focus or priorities depending on client aspirations, project type, or other factors. For example, if a client has a LEED mandate, those requirements would become a driver for our material choices. An independent school client might request a more rigorous look at indoor air quality, while a commercial kitchen may have added health code provisions to consider. But flexibility doesn’t mean a pass on accountability. Whether a project meets our targets or falls short, an assessment of how we can do better – advance our road map – is a critical part of our process.


Stop Waiting for the Moment

Advocating for the use of healthier building materials is a complex endeavor further complicated by myriad resources, lack of sufficient or uniform data, and a proliferation of new materials. At just three years old, the AIA protocols already would benefit from an update. Within this dynamic environment, the most important step is simply to start.

Our healthier materials plan is very much a work in process, and if we do it right, it always will be. The targets will keep advancing as we build our knowledge base and develop tools for fostering collaborative goal setting with clients, consultants and builders. But as more of our projects realize these goals, the more robust and nuanced our database and knowledge base becomes – and the greater impact we’ll have.

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