The AIA has identified the “intersection of design and human health” as a priority for leadership within the architectural profession during the next few years (American Institute of Architects, 2013). While this intersection involves many issues, a central question is: How does the selection of construction materials contribute to the well-being of building occupants?
This question reflects a growing recognition among architects that many chemicals in building materials can have a negative impact on human health. While we would like to depend on regulatory agencies to assure us of the safe use of chemicals in building materials, it is apparent that the large number of chemicals used in industry far exceeds the government’s capacity for testing and monitoring the health effects of every product before it enters the market.
In December Payette’s Architectural Forum hosted “A Healthy Transparency” to begin a dialogue on how the firm might approach chemicals of concern in buildings. Presenters Andrea Love and Greta Eckhardt offered background and examples to support discussion on the following thesis:
1. Architects do have a responsibility to participate in a process that minimizes use of chemicals known to have deleterious effect on health of humans and the environment
2. We can start to address this topic by prioritizing the avoidance certain chemicals or classes of chemicals with documented health effects.
Many constructive ideas were shared, illustrating a general concern about this topic at Payette. The following paragraphs highlight some themes that emerged.
Many forum participants support the idea of requesting disclosure of the chemical composition of products we specify. This is a logical first step and it is consistent with the approach adopted by USGBC for LEED Version 4.0. Health Product Declarations are a formalized means for reporting the chemical composition of a manufactured product. While we may not be prepared to evaluate each chemical in an HPD, it is hoped that the simple act of asking for the information will encourage manufacturers to examine their industrial processes to see where they can reduce harmful effect of the materials they produce.
Payette could also establish a list of chemicals to avoid. Rather than adopting a long list of chemicals that we don’t have the background to evaluate, we can begin by prioritizing certain chemicals for which documentation on health effects is readily available. For example, flame retardant chemicals have been in the news, accompanied by reports of their health effects. Also in the news, FDA has recently questioned the safety of antimicrobial additives in consumer goods, based on scientific studies. The Cradle-to-Cradle certification process has prioritized certain chemicals that are carcinogens, mutagens or endocrine disruptors. By starting with “low-hanging fruit” we can make progress without taking on research that is time-consuming and beyond our area of expertise.
While discussion focused on the effect of chemicals on the health of building occupants, we recognize that chemicals used in the manufacture of construction materials may also have an impact on the health of industrial workers, residents of manufacturing and resource extraction regions, as well as on the health of other living creatures. Avoiding chemicals with negative environmental effects should be on our list of long-term goals.
CHEMICALS + PRODUCT PERFORMANCE
In our practice, we select and specify construction materials primarily to serve particular functions on our projects. For chemical ingredients in products that are essential to performance of these functions, extensive research may be required to identify alternatives that will perform while reducing negative impact on human health.
CLIENTS + CHEMICALS
A number of our clients have expressed concern about the health effects of chemicals in the built environment. In particular, a representative of one of our healthcare clients was a presenter at a recent panel discussion on chemicals of concern at BSA. Another healthcare client is reportedly developing a new process for evaluating chemicals in materials used in construction at their facilities. Projects designed for these clients can offer a welcome opportunity for us to collaborate in identifying materials that optimize a healthful environment within the buildings we design. Building on such experience we could proceed to engage other clients in an informed dialogue about the topic.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
At some institutions we work with, we may find that the operations staff will oppose change, particularly where changes in construction materials may require new maintenance procedures. Our ability to back up our product selection decisions with health-based documentation will assist us in moving forward with new materials. Good documentation will also be useful in addressing the pressure to accept substitutions during bidding and construction of our projects.
ROLE OF THE ARCHITECT
Based on the discussion at the Forum, I suggest that Payette pursue the following activities as we seek to collaborate with our clients to design buildings that best support the well-being of their occupants.
- Promote awareness of issues regarding impact on human health of chemicals in construction materials.
- Require disclosure of chemical ingredients in construction materials.
- Respond proactively to clients’ goals for health of building occupants and the environment.
- Prioritize chemicals based on research into the presence in buildings of commonly recognized chemicals of concern.
- Collaborate with science-based professionals to identify and give preference to alternatives that perform their intended functions with minimal negative impact on human health.
Are we concerned about chemicals?