Architects are urged to prioritize sustainable materials due to the prevalence of toxins and non-recyclable components in products like carpets, flooring, paneling, and paint, despite the availability of greener alternatives
In the pursuit of designing eco-friendly buildings, architects must shift their focus towards the materials they incorporate. Carpets, flooring, paneling, paint, and various construction products often harbor toxins or unrecyclable elements, such as plastics. Despite the availability of sustainable materials, the design industry has been slow to adopt them.
Notably, organizations like the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and several design firms are now addressing the critical issue of sustainable materials in architecture. The USGBC’s Minnesota chapter recently organized a quarterly meeting centered on “human health and materials,” reflecting a growing awareness of the importance of healthy building materials. The AIA offers an “architecture and design materials pledge” that environmentally-conscious interior designers are encouraging their peers to integrate into their practices.
Prioritizing Human Health and Sustainable Materials in Building Design
Brent Suski, Associate Director of the USGBC, emphasized the significance of human health in their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate program. He emphasized that buildings, given that people spend nearly 90% of their time indoors, have the power to enhance human well-being, contribute to a healthier planet, and reduce toxic exposure in supply chains.
To reduce the prevalence of subpar building materials in construction, commitments and reporting systems are playing a pivotal role. Organizations such as the USGBC and other nonprofits offer extensive recommendations on how to select environmentally friendly materials. Reporting systems help analyze which products to avoid and which to reward for their low environmental impact.
Speakers at sustainability director Rachelle Schoessler-Lynn, BKV Group, delved into the AIA pledge, which guides professionals to make decisions based on health, equity, climate impact, sustainable ecosystems, and the circular economy. The most significant impact architects can have on occupants’ health lies in selecting sustainable interior materials. This involves scrutinizing “environmental product declarations” and “lifecycle assessments,” beginning with the highest-impact items like structure and wallboard.
Navigating the Sustainability Landscape: A Focus on Sustainable Materials
Ecosystem health is the next consideration, favoring products that promote restorative soil, water, and air practices, as well as thoughtful supply chain management. Several organizations offer certifications and guidance for selecting environmentally responsible products, such as the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, Forest Stewardship Council, and the Living Product Challenge.
Schoessler-Lynn also emphasized the importance of social health and equity, identifying companies that prioritize human rights and positive community impacts in their operations and supply chains. In addition, adopting a circular economy approach encourages reusing existing buildings, choosing recyclable materials, and implementing take-back programs.
While these recommendations may seem daunting, Schoessler-Lynn suggests starting small and gradually incorporating them into projects.
Healthy Building Network, a resource for the industry since 2000, offers simplified “red to green” guidelines for material selection, making it easier to choose less toxic building materials. They provide data visualization tools and resources for selecting low-carbon materials, though challenges remain, as most materials used in affordable housing projects still fall into the “red” zone.
Overcoming Challenges on the Road to Sustainability
Despite the challenges posed by petrochemical reliance and climate change, Gina Ciganik, CEO of Healthy Building Network, remains optimistic about the path to planetary health and believes that it’s a solvable problem.
Simona Fischer, Design Director at MSR Sustainable Practice, shared how her firm restructured its materials library categories for better sustainability assessment. They also developed a sustainable materials action packet and sustainability tracker, providing valuable resources for fellow architectural firms and designers.
One persistent challenge discussed is the reluctance to switch suppliers and products, with many architects and designers favoring familiar options. Manufacturers offering greener products need support through increased demand. Designers often write specifications for green products but do not enforce them, hindering progress.