Low-Tech Tool Helps Designers Create Healthier Spaces

Activist designers work to reveal the chemistry and environmental impact of furnishing products.

The mindful MATERIALS initiative is designed to act as a sort of Dewey-Decimal system of icons that rest on the spine of product binders to easily and readily inform designers about the chemical content and environmental impact information of those products.

Graphic from: mindful MATERIALS

When interior designers and architects want to provide clients with a variety of product options, they face a daunting task. To vet product information, they will conduct exhaustive online searches, on numerous databases. They comb through product sheets, one by one, seeking just the right fit. Regardless of the method they use, it is always time consuming. And time is the one thing most designers don’t have to spare. But sometimes it takes the simplest solution to solve a complex task.

The mindful MATERIALS initiative, recently launched by HKS, is about to transform how designers do their jobs. In the process, it will usher in a new era of product transparency for furnishing products.
Best described as a low-tech, Dewey-Decimal-like system of icons, the program is a simple label dotted with nine easily recognized logos such as Cradle to Cradle Certified, Declare, Pharos, and “PVC-free.” The label is designed to rest on the spine of product binders and reveal, at a quick glance, the available chemical content and the environmental impact information about the products listed in the binders.

“It’s such a timesaver,” said Ana Pinto-Alexander, principal and global director of Healthcare Interior Groups at HKS. “But what I like best is we are changing the industry. We are doing something positive.”

Nancy Hulsey, sustainable materials specialist at HKS and the driving force behind the labeling program, warns that the system doesn’t track the material ingredients and environmental impact of every product currently available on the market. But it does call attention to vendors willing to disclose these essential details.

On their part, manufacturers and vendors who choose to participate in the mindful MATERIALS system, fill out a product labeling spreadsheet. If a product does not pass the program’s disclosure criteria, it doesn’t get the transparency label. Currently the HKS library contains 1,671 cataloged products, representing nearly 44 manufacturers; new ones are added every week.

“We are not only empowering our designers, we are empowering the manufacturer to tell their transparency story,” Hulsey said.  “Over time, products with transparency data will inform library real estate.”

HKS started the program three years ago with a transparency disclosure letter to manufacturers. By March 2015, that initial request evolved to Transparency 2.0. “Our 2012 letter asked manufacturers to disclose the ingredients in their products, but it didn’t provide them with a tool to show their progress,” Hulsey said.  “Our mindful MATERIALS initiative is that tool.”

For Pinto-Alexander, who manages extensive specification lists for hospital projects the label has become a great source of education when it comes to choosing the right products for her healthcare clients. Each space in a hospital, be it the operating room, corridor, or office, requires vastly different flooring specs, she notes. Everything is on the table, including easy cleanup, infection control, and comfort requirements.

Approaching 2016, designers are also expected to think about the chemical makeup of the products they select.  The mindful MATERIALS label gives them that knowledge right up front during the decision-making process, and helps them inform clients on the chemical content and life cycle of products.

The simple label dotted with the nine easily recognized logos such as Cradle to Cradle Certified, Declare, Pharos, and PVC-free enable designers to see at a glance what kind of environmental impact certain products have.

Graphic from: mindful MATERIALS

“The nicest thing is the labeling system,” Pinto-Alexander said. “Nancy did an exhaustive study and provided us with the best content. It’s the cleanest and deepest on many levels. You can very easily identify what transparency information exists.”

What’s more, she adds, it allows designers to expand their choices, rather than, in the interest of time and money, falling back on the predictable.

“We now incorporate the latest transparency knowledge, not just what we already know,” Pinto-Alexander said. “Plus, if I don’t see the label, I question the product.”

But it’s not just HKS employees who see the value of mindful MATERIALS. Vendors such as TimberBlindMetroShade are on board and happy with the results. The Texas-based company manufactures and sells window coverings and was among the first to embrace mindful MATERIALS and complete the product labeling spreadsheet.

“HKS really put that drive in us to reach out to our vendors,” said Bianca DiPasquale, architectural market manager for TimberBlindMetroShade. “Reaching out to that supply chain in turn helps them as well.”

To expand the program, HKS has declared mindful MATERIALS an open source initiative, inviting other design firms and manufacturers to download the program at the mindful MATERIALS website. Early adopters, such as TimberBlindMetroShade, are already taking advantage of that gesture.

“We now have the transparency data for our products conveniently available in one spreadsheet that we can share with the many design firms we call on,” DiPasquale added.

The mindful MATERIALS program extends the transparency movement within the architecture industry. It aggregates data from web-based documents — which most designers don’t know exist — into a consistent, readily accessible labeling system.

“I’ve downloaded the tools from the mindful MATERIALS website, and I’ve bookmarked the page so I can continue to check on any developments,” said Deborah Evans-Cantrell, resource librarian in Solomon Cordwell Buenz’s Chicago office. “I know they will be very helpful for us as we move forward on labeling and working with manufacturers.”

Other architecture firms like Perkins+Will and SERA Architects recognize the value of mindful MATERIALS and plan to roll out the program in their own resource libraries. And that, Hulsey says, is the real benefit: shared knowledge throughout the industry means designers and clients can quickly obtain product transparency information to make informed choices.

“The label doesn’t say that this is the best product,” Hulsey said. “But it does say the information is available to make a more mindful decision about a product, based on health and environmental impacts.”

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