Q&A: Health Care Expert Robin Guenther on Healthy Products

Concerned health care designer shares her hopes for Health Products

Having followed Robin Guenther’s work for some time, when Fast Company named this FAIA and LEED AP one of “The World’s 100 Most Creative People in Business 2012,” I was delighted, but not surprised. The sustainable healthcare design leader at Perkins + Will is known as a strong and persistent advocate for human- and planetary health. Her crusade to increase her own knowledge about our material world gives her the authority of someone with genuine concern for her fellow creatures and long-term experience in the complex filed of health care design. Her advice to the magazine’s readers about the materials we live with every day, is dramatic in its simplicity:

“If they don’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want what’s in it.”

“Consult your nose—if it stinks, don’t use it.”

“Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.”

With this in mind, I asked Robin to talk about the Health Products Disclosure (HPD) initiative, and how it may change our material world for the better. Read her realistic, but optimistic observations on everything from HPD’s short and long term influence on the built environment, to the power of the design community in creating positive change in the marketplace, and more.

Susan S. Szenasy:  You have been an eloquent advocate for patients (in fact anyone who works or visits) in the healthcare segment for as long as I can remember. Your ammo has been finding the least toxic, most healthy products available for the interiors you design. In view of your long and inspiring campaign for healthy interiors, what does the formation of HPD signal to you?

Robin Guenther: The HPD represents a major milestone in the advocacy for safer and healthier building materials.  For the first time, we will have access to important, accurate information on the contents of building materials – “a nutrition label,” so to speak, that we can use to inform our specifications. As the HPD information is used to build Pharos, the Healthy Building Network comparative tool, it will accelerate the possibility of independent comparisons of products, another important aspect of this quest.

SSS: Is there some low hanging fruit among potentially healthy interior products that could be made better, healthy for humans and the environment NOW? And let’s think five years out. What might your material world be like under HPD oversight?

RG: Once manufacturers need to declare their ingredients, we will begin to see significant reformulations—particularly in markets like healthcare, where the challenge of “designing cancer centers without materials that contain carcinogens” will make the specification of such products nearly impossible. Think about the transformation in the marketplace that occurred after LEED rewarded products with recycled content – the HPD will give manufacturers a whole new arena to outcompete each other with innovative, healthier products. Low hanging fruit includes the halogenated and brominated flame retarders.  I think we will see a rapid phase-out of those chemicals as the regulatory market shifts. The HPD will give us great information about where those substances are still lurking, and allow us to separate the leaders from laggards. I think the initial impact of the HPD is likely to be both confusing and difficult for designers –particularly those not well versed in material health.  There will be an avalanche of information to sort through as manufacturers fill them out and post them, particularly if the USGBC moves forward with the new LEED MR Credit 4 language that uses HPD’s as documentation.

SSS: You are frequently in front of interior architecture/design gatherings. Now think of what you hear form your fellow professionals. Where is the missing link in their understanding of the full impact of the products they specify?

RG: There are a few missing links: first, the data and understanding gap. There isn’t reliable data (hence the need for the HPD). Designers aren’t chemists; many of these substances are barely pronounceable. There are no training courses in healthy materials. Second, the full impacts of the materials are not clear – there is a science gap. We can’t really point to the effect of these substances on health, even if we can find them in a material. Also, I think designers feel powerless to make a difference given the scale of these industries weighed against the size of the project at hand. Third, the limited time versus overwhelming information gap. It’s easy to say “why bother” when you have so many competing research issues in projects and limited resources. It’s easy to focus on other aspects of materials.

SSS: The buying power of the interior architecture/design community is phenomenal, when you think of the thousands of products you buy, as individual designers, let alone as a collective group. But for some reason the profession doesn’t seem to use its power as much as I think it could, in demanding products from manufacturers that make our environment healthier. Yet you’ve been doing this very thing year in year out, so I know it’s possible to get manufacturers to work with designers. How would you convince your fellow designers to play the activist role you’re playing?

RG: EVERY product we specify is a vote with our purchasing dollars on behalf of our clients, our economy and life on our planet. We need to really believe that everything we do makes a difference, even when we aren’t sure it will. Every time we deselect a bad actor product – and tell the manufacturer why – it is an act that participates in creating a different future. One thing is certain: the market doesn’t transform if we keep selecting today’s bad actor products; no one will make a product without a market signal.  There are few “winners” in the healthy product arena, so its difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment and easy to get discouraged with the task of selection or with advocacy. I’ve had owners who care about this express frustration about never feeling like you actually can select a “better” product – “do I pick the carcinogen or the endocrine disruptor?”  There are products with both, but none available with neither. And of course there is the cost issue – all these “better” products have to compete in a marketplace alongside bad actor products that don’t recognize their externalized negative impacts. I think we need to help our clients understand why its worth it to pay more – to create a richer dialogue about health—that will assist the market for better products in their initial vulnerable launch period as they come to scale. Our projects need to carry the mantle of “building a better world” that is authentic and meaningful.

SSS: The Perkins + Will Precautionary List has been at the forefront of design firms in researching and sharing your findings on the health effects of certain chemicals building practitioners specify every day. What’s your hope and expectation for HPD in helping to spread the knowledge about healthy products, far and wide, including the design community?

RG: We need the HPD in the industry. Designers should understand that its potential power and influence can be measured by the intensity of the efforts of the industries that will try to extinguish it. If the foundation of our free market economy is predicated on market knowledge to lead to better purchasing decisions, the HPD is a powerful knowledge tool.  I hope the HPD helps us all make those better decisions.

Other points of view about HPD –

The furniture manufacturer.

The chairman.

The founder of the Healthy Building Network.

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