15 Products for Designing Sustainable, Healthy Buildings and Interiors

Metropolis interviews experts from Perkins+Will, ZGF, and HOK about navigating the plethora of industry- and product-specific sustainability certifications.

sustainable healthy architecture interior products
AMERICAN BILTRITE AB PURE RUBBER FLOORING Red List free, PVC free, and FloorScore certified for indoor air quality, this rubber floor also carries a ten-year colorfastness warranty. american-biltrite.com Courtesy the designer and manufacturer

The 15 sustainable products listed here represent selections by Steven Danielpour, Varun Kohli, and Jacquelyn Suozzi from HOK; Monica Kumar and Tori Wickard from Perkins+Will; and Mara Jones, Susan Lee, Sarah Miller, Kent McCullough, and Rachel Watkins from ZGF.

Last December, the Dallas-based staff of global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will moved into a new home in the historic Dallas High School building. As part of the build-out of the office, which is aiming for LEED Platinum, WELL Building, and Fitwel 3 certifications, the team made the decision to revamp its materials library. “We basically returned all finishes and binders to [manufacturer] reps, and we started with a clean slate,” says Tori Wickard, an associate at Perkins+Will Dallas. The firm decided that any new finishes to be included in its library would have to meet two criteria: They needed to be included in the Mindful Materials database, an increasingly popular source for sustainable products; and their manufacturing and composition had to be transparent, through tools like an Environmental Product Declaration or a Declare label. “In doing so, we hope that project teams don’t have to duplicate efforts to gather this information,” Wickard says.

This overhaul sought to address an issue that many architecture and design practices face today. Sustainable projects rely on the careful selection of hundreds of high-performance products, materials, and finishes, from flooring to office chairs, drywall to lighting. But each industry and product category has its own criteria and certifications for sustainable performance—and the basis of those criteria shifts as we learn more about the impact of existing materials or develop new ones.

How to sift through all of that information?

sustainable healthy architecture interior products
STEELCASE THINK CHAIR Consisting of up to 28 percent recycled material, this chair is designed for disassembly and is up to 95 percent recyclable. steelcase.com Courtesy the designer and manufacturer

“It’s an evolving process,” admits Lona Rerick, a sustainable materials specialist and specifier at ZGF Architects’ Portland, Oregon, office. Specification writers and librarians like Rerick are often a firm’s first portal for information on materials and products. “As a specification writer, I make more decisions about design than most designers do,” says HOK director of specifications Steven Danielpour. “The tightness of my specifications determines whether we get the final outcome for the owner or not.” He and his colleagues go to great lengths to ensure that appropriate products make it into projects. They meet with vendors weekly, gather information in standardized ways, and, if testing or certification data is not available for certain products, work with manufacturers to define criteria and ensure that the products eventually meet sustainable standards.

The next challenge is determining how this information is best made available to architects and designers. Like many other firms, ZGF has formed a company-wide materials group whose members meet via conference call every month, creating tools to educate themselves and their colleagues on sustainable specification. One of these tools is an information management system on the office’s intranet: Architects and designers can pull information on each product into a spreadsheet that records sustainability certifications or standards alongside other project information. Eventually, Rerick hopes, the spreadsheets could be collated into a comprehensive database that ZGF might develop.

sustainable healthy architecture interior products
STICKBULB BOOM PENDANT Stickbulb’s LED fixtures are made by hand in New York from reclaimed and sustainably sourced wood. stickbulb.com Courtesy the designer and manufacturer

Creating an internal database is a resource-intensive task, so both Rerick and Wickard see an independent, shared system as the best solution today. “One of the most useful tools for tracking ever-changing information is the Mindful Materials database powered by Origin’s cloud-based platform,” Wickard says. “This allows manufacturers or certifying agencies to keep information current, and designers can feel confident they are always accessing the most up-to-date information.” It’s no surprise that many sustainability leaders in the industry are volunteering their time to make the Mindful Materials database as robust as possible.

Firms also have their eye on the quality of information in any such database. One concern is that suppliers sometimes misjudge what designers prioritize—for example, which LEED credits their product supports. “Manufacturers will list out 20 different credits that they can attribute to their product, which is some stretch of imagination,” jokes Varun Kohli, a principal and sustainable design leader at HOK. “With our staff, there’s enough knowledge that we understand exactly how we get the LEED points. We’re often trying to go beyond that in our projects.”

On the one hand, standards like LEED are themselves constantly being updated, but on the other hand, firms might be working on projects that aim to be sustainable but are not pursuing certification at all (see “Weighing the Pros and Cons of Sustainable Building Standards”). So specifiers might need information that is simply not available, says Rerick: Two manufacturers in the same product category might have the most comprehensive declarations possible, but “they could have each missed something different.”

sustainable healthy architecture interior products
VALSPAR FLUROPON PURE METAL COATING This exterior coating complies with LEED v4 and contains no PFOA, hexavalent chromium, lead, or phthalates. valsparcoilextrusion.com Courtesy the designer and manufacturer

“It’s very important to establish sustainable design goals from the beginning of the project and clearly communicate those goals to the entire team,” says Wickard. Perkins+Will, as mentioned earlier, prioritizes transparency documents, but they also review all specifications against their internally developed precautionary list of unsustainable or toxic materials. At HOK, Danielpour is pushing all vendors toward third-party testing, in which an independent entity verifies a manufacturer’s claims about a product’s credentials. “Anything that is self-reported is lower quality, and LEED Version 4 actually comes out and says that,” he explains.

In the end, any product or material used in a project must fulfill several criteria. Of course it must meet standards for being healthy and having a positive impact on the environment, but it must also satisfy the design intent and support the best possible experience for a building’s users. Kohli dreams of a day when this Sisyphean exercise of managing and verifying sustainability information will be more streamlined, allowing designers to focus on more experiential criteria for specification. But for that dream to come true, the architecture and design community needs even more cross-industry, cross-firm initiatives like the Mindful Materials database. “Creative partnerships between design and manufacturing and fabricating are going to create the new products of the future,” Danielpour says. “We haven’t been as intimately involved as we really need to be with manufacturers in order to create those products.” It seems there is still much to be done.

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