Hospital exterior
HDR Architects designed the Wexner Medical Center at the Ohio State University. COURTESY HDR ARCHITECTS

Designing a Healthier Building

A Perspective: Sustainability panel untangles the complexity of healthy material selection.

Designers today are faced with a daunting amount of information about materials, chemicals and their effects on the environment. To try to make some sense of it all, a Metropolis Perspective event “Making All Buildings Healthier” included a keynote address from Bill Walsh, founder and strategic advisor, Healthy Building Network, followed by a panel discussion on the subject of healthy materials, which was moderated by Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of Metropolis.

“Plastic is gas and oil in another form, because it’s made from hydrocarbons,” said Walsh “And building products are the number two use of plastics beyond packaging. Indeed, the largest driver of oil and gas by the year 2050 will be virgin plastic. With the reduction of carbon in other areas, virgin plastic is expected to grow exponentially by that time.” Another material pariah is formaldehyde—50 percent of its use is in building products, “and it’s a known carcinogen,” Walsh reminded listeners.

“Regenerative design is all about restoring and reusing.”

Avideh Haghighi, associate principal, ZGF

The speaker ended on a positive note, touting “equity and environmental justice” as gaining ground, especially with new leadership in Washington.

On that note, Avideh Haghighi, associate principal, ZGF, explained how design can be a tool to restore some of the damage done by toxic materials.

“Regenerative design is all about restoring and reusing,” she began. “You have to incentivize owners to reuse materials. We need to take stock of materials in our existing buildings. Do you know exactly where the products came from?” She added a poetic touch: “Instead of the negative term ‘carbon footprint,’ I prefer ‘handprint.’ It’s more positive.”

“Yes, I love that,” Rajagopal chimed in. “We want products that not only reduce harm but that positively impact the user experience. We can’t afford to perpetuate negative building practices.”

Another architect, Eileen Gohr, senior sustainable analyst, HDR, said her firm is staying on top of the dizzying array of product changes and effects: “Our master specs are constantly being upgraded and reviewed. Once a product is commercially available and proven sustainable, we can incorporate it. That way we are lifting all boats.”

GSA Federal Center South, Seattle, Washington. ZGF Architects. COURTESY BENHAMIN BENSCHNEIDER

Rachel Berkin, sustainability program manager, Mecho, a mechanical shading company,  pointed to a study of a Baltimore school that looked at stress and learning outcomes. “Natural light improved both,” she said. She touted her company’s transparency: “If you have a question about what’s in our products, ask us. We’re an open book. We’re constantly reducing harmful chemicals.” On a similar note, Susan Rhoades, vice president, marketing, Armstrong Ceilings and Walls, said her firm “focusses on indoor air quality, biophilic design and thermal comfort. We go way beyond not off gassing.”

Rajagopal summed it up by saying, “We in the industry can all make a difference. We have way more power as professionals than we do as individuals.”

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