Perspectives February 10, 2021

Health advocates are changing the design conversation, for the greater good

Our Material Performance Lab emerged from a long-standing effort to positively influence the built environment’s impact on human health. Now, the Lab is expanding its focus.

A call to action at a colleague’s speaking engagement crystalized Mary Dickinson’s dedication to healthy materials more than a decade ago. Dickinson, now a regional sustainability practice leader in our Dallas studio, recalls healthcare practice leader Robin Guenther passionately theorizing, “Shouldn’t cancer centers be built without materials that contain cancer-causing substances?” At the time, Dickinson was working on the design of a cancer center where her own mother was receiving treatment. Guenther’s words had an indelible impact. 

When a pervasive inquiry into the built environment’s impact on human health ignited a movement over a decade ago, we were well positioned to respond with meaningful action. In 2008, we launched the Precautionary List, a compilation of the most ubiquitous problematic substances in the built environment. Three years later, we debuted the Transparency website, a user-friendly digital database of these materials. Dickinson was instrumental in carrying this initial step forward, advocating for the importance of the work and managing future updates to the list as well as the site.

This pioneering effort seeded the momentum that drove us to form the Material Performance Lab in 2016one of seven Research Labs that keep us at the vanguard of design innovation. Understanding that exposure to harmful chemicals can account for 80 to 85% of disease risk*and that most people spend 85 to 90% of their lives indoorsthe lab’s mission is to evaluate the products we specify, from paint to floor coverings and everything in betweenIt’s about creating a methodology for our designers to apply to their projects—and then helping them get buy-in from their teams and clients, explains Dickinson, who co-leads the lab. 

Healthy spaces informed by users’ needs 

The lab begins by assessing materials’ potential ripple effects on our health, well-being, and environmental footprint, then offers better alternatives to our clients. This advances manufacturers’ accountability while directly benefiting the health and well-being of end users.  

Consider the patients who call Hope Lodge Dallas their “home away from home” while they receive cancer treatment. At the outset of the design process for this recovery center, the American Cancer Society, the design team, and client set a specific goal of reducing carcinogens and immunotoxicants in the building (shown below)answering Guenther’s challenge from years ago.  

The team ultimately selected 82 products that were free of substances of concern in accordance with the Precautionary List. “The removal of substances of concern gives patients the opportunity to heal as quickly as possible,” says Erica Mercer, a project architect in our Dallas studio. When the team later embarked on another Hope Lodge project in Houston, they worked with the client to apply the same rigorous approach to material health. The approach was in clear alignment with the American Cancer Society’s mission and endusers’ needs.   

For Hope Lodge Houston, careful consideration was given to the specification of healthy and natural building materials along with advanced mechanical and water filtration systems to ensure a healthier environment.

The Material Performance Lab contributes to an evolving knowledge base and ensures our designers—and the field overall—are tracking with the latest science to make informed product selections. It empowers a robust network of champions across our 25 studios“boots on the ground” who transfer knowledge to their local teams, allowing the lab leaders to continually focus on advancing knowledge and research. 

To Amina Helstern, senior project designer and our Chicago studio’s designated Material Performance Lab advocate, it’s about incremental influence—often one person, project, and studio at a time. Since joining the group 11 years ago, she’s seen significant progress. There has been a huge evolution between the inception of the Precautionary List and the transparency afforded to us by manufacturers today. This shift has made material health more accessible to designers—necessary, as designers typically do not have an educational background in chemistry or human health,” she says.  

Internal socialization of material health research is key to the lab's success.
The lab eliminate chemicals of concern by visualizing where they are commonly found, such as in a typical classroom.

Bridging the gap between information and action 

The appetite for a decision-making rubric for material selection is undeniable. A 2020 American Institute of Architects (AIA) survey revealed that 77% of U.S. architects seek or plan to seek health and environmental data. But, as Dickinson points out, there’s a difference between what architects and designers want to do and what they’re actually doing. “Our lab is trying to bridge the gap, she says.  

Her advocacy has paid dividends. When she and her original lab co-leader Max Richter began their tenure, they had to deliver on a target: ensuring that 75% of our project materials were lowemitting. The firm exceeded that goal—and upped the ante: Dickinson reports that Precautionary List project reviews have nearly doubled in the last three years.  

And they’re just getting started. In 2020, Mona Lemoine, a senior sustainable design specialist based in our Vancouver studio, joined Dickinson as co-leader, succeeding RichterThe two women have taken their methodology of identifying harmful materials and offering alternatives and beguapplying it to additional areas of concern, like climate health.   

“We’re connecting people to digestible intelligence,” says Lemoine. “We share information that people can’t unknow.” She adds that partnering with organizations such as Healthy Building Network is key to their impact, compelling designers beyond our proverbial walls to support their efforts.  

In just the past few months, they’ve made significant strides in new spheres of influenceIn October, the lab fostered a company-wide partnership with Material Bank, a resource for searching and sampling materials that offsets 100% of carbon emission associated with shipping samples from warehouses to studios, homes, and clients. This partnership is aligned with concurrent efforts to bring awareness to interior projects’ role in carbon emissions, including our London studio’s industry-leading net-zero carbon plan.  

Thenanother big win: The AIA Board of Directors adopted the Materials Pledge, which promises to “support holistically responsible materials that enhance human health, climate health, ecosystem health, and social health and equity in a circular economy.” Underscoring her industry-wide impact, Dickinson is part of the AIA’s Material Knowledge Core Group, which defined the Material Pledge’s actions and metrics. This year, the lab plans to expand the Transparency site to include carbon parameters and map the correlation to the health impacts on the Precautionary List, a move that will no doubt put necessary pressure on materials manufacturers to be not only transparent about the ingredients that go in their products but also the energy, or embodied carbon, it takes to produce them.  

The Precautionary List was recognized as part of Architect magazine's 2018 R+D Awards.

New considerations, same rigorous process 

With a firm grasp on materials’ link to human health, and a foothold in the embodied carbon conversation, Lemoine and Dickinson are now expanding the lab’s aperture to include social equity and the circular economy at large. They’re working closely with our Human Experience (Hx) Lab and Firmwide Diversity Council to identify how material production can negatively impact communities—and then offer alternatives. For example, the lab aims to avoids products from manufacturers contributing to Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” an area with a concentration of highemitting manufacturing plants and correspondingly high rates of cancer. As Dickinson explains, individuals in these fenceline communities are often unable to move because the adjacent plants have depreciated their land values for generationsSpecifying materials from these manufacturers would perpetuate this problem.  

Social equity is among the AIA’s five areas of focus in the Materials Pledge. “The industry is grappling with how to address all these focus areas in tandem,” says Dickinson. In fact, the lab’s current challenge is integrating their various lenses into a framework that simultaneously addresses material impact on human and planet health—for example, how can we map the material ingredients that impact greenhouse gas emissions, damage the environment, and trigger asthma?  For products such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, that do just that, we map all the petroleum-based materials in a product. “That’s the audacious goal we’re going after, she says. 

Circular economy principles that reimagine the “take-make-waste” model are a North Star in all their work. Lemoine cites virgin materials an example. Products made of materials from virgin sources contribute to the carbon footprint of a product over its entire life, contribute to environmental degradation, and the loss of non-renewable resources. We need to shift design toward a circular supply chain. It’s important to ask ourselves, ‘how would nature do it?’” she says. “In these instances, our conversation is about identifying a starting place, a path, and a timeline for addressing these questions.” 

As they continually uncover and share new information, Lemoine and Dickinson have witnessed knowledge ripple through our global studios. “Designers may think that their choicessuch as the decision to specify a materialare just one action. But that one action might be done by the person next to you, and so forth, across 80 active projects in your studio,” says Lemoine. “In that way, we have a global influence and an amplified butterfly effect in the work we do and the impact we can have in the industry.” 

*Jones et al 2012 Annu Rev Nutr 32:183-202; Miller and Jones 2014 Toxicol Sci 137:1-2