Bringing 'do no harm' to building materials

What will it serve if we halt global warming, restore our natural environment and transition to alternative energy only to find we left humanity behind to deal with its chronic illnesses?  

We expect our “place” — home, school, store, hospital, office or place of worship — to be healthy and safe. 

But buildings are made of stuff that contains chemicals, some of which are chemicals of concern. Chronic diseases are on the rise, with seven out of 10 deaths among Americans each year attributed to them. Those diseases are also increasingly linked to chemical exposure.

We spend over 90 percent of our lives indoors. Buildings either can be the cause of illness or consciously designed and built in ways that contribute to better health.

The Green Guide for Health Care states, “Imagine cancer treatment centers built without materials linked to cancer,” but we should not only do that, but imagine all buildings built with materials safe for humans and the environment.

Overcoming challenges

Immunologist and allergist Dr. Claudia Miller suggests that the architectural community may have a greater influence on human health than physicians. Physicians can recommend behavioral changes that will lead to better health and wellness, but the results will depend on an individual’s willingness to change their habits. Architects and designers face the same behavior change challenge when designing wellness features into a building or site. But when it comes to healthy building materials, no behavior change is required; just a firm hand on the specification is needed.

Architecture always has sought to design in ways that enable people to interact favorably with their built environment.  

Interestingly, when we turn that traditional view 180 degrees, we begin creating built environments that interact favorably in terms of health and wellness with people.

Some began to engage in this introspective work over a decade ago, while others have waited for a more audible market to form around the premise that buildings should be health-positive and wellness-active.

Image credit: CC license by La Citta Vita/Flickr

Next page: Who is leading the way on safer materials?