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The Right Chemistry

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

The idea of being health positive is grounded in the belief that building materials should be free of chemicals of concern. All stakeholders have the right to expect this beneficial interaction with their built environment. Health positive is a hazard-based concept that respects not only the site boundary, but also the full length of the supply chain. (End users may be at risk if the hazardous chemical escapes from the material, whereas many others along the supply chain may have dealt directly with the hazardous chemical.) 

The drivers of this change are varied and many, and we may never know when the tipping point naturally would have occurred. We know only that at GreenBuild 2012, Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, played the ball from where it lay and healthy buildings gained a bodyguard through a highly resolved commitment to LEED v4, Materials & Resources. Wasting no time, the USGBC held a Green Building and Human Health Summit in January because, in Fedrizzi’s words, “Healthy places are a human right.” The NIH reconvened the Health in Buildings Roundtable in April for the purpose of building a body of research from which additional evidence-based strategies may be drawn and acted upon in a series of continuous improvement cycles. 

I participated in both meetings and although additional research was discussed, I don’t recall anyone suggesting the buildings industry currently lacks actionable findings or sufficiently informed consumers willing to use their buying power to pull new, safer building materials into the market.  

Joining the leaders

So who is answering the consumer’s call for healthy buildings materials?

Rigorous multi-attribute third-party product certification, such as the Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute’s C2C Certification, addresses the full spectrum of sustainability and all of its stakeholders. The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program rates products across five critical quality categories and recognizes achievement and a commitment to continuous improvement. The five critical categories are the sustainability primaries: material health (chemistry), reutilization (recycle), water (use reduction), energy (renewables instead of fossil) and social responsibility. The five are inseparable aspects of sustainability.

To get started on using or making safe building materials: 

  1. Bring to all your business decisions William McDonough’s insight: “Design is the first signal of human intention.”
  2. Contact the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.
  3. Contact McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.
  4. Establish a chemicals policy governing products and processes.  
  5. Do it.

There are many ways to characterize and define sustainability, but I’ve found none so compelling as what Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. President, said in his farewell address:  

“As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.  We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”

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