Healthy and Sustainable
Materials in Design.
We all have the right to live and work in healthy, sustainable and animal friendly spaces, but what if the materials we are selecting are not good for our health or planet health? It is recognised, that the inside air quality of the buildings we live and work in may be less than that of outside air quality, and this is not only true if you live in a city or a town.
Sourcing sustainable and healthy materials is imperative if we are going to protect our health and rejuvenate the natural world around us. The traditional linear approach, which is based on a sequence of extract, make and throw away. This approach has a detrimental effect on our natural environment, including depleting the earth’s natural resources; polluting our soils, rivers and oceans; and increasing our carbon dioxide emissions resulting in a change to the climate.
The Healthy Materials Lab, New York, advises that materials manufactured from non-healthy and sustainable materials, can have a negative effect on our bodily systems. For instance, the endocrine (glands found around the body which produce hormones), reproductive system (system of producing offspring), respiratory system (system involved with breathing and the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) or cardiovascular system (the circulatory system, blood is pumped around the body to circulate oxygen, carbon dioxide and nutrients to the body’s cells). This can occur through inhalation (through the nasal passage), absorption (through the skin) or digestion (via our mouth).
For example, if the flooring selected for a design project does not comprise healthy and sustainable materials, but consists of toxic chemicals, these can off-gas into the internal environment and inhaled by all those who use the space. When designing projects, it is important to consider that infants, young children and the family pet spend the majority of their time on the floor. Any toxic chemicals used in the flooring can be transferred not just via inhalation, but by digestion to. This is due to infants and young children putting their fingers into their mouths or the family pet washing their paws.
It is not just about what a product may be made of, which can affect whether or not a product is healthy and sustainable. Some products, once they are manufactured, can be coated in fire or stain retardants, which comprise chemicals and can affect our body systems. So, how can we ensure good practice when selecting materials for design projects?
This requires the need for all those involved within the design and building process of a property to work together. By working together, team members can inform all who are involved on the need and benefits for using healthy and sustainable materials. This is essential if we are to protect the needs of the planet; regenerate our natural systems, and put an end to the previous linear approach. By selecting sustainable and healthy materials in the design or re-design of a building will have a positive effect on both the planet and all living species.
Consideration should also be given for the need to reuse and recycle materials already within a building when working on a new design project. By reusing and recycling materials this will reduce the amount of waste which generally ends up in land-fills, contaminating the soil and rivers.
If you create and run your own design project, whether this be at home or at work, there is a great tool which can be used to help you to select healthy and sustainable materials, the lifecycle tool. This consists of identifying the complete lifecycle of a product, from extraction out of the ground, the manufacturing processes, transportation and the products end of life (can it be reused or is it bio-degradable?). This is a simple process, which will involve considering the approaches of your suppliers.
Additional methods for ensuring the inclusion of healthy and sustainable materials, is through complying and conforming with relevant building standards, guides, and certifications. For instance:
The Living Building Challenge, created in 2006 by an architect Jason McLennan and the Cascadia Green Building Council. As cited by the Kundeda Fund it is recognised as being the “most rigorous green building standard”. It comprises 20 imperatives which are placed under 7 key headings: Place, Water, Energy, Health and Happiness, Materials , Equity and Beauty. These headings are referred to by the Living Building Challenge as petals of a flower.
Zero Carbon Certification was created to protect the environment we live in, in-line with the Paris Agreement of minimising global warming to 1.5 percent. Companies who manufacture net zero carbon materials or architects and designers who design using net zero products, will help to decrease the negative effects buildings have on our climate. Additionally, this will also greatly enhance the reputation and brand of a product or design house within the marketplace.
Well Building Standard, formulated with people’s health and wellbeing at its core. As cited by the Well Building Standard it is a:
“performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the features of the built environment that impact human health and well-being”.
It comprises 7 key elements: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. The Well Being Standard was formulated to consider all of the bodies systems (neurological, cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, integumentary, muscular, nervous, reproductive, respiratory, skeletal and urinary system). A key feature of this standard, which further advocates the need for sustainable and healthy materials is Biophilia.
Biophilia is re-connecting with nature, bringing the outside in. As human beings we have a strong connection to nature. Materials made from natural materials , for instance Japanese lime plaster, can help create a Biophilia design. These materials can also have other properties. For instance, Clayplaster wall covering, which can absorb carbon dioxide and other chemicals such as Volatile Organic Compounds in the air, improving the air quality of a building.
The Declare Label, created by The International Living Future Institute. The rationale behind the label is to create more transparency to all those who make and manufacture materials for the building and design industry. The placing of labels on products is done on a voluntary basis and details all of the materials used in the manufacturing of a product. A company must disclose all chemical contents by name and CAS number on the label to at least 100ppm.
Lastly , The Red List formulated by the Living Building Challenge. This Red List is a list of toxic and non-environmentally friendly materials. The list can be used as a reference guide for designers and manufacturers of what materials to avoid. This list supports the business case for the use of healthy and sustainable materials ensuring that all materials selected for a build/design project will not be detrimental to human or planet health.
Creating living and working spaces using healthy and sustainable materials is key in promoting and protecting the health and wellbeing of all those who use them and the planet. The standards, lists and tools mentioned above strongly supports the business case for the use of healthy and sustainable materials. This could also protect a business in the event that building compliance regulations change in the future in order to protect human health and the planet. It is recognised that sometimes compromise may be needed in order to achieve a certain goal. However, I envisage an increased demand for healthy and sustainable materials, which will change the way products are manufactured. This will result in a larger library of healthy and sustainable materials for people to choose from.