Growing up in households with parents who worked in the fields of healthcare, law and education, advocating for wellbeing and equitable access to resources has always been a part of my family’s DNA. In many ways, my upbringing was a daily lesson in the messy intersections between institutions of public health, education and law. The presence of healthcare professionals showed me the overarching importance of well-being, while the influence of a lawyer and an educator provided visibility into the intersection of broader legal and ethical problems.
There is a growing body of scientific research highlighting the stark reality of environmental impacts of building materials in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) community. The Center for Disease Control’s 2019 Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals showed an increase in 200+ environmental chemicals in our blood and urine, demonstrating widespread exposure to toxic chemicals. Research shows that the lack of chemical toxicity regulation in the marketplace leaves us often exposed to higher levels of pollutants indoors than outside. We know that Phthalates (commonly used in vinyl flooring and wall coverings), flame retardants (prevalent in foam, plastic and furniture), anti-microbials (found in carpet, countertops) and other toxins are present in the most common building components.
I’ve always sought a career in which I could make a positive impact on the issues closest to me. In my current role at ZGF, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from industry leaders and observe best practice strategies for assessing and selecting healthier, sustainable materials. Below are three ways I think designers can do more:
- We, as architects and designers involved in the selection of building products and materials, need to ask difficult questions and show stewardship in our professional recommendations. Is it ethical to specify vinyl flooring (PVC) in a healthcare project when there are well-researched studies proving phthalates are a developmental toxin, endocrine disruptor, and a known carcinogenic? Children, expectant mothers, and healthcare workers are at high risk of exposure through inhalation and skin-to-skin contact with these products. While high durability and low initial cost are certainly driving factors in the selection of these products, we ought to consider the larger social and environmental costs. Is using a known toxic product worth the risk? For a growing number of organizations, including healthcare focused groups like Healthier Hospitals, the resounding answer is no.
- We must continue to reevaluate outdated notions of calculating the environmental impact of a project, especially in terms of carbon. The AEC community is shifting to include emphasis on embodied carbon, which is a more holistic way of calculating the entire carbon cost of a building that includes the materials and activities necessary for construction. This is critically important and should continue to be a component of all project performance and measurement efforts.
- Product manufacturing is increasingly complex and requires more focus, internationally and domestically, on addressing the ramifications to our social health. As air quality declines and environment-related health issues increase, studies show that disadvantaged communities bear the greatest burden.
The materials and products selected for the built environment can positively impact human health, the climate, the environment and society. This is not just an aspirational goal motivated by my own internal values, but rather a growing collective movement driven by clients, and a deep-rooted sense of what we can achieve together.
Designers and doctors may take different paths, but we can both aim to make one person, one building, one city, healthier.
Peter Harrison is an interior designer at the ZGF Portland office. He is an emerging professional with a background in sustainability, landscape architecture, and interior design, and a passion for healthier materials and equity-based projects affecting vulnerable communities.