When sitting down to write this blog post, I contemplated the question I have been asked several times over the past few weeks: Why are you passionate about sustainability? Anyone who knows me well recognizes that I am passionate about most things I pursue, which generally fall into three categories—my kids, design and food. After trying to recall that pivotal moment when my passion for sustainability was first ignited, I finally decided that sometimes a passion has been fueled for so long that you simply can’t remember how it got started. In fact, sustainability is so integrated into building design that it’s less a question of why, and more a matter of how and to what level? This brings me to a subject that I am most passionate about as an interior designer, a mother, and as a steward of the built environment—responsible product selection.
A Vital Transparency
I believe we have a responsibility as designers, architects, engineers and constructors to make informed choices that support the health, safety and wellbeing of a building’s inhabitants. We’re also in a unique position to educate our clients so they can make more informed choices. The challenge is we all have varying degrees of experience with green building certification programs such as the LEED® green building program, the WELL Building Standard, FitwelSM and the Living Building Challenge, and it can be daunting to keep up with—even when it’s your passion.
For several years, a transparency movement has been underway to parse out the hidden toxic chemicals in our building materials; and there are many. Designers are currently expected to consider the chemical composition of the products they specify. Precautionary lists such as “Red Lists” have been created to identify multi-syllable culprits like Chlorosulfonated Polyethylene—a known carcinogen and developmental toxicant found in membranes used for roofing and tile applications as well as electrical connections. Without looking at the ingredients used in our building materials, we are likely allowing hazardous chemicals into the buildings where we spend an estimated 93 percent of our lives, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This makes building material transparency crucial. So, what can a professional designer do about this disturbing issue? Take a step forward. Even a small step in the right direction is progress. This has become my mantra.
The First Step: Talk About It
For me, simply starting a conversation around sustainability with like-minded colleagues has been a great way to collaborate on ideas for moving forward such initiatives. After just a few meetings, members of GS&P’s Nashville Design Studio, equally passionate about sustainability, identified measures we can take not only to make our firm more sustainable but also to make our designers more mindful of the impacts of their decisions.
Our first initiative is a material transparency labeling system created by industry peers called mindful MATERIALS. This is a voluntary labeling system for building materials. Think: standard address sticker labels and a Microsoft Excel work sheet. Manufacturers who participate fill out a product labeling spreadsheet. If a product doesn’t meet the specified criteria, it doesn’t get the transparency label. The idea is to use products with the label as much as possible. The largely low-tech system also has a high-tech approach to knowledge sharing through its cloud-based Material Library that allows specifiers access to an evolving product database of building materials and associated sustainability certifications. It is important to note that the label doesn’t identify the best product. Instead, it acknowledges products whose manufacturers disclose material makeup and/or environmental impacts. Contents of the disclosures can be viewed publicly with the idea that increased transparency will hopefully provide the needed attention to what ingredients are going into our building products.
mindful MATERIALS is a design industry initiative that provides a common platform for manufacturers to clearly communicate transparency and optimization information for their building products. For more information, check out mindful MATERIALS at http://www.mindfulmaterials.com.
We are excited to adopt the mindful MATERIALS system at GS&P, and to be a part of a collective movement that is making the built environment healthier, one small step at a time. Through sustainable initiatives such as this, material transparency and “healthy buildings” won’t be differentiators in the future—they will become a baseline.