School of Specification Specifying healthy materials – ADC

HLW has produced a learning module on specifying healthy materials for School of Specification. Senior designer Alison Grant outlines the dangers of unhealthy materials and the role that architects can play in improving the supply chain.

How do you define healthy?

For us at HLW, ‘healthy’ is predominantly about working and living in an environment free from the six classes of harmful chemicals. These include flame retardants and antimicrobials, which have seen a huge spike in use since the Covid pandemic. Many harmful chemicals used in everyday products lack meaningful statutory regulation and removing them is the primary way to ensure the safety of our environments.

What are the negative impacts of living with unhealthy materials?

The off-gas produced by these chemicals can lead to a myriad of problems. For example, PFAs (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) are included in many adhesives and sealants as well as carpet cleaning products and they can cause immune suppression and high cholesterol. Studies have found that PFAs have been found in the bodies of 99% of Americans because of the abundance of products containing them and their ease of transmission through air, dust and water.

Fire retardants are also a big concern in the construction industry at the moment, with many groups advocating their ban, particularly in furniture. Harmful flame retardants are not inherently part of the foam or upholstery but are added to them, potentially leaching into air, dust, food, and water. Flame retardants on furniture are not the lifesavers they claim to be but are rather unnecessary chemicals which are added to a myriad of everyday objects. Fire retardants can be associated with reproductive and hormone problems, developmental issues and increased cancer risk.

Are we doing enough to communicate these problems, and to banish materials that are harmful to health?

As specifiers, we have a unique opportunity to influence demand for these products and I don’t believe the industry is doing enough to raise awareness about the potential health risks associated with certain chemicals and materials. However, it is encouraging to see that material health is becoming a more prominent talking point within the interiors industry. As designers and architects we have the privilege, and duty, to influence suppliers and consequently to make changes at manufacturing level or to substitute the specifications we include in project. We are central to two streams of change, which is a powerful position to be in. We just need to push harder.

What’s the best way to combat greenwashing?

Ask questions and communicate. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. We are seeing a lot of products claiming to be ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ because they contain natural or recycled components like coffee grounds. Whilst it may seem like a good choice on the surface, upon deeper analysis into the components or processes involved to manufacture these products, you often find adhesives or binders like resin, which aren’t so desirable. On top of that, you may realise the actual coffee content is less than 5%. Always keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask questions to suppliers and other architects – sharing knowledge and advice is the best way to upskill the industry’s knowledge on materials.

Is there a cost premium for healthy specification? And if so, what’s the best way to persuade clients that it’s worth the extra cost?

It depends. There are plenty of great products already available on the market, which don’t include these chemicals and are a great choice for both human health and environmental health. Examples include linoleum, cork, and rubber. However, these are often seen as non-premium and unaesthetic products, so it’s up to us designers and architects to make the best use of them.

On the other hand, there are lots of exciting and innovative new materials like mycelium, which is grown from fungus. However, this is not a cheap alternative yet because economies of scale have not been achieved. It’s a balancing act for designers and architects – incorporate some of the new and innovative but with a base of existing, tried and tested.

Source: Architecture Today