Material Health: Specification Strategies Part II

Knowledge Bank is taking a closer look at specification strategies that design teams can implement in their projects to prioritize human health. By selecting healthier materials, building professionals can help reduce occupant exposure to toxic chemicals, and improve the health and well-being of communities. In this article, we’ll build on the strategies detailed in our previous article on healthier specifications, and outline some additional strategies.

Understanding Health and Well-Being

What do we mean when we say “healthy” materials? Although we tend to focus on the absence of disease and negative physical effects, the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines health as “a resource that allows people to realize their aspirations, satisfy their needs and to cope with the environment in order to live a long, productive, and fruitful life.” Health enables the kinds of social, economic, and personal development that are vital for well-being, including economic security, a stable ecosystem, safe housing, physical activity, social connections, and a healthy diet.

In addition to material specifications that aim to avoid indoor environmental pollutants and toxic substances, we can go a step further by designing spaces where people can connect with others, where they can work, learn, move, and sleep better, and where they enjoy being. This means developing strategies to promote inclusion, relaxation, perceptions of safety, and opportunities for physical activity— for both building occupants and the surrounding community.

One strategy, biophilic design, is based on the notion that living things are attracted to natural environments and other living systems. Its proponents have found that biophilic design can help to reduce stress, improve creativity, and contribute to indoor environmental quality and connection to place. In the built world, this means using natural materials or analogues, or otherwise invoking nature. Materials or elements connected to nature with minimal processing, such as wood planks and granite tabletops, can provide a sense of place as they reflect local ecology or geology. And the use of biomorphic forms and patterns is another biophilic design strategy—through ornamentation, furniture, wallcoverings, textiles, or other materials.

There is an economic argument for biophilic design. Each year, U.S. businesses lose billions of dollars on decreased productivity due to stress-related illnesses and absenteeism. Design that connects people to nature decreases stress levels and generally improves health and well-being. Studies have also found that patients with views of nature in their hospital rooms recover more quickly and have fewer postsurgical complications. Biophilic design is used as a complementary strategy to address stress in the workplace and in schools, community cohesiveness, and other wellness- and health-related issues.

Increasingly, building certifications are also prioritizing a broader understanding of health and well-being. For example, the new health-focused (2016) certification Fitwel includes impact categories such as “Reduces Morbidity and Absenteeism,” “Instills Feelings of Well-Being,” and “Increases Physical Activity.” The WELL standard also exclusively focuses on occupant health, with points for enhanced access to nature, integrative design, and active buildings, communities, and furnishing.

Filling in the Bigger Picture

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for healthy material specifications. That’s why it’s important to make a material health plan with a defined goal and scope for every project. Is the project residential, commercial, or institutional? What kinds of occupants will it have and how much time will they spend in the building each day or each week? Identify areas or surfaces that will be present in high volume and those that will be touched most frequently, since these present the highest risks of exposure to building occupants. Also get to know the surrounding community and learn about their needs and concerns.

Material health plans should also account for the post-occupancy period, including cleaning protocols and ongoing maintenance plans. This means making sure that a healthy, low toxicity material won’t need to be attached with a harmful glue or solvent, or that it doesn’t require toxic substances in order to be properly cleaned or maintained. Health and environmental impacts can occur throughout a material’s life cycle, so it’s important to consider each phase, from material extraction to the end of life plan. The manufacturing process might cause pollution that affects workers, and disposal can also release hazardous substances. Selecting the best material isn’t just about the building occupant – it’s about the entire supply chain.

As mentioned in the previous article, there is an abundance of resources available to designers and building industry professionals that can help them select safer materials. The large pool of building certifications and rating systems is another great resource. Today, frameworks like the Living Building Challenge, WELL, LEED, Cradle to Cradle, and Fitwel all include a range of human health objectives. Design teams should determine whether any of these systems make sense for the specific goals of a project. And whether or not a project actually goes through the (often expensive) certification process, these frameworks can be used as guides, as they provide valuable information that can guide material selection.

Take a look at our first two Material Health articles about the importance of healthy materials and specification strategies for more information in this area.


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