Mindful Materials: Product Selection and Healthy Environments

What makes product transparency important?

Product transparency between manufacturers and designers is critical not only to the success of a project, but also to the health of the people who will occupy a building. Having the tools to select products that perform at a high level, provide good aesthetics, and promote a healthy environment can streamline the design process and yield a successful result.

In short, building materials matter. Remembering an unfortunate incident during a prior construction project, a healthcare client recently asked designers for a floor that “wouldn’t make employees sick.”  The previous project had taken a wrong turn when an epoxy floor with a long cure time released volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air for weeks, causing debilitating headaches and asthma attacks among the nursing staff. Due to increased sick days, the department was temporarily understaffed, provided less-than-optimal patient care, and operated at a loss. The epoxy had been selected for its resilience and ease of maintenance, but its health effects were so detrimental that the hospital banned any future use of that floor type.

Buildings are made up of thousands of materials, the result of thousands of decisions, and clients may not initially understand the many ways in which material and product selection can affect the “bottom line.” Forward-thinking manufacturers are revealing what’s in their products and removing hazardous materials that, in some cases, are affecting the health of our clients and their tenants. This open dialog between product manufacturers and designers is a key to successful product selection.

A Harvard study on children’s health found that VOCs in common paints made asthma attacks 100% more likely, eczema attacks 150% more likely, and sinus inflammation 320% more likely. These negative results can be reduced or avoided simply by choosing different paints. VOCs and other air pollutants are mostly invisible, often making it difficult for those using the space to make the connection between product selection and health risks, but the harmful effects are well-documented.

The Harvard article “Green Office Environments Linked with Higher Cognitive Function Scores” underscores the link between materials found in our indoor environments and productivity.  As the researchers pointed out, “We have been ignoring the 90%. We spend 90% of our time indoors and 90% of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health productivity are often an afterthought.” Research shows that small improvements to indoor environmental quality can have a significant impact on the performance and cognitive function of workers, especially executive function.

Whether the project type is a hospital, school, or office, sustainable materials selection matters greatly to the people who inhabit a space and, ultimately, to a client’s ROI.  We shouldn’t see this as a trend or a “hot topic” but as an investment in our future buildings and interior environments and, most importantly, the future health of the people who will use them.

Once we have the data, what do we do with it?

How can we make better selections for projects in less time? The marketplace right now provides many materials selection tools and an overwhelming amount of data. We need to utilize the tools that aid in effective, efficient product selection to meet appropriate healthy building goals. To address the complexities of materials selection, LS3P’s Charleston office has employed a materials transparency program created by HKS and shared with designers industry-wide called Mindful Materials. This initiative utilizes a digital product database and sticker system for our firm’s product sample library, and this tool is a game-changer for product selection. The database provides thorough transparency on products including sustainability attributes, certifications, and material ingredients. With a quick search through the database, we can quickly find out what’s in a material and whether it’s an appropriate choice for our client’s healthy building goals.

LS3P’s Commitment to Sustainable & Healthy Materials

We first began using materials with self-identified sustainable attributes in the late 1990’s when the earliest sustainable rating systems were created, and are constantly working to stay abreast of new products, rating systems, and best practices for sustainable design. We provide ongoing continuing education for interiors and design staff on material properties and their impacts on indoor air quality, and we have compiled a standardized set of ‘green materials’ to assist in meeting the requirements of specific rating systems such as LEED, Green Globes, WELL, and others. Mindful Materials is a valuable tool to add to our strategies, and the dissemination and widespread use of this system has the potential to drive positive change and propel sustainable design forward across the industry.

Goals change with each project and each client has their own set of priorities, each unique to their company’s culture and project type. Knowing this, we are pushing forward to provide product data that will aid in client decisions for best product selection. Our clients’ goals are our goals, and we want to anticipate how to make their projects better one decision at a time.

About Krista

Krista joined LS3P in the fall of 2014 after working as an interior designer on residential, hospitality, and multi-family projects. As a graduate of the Savannah College of Art & Design with her Master of Fine Arts degree in Interior Design, Krista fully understands the world of interior design and how to utilize creative and technical solutions within the built environment.

At LS3P, she has created a diverse portfolio of work experience including corporate, education, government, hospitality, multi-family, retail, and healthcare. As an active member of the Green Core Competency Board at LS3P, Krista has become a voice for product transparency, understanding the need for sustainable material standards within the firm. Krista is piloting a product transparency tool developed and shared by HKS, Mindful Materials, in LS3P’s Charleston office to aid in responsible material selection. With this tool, designers can effectively and efficiently select an everyday sustainable material in addition to a challenging and specific material needed for healthy building goals.  This saves on selection time for projects while putting the best materials for the job in the designer’s pocket.

In addition to being an advocate for material transparency, Krista’s work experience on a variety of project types brings fresh ideas, creativity, technical skills, and a unique perspective that compliments the design team.