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What Does Healthier Materials Design Look Like?

The chemical industry is largely unregulated. Examples of why it’s beneficial to plan for healthier materials at the beginning of the design project.

All building materials should be manufactured with people’s health as a primary consideration.

In a perfect world, manufacturers would be unable to produce or supply any materials with chemicals that are toxic to the human body. Instead very few regulations exist that prohibit chemical companies from developing chemicals and materials that could cause negative health impacts.

Unfortunately, in the United States, the chemical industry is largely unregulated, and common building products are typically manufactured without consideration for their impact on human health.

In Building Products and Chemistry, you learned about material health and chemical toxicology. This is critical to understand why the relationship between materials and human health needs to be considered.

You learned about chemical structure and how different chemicals in building products can interact with the human body. You also began to consider how toxic chemicals and harmful materials are avoided in design.

a white page with different design options in four diagonal columns. The two leftmost columns are similar in color to each other but the left column is 4 squares and the right column is four circles. The pattern on the top row is out of focus. The pattern of the second row is tan with yellow and light blue. The pattern of the third row is yellow with black and gray. The bottom row is red with black and gray. The two rightmost columns are similar in color to each other, but the left column is 4 squares and the right column is two circles since the diagonal orientation of the columns cuts the top and bottom pair out of the image. The top row is out of focus. The second row is brown with pink. The third row is green with yellow and gray. The bottom row is olive green.

With that in mind, think about what healthier material design would actually look like and how designers would want to approach that.

Healthier materials design requires simultaneously considering the client’s needs, project use specifications, time constraints, budget constraints, other resource constraints, the design vision, and material health.

The best way to incorporate healthier materials is to consider healthier materials from the conceptual or ‘schematic’ phase of a project. Starting the material health journey early on allows time that is needed to identify and evaluate potentially better healthier products into the overall project timeline.

Now, take a look at an example of why it’s beneficial to plan for healthier materials at the beginning of the design project. One designer approached a basketball gymnasium flooring project. The project required the installation of a flexible, resilient sports floor, which typically requires a combination of foams, floorboards, concrete and toxic adhesives. These flooring components are part of an integrated system that work together to meet certain performance requirements. The material specifications of each of the components must be carefully evaluated from the very beginning.

The designer wanted to install a healthier flooring system. While it was not possible to entirely remove the foam in this application, their goal was to remove the toxic adhesives. To achieve this, the final design incorporated thick foam mats installed into a custom concrete substructure designed with a cavity with very tight tolerances that exactly fit the foam. The floorboards were then installed tightly on top of the concrete. This design approach ultimately eliminated the need for adhesives.

By proposing a design that eliminated toxic adhesives from the beginning of the project, the designer successfully installed a healthier gym floor. This approach requires immediate consideration of healthier design choices (e.g. the elimination of toxic adhesives) and of the additional design constraints this choice placed on the project (e.g. tightly fitted foam, concrete cavity, and floorboards).

a man and a woman standing at the open entrance of a 2-story thatched roof building. The building is in a grass yard, and in front of another thatched roof building and hills full of trees. The picture is taken through an out-of-focus wooden fence.

Beyond the immediate consideration of healthier materials, healthier materials design is approached using a broad spectrum of design methods. The approaches depend on how strict the project constraints are and whether there is flexibility to alter different aspects of the design and budget.

You can consider different approaches to building family homes as an example of the spectrum of orthodoxy. For example, a designer in Japan may revive traditional Japanese construction practices using less toxic natural materials to build compacted clay floors and thatched roofs.

The Japanese designer would be fortunate in that traditional Japanese building practices use natural materials, and there would be opportunities to explore a wide range of materials; particularly in the composition of the walls – using lime and clay plasters for example. These explorations would provide many opportunities to create different kinds of experiences within the house.

However, a designer in New York City working on a low budget building project, using contemporary construction practices, would encounter more challenges to change out common, but toxic, building materials with healthier alternatives. They may have stricter budget and space constraints, which would need to be reconciled with their desire to avoid materials that will be harmful to human health.

The New York City designer may not have access to or a budget for lime based alternatives, but may choose to use mineral-based paints on walls rather than more toxic acrylic paint. Or they may use a healthier linoleum option instead of PVC flooring tiles. These are considerations a designer can make to include healthier choices, even if the palette of acceptable materials and methods available is narrow.

Healthier materials design may look different depending on the visions and constraints of a given design project. However, the need to consider the healthier material constraints from the beginning of a design project will not change.

Over to You

What would the implications be for a design project if a designer tried to include material constraints late in the design process? What challenges might they face through the execution of the project?

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Building Design: Material Selection for Healthier Communities

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