Architects hold a responsibility to protect the health and welfare of the public, particularly for those who occupy the buildings we design. For most of the 20th century, perceived threats to human health associated with the built environment fell primarily into the categories of structural hazards, for which we depend largely on structural engineers and material standards, and fire hazards and compliance with building codes is our major tool.
Chemical hazards pose a relatively new concern that has entered our consciousness over the past two decades, but our profession is not yet sure about its responsibility and methods for addressing it. To a certain degree, we can expect that government agencies like OSHA, FDA and EPA will address chemical toxicity of manufactured products through regulations. However, it appears that the large number of chemicals used in industry far exceeds the government’s capacity for testing and monitoring the health effects of every product.
BSA Committee on the Environment Forum, September 24, 2013
“We are what we build: Chemicals of concern in the built environment”
Andrea Love, Payette
Paula Buick, Payette
Meredith Elbaum, The Elbaum Group
Breeze Glazer, Perkins + Will
Melissa McCullough, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
What can and should architects do to eliminate potentially harmful compounds from our buildings?
The BSA’s Committee on the Environment recently hosted a forum to promote discussion on this topic. Andrea Love moderated a panel that included four speakers who offered complementary strategies for managing information and decision-making regarding chemicals in construction materials. Paula Buick emphasized the need to achieve balance between assuring long-term performance of building materials and addressing scientific evidence for the potential health impact of their chemical components. Meredith Elbaum described the development of Health Product Declarations as a standardized form for reporting chemical composition of building products. Breeze Glazer outlined Perkins + Will’s adoption of the Precautionary Principle, through establishment of a “red list” of chemicals, accompanied by a step-by-step process for avoiding their use in buildings. Melissa McCullough presented the approach she has taken to collecting information on chemical composition of construction materials, then sorting and rating these data for use in overseeing products used in construction projects at Dana Farber Institute. The tone of the forum was collegial and constructive, as panelists and audience members considered a potentially divisive topic in depth.
Slides from the forum presenters can be viewed here.
Two major themes of the discussion were; (1) the importance of informed awareness of chemical ingredients in building products, and (2) the need to reduce or eliminate chemicals known to be toxic to human health. Rather than proposing easy answers, each speaker offered frameworks and tools for managing this information. Recommendations for informed selection of construction products included:
- Recognize that this is not a black + white issue – we must consider shades of gray.
- Encourage manufacturers we work with to prepare HPDs for their products.
- Refer to existing frameworks like LEED as a starting point for establishing lists of chemicals to avoid.
- Investigate ingredients of construction products and their potential health effects wherever possible.
- Use matrices to sort and evaluate information.
- When proposing materials with revised chemistry, do not lose sight of the need for construction materials to perform their intended function and be durable.
As an architect and specifier, I believe in the importance of doing everything we can to provide healthful buildings for our clients, and I find these suggestions very helpful. At the same time the amount of information this requires me to work with seems overwhelming. In order to move forward with this process, I recommend the following:
Toxicology: Decisions on product selection need to be based on a better understanding of the degree to which a chemical ingredient in a material may actually have an impact on human health. Toxicity of a particular compound depends on whether there is a path of exposure, as well as on the level of exposure at which it will have an effect on human health. If the compound is present only in trace amounts, or is tightly bound into the construction material, it may not have a measureable health impact. At the same time, some chemicals may have an impact at such small concentrations that their presence should be strictly avoided. Architects need the assistance of the scientific community to obtain information that will assist them in optimizing product selection for human health.
Prioritization: As the realistic health impact of particular materials becomes clearer, Architects will be able to identify products, or components of products, which have the potential for significant impact on human health. It may be difficult to eliminate all chemicals of concern from our buildings at once, but prioritization will help us make steady progress toward the important goal of designing healthful buildings.