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Fostering Healthy Architecture

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Fostering Healthy Architecture

Photograph of wooden planks and metal building materials arranged in piles on a vegetated lot.In a session held at the 2018 conference of the American Institute of Architects, panelists discussed factors that inhibit the successful selection of healthy building materials.

As Veronica Helms Garrison and Craig Evan Pollack state in a recent issue of HUD’s journal Cityscape, “The link between housing and health is far reaching and complex.” Although housing quality is well known to significantly affect the full range of a person’s physical and psychological health, robust, industrywide systems for health-conscious evaluation and decisionmaking remain underdeveloped. At the annual conference of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), held June 2018 in New York City, a panel of researchers and practitioners grappled with these issues and how they relate to the design profession in their discussion, “Incorporating Human Health into Materials Decisions.” Moderated by Melissa Wackerle, senior director for sustainable practice and knowledge at AIA, the panel included Alison J. Mears, director of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, The New School; Sara Tepfer, chemistry and materials sustainability consultant at Arup in San Francisco; Colin Koop, director at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM); and Thomas R. Whalen, assistant vice president for facilities management at The New School. Mears and Tepfer discussed how materials selection can affect health, and Koop and Whalen presented an example of a mixed-use center designed with health in mind.

Choosing Healthy Materials

At minimum, developers should avoid selecting building materials that are toxic or otherwise known to cause health problems. Alison Mears and Sara Tepfer stressed, however, that several factors inhibit the successful selection of healthy materials. New materials are continually being developed, and their long-term impacts are not always knowable prior to market deployment. In addition, economic incentives might favor less healthy materials over safer alternatives. Moreover, the generation of knowledge about the safety of materials is itself complex. The landscape of organizations that test and certify materials is fractured, and their findings are not always centralized or easily accessible at crucial points in the decision chain. Builders and developers, in other words, lack the resources to easily keep abreast of the latest findings. Furthermore, some categories of materials lack robust health standards, and groups endorsing some materials may be funded by industry, creating conflicts of interest.

Accordingly, achieving better outcomes requires stakeholders to address the issue on several fronts. Mears suggested five key areas of focus. First, common hazards should be avoided with design changes that eliminate the need for problematic materials entirely. Second, developers can simplify their materials palette, restricting it to known, healthful options. Third, designing for easy assembly and disassembly can reduce the need for chemical affixing and increase the likelihood of reuse or recycling. Fourth, understanding and embracing the full life cycle of materials should inform developers’ decisions so that choices made now do not have lingering or late-appearing negative environmental effects. Finally, knowledge about products is critical to making informed, health-conscious decisions. The Healthy Materials Lab, which Mears heads, collects and makes available dozens of online tools that can help place human health at the center of building and design choices.

Healthy Design

Although designers often contemplate how color can influence mood, the optimal relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, and the impact of spatial organization on social relationships, the effect of design on health is also an important consideration. SOM took these factors into account when designing a new mixed-use center for The New School. Koop shared his perspective on these issues during the design phase of the center, while Whelan offered his experience as facilities manager in describing the real-world functioning of the building.

Located near Union Square in Manhattan, University Center presented a conceptual challenge for the New School and for SOM. An urban campus with buildings spread throughout the neighborhood, University Center represented an unusual concentration of residential, academic, and other activity in a single building. Whereas the traditional disbursement of activities led to spontaneous encounters that the school considered essential to sparking creativity in its students, school officials worried that housing dorms, classrooms, a library, offices, and a cafeteria in a single structure might reduce such productive interactions. Translating the spatial logic of a dispersed campus meant maximizing the need for circulation within the building. Pushing activities toward the exterior walls helps maximize the distances needed to travel from place to place. Large, prominent staircases both unite spaces and are themselves spaces for encounters. The building’s uses are organized in a manner that promotes collaboration and spontaneous interaction among students and faculty from across the school. Finally, large windows admit ample natural light and help blur the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces. These design strategies recreate The New School’s traditional societal geography in the consolidated form of the building.

As the AIA panel discussion demonstrates, health can be made a central concern to architectural practice. Panelists demonstrated how a health-centered approach to problems of design and material selection featured in their own work, providing examples for practitioners and policymakers interested in leveraging the built environment for improved health outcomes.

Published Date: 22 October 2018