Alison Mears’ and Jonsara Ruth’s passion are healthy materials. The architect and designer co-founded the Healthy Materials Lab (HML) at Parsons School of Design, a design research lab “dedicated to a world in which people’s health is placed at the center of all design decisions”. Together with their team they advocate awareness about toxic substances in building products and offer resources for practitioners to make better informed choices. With the release of their book “Material Health: Design Frontiers”, which brings together experts from fields related to design, health, materials, climate change, environmental justice, and innovation, they take the next step in placing material health on the map.
Interview by Karianne Fogelberg
Material Health seems so evident and no doubt deserving attention. How come that only now a book about material health has been published. Has the topic been overlooked and if so, why?
Jonsara: If we think about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that was published in the early 1960s she was indeed talking about exactly the same thing. So why hasn’t it been at the top of our minds? The idea of material health has remained in the hands of toxicologists, chemists and other scientists. The language used hasn’t been translated into a language that designers and architects can digest as their own. Words like formaldehyde or bisphenols or phthalates are difficult to understand. This language feels like it’s not for you. As soon as we make it human though, this changes. At the Healthy Materials Lab we consider ourselves as translators who help to understand how this information relates to us.
Alison: As architects and designers we previously didn’t know how to ask for that information. This is particularly true in the US, where the chemical content of materials is not readily available, other than in the EU or the Nordic countries. The assumption is that things are safe and if they weren’t safe, we would know about them. The information is being sequestered in the hands of scientists. When we started this work, it has been a struggle to take the information from many fields and incorporate it into architecture and design in a form that is accessible and urgent to the people.
Shouldn’t this effort lie with the firms who produce the materials in the first place?
Jonsara: Absolutely, but in the US they aren’t required to share that information. The market drives the development of these products. Nobody is categorically saying that you should know about the chemicals you use in your products or that you should prove that they’re not harmful. This is the work we have been involved in together with other advocates of material transparency. We often just say “What’s this made of?” to make it a commonsense practice to ask for that information every single time you select a material or purchase anything.
Alison: As architects and designers the market has trained us to have rather different expectations. We’ve become accustomed to being able to choose from multiple products in a variety of colors, forms and characteristics. But we have never questioned why we are in a world with so many choices available to us. Do we need this particular product in one hundred different colors? Do we need shiny or white things? And what does white mean when we use a chemical to make that whiteness that is harmful to us, as is the case with Titanium Dioxide which is carcinogenic? The interrogation of, and the conversation about, the materials and products that we use is not part of our education.
This reminds me of debates about the ingredients in our food, along the line of “You are what you eat”.
Jonsara: We often make that analogy to food products. You are where you live. And there’s proof of that. Urine and blood testing find that the same ingredients which are in carpet, paint or furniture are now in our bodies.
Alison: Because of the way those materials break down in the environment, they migrate into our bodies and become part of our biology in the same way as we ingest food.
Jonsara: And what happens when our body welcomes them in and digests them into our systems? There are multiple impacts of these materials on the human species. Reproductive health is declining rapidly, with sperm count and fertility in women going down. It is less spoken about than climate change but the chemicals in building products that make up the places where we live may turn out to be an equally important threat to the human species.
Alison: And yet these are all interwoven issues. Not only do we make things that are potentially toxic for us, but we’re also emitting toxics into our environment in the production and disposal process. Pollution includes the emission of CO2 or methane into the atmosphere as well as all the other poisonous substances that go into our water, soil and air.
Could material health be a more helpful term than sustainability because it starts from the ground up, from the molecules and particles that constitute our world, and is not so easily misunderstood or even misappropriated?
Jonsara: I don’t think the term material health replaces sustainability but by asking questions like how does the production, installation and disposal of any given material impact people, other living species and our earth all the way through the life cycle, it allows an entry point for everyone. There are many angles to enter the field of material health – whether it is the human health crisis and toxicity, the climate crisis, social equity, the concern of water and soil systems, or the circularity and waste issue. This is why the subtitle of the book is “Design Frontiers”. We see material health as a frontier where you can enter at any point. No matter if you are a manufacturer or a designer, you can just eliminate one chemical class or change one specific material in your design to have less toxicity or less waste. There is a lot to celebrate when you make a simple, better material choice. We know that this knowledge can be overwhelming and complex but we also know we can always improve. We see this as an invitation and opportunity to innovate.
Alison: The word health is also extremely important because we understand what health means and it’s hard to ignore. We aspire to be healthy for ourselves, our families, and our planet. Whereas sustainability can be a little abstract, abused and misunderstood, material health is quite simple. It is also an odd combination of words and may prompt people to ask “What does health have to do with materials?”. The term poses an important question and that is really useful.
Jonsara: And it comes without jargon. It forces you to ask these fundamental questions about a material that begins with what’s inside it, what is it made of, where is it made, where are the ingredients coming from, how is it made, who is living across the road from where it’s made, who is mixing up the goop?
Alison: All of those questions need to be asked now because for the last 100 years we haven’t.
What resources do you offer at the Healthy Materials Lab?
Alison: Early on we identified that material health was not part of the education of architects or interior designers. The burden that sits on their shoulders in their everyday work is immense. We offer free resources like our materials collection with lists of products that we’ve evaluated for their transparency and absence of or reduced toxicity which any architectural designer, be they students or professionals, may use. We also created online educational materials and a series of online courses that we continue to evolve from the context of our university into massive online courses with providers like Coursera. In all we do we consider ourselves as practitioners, not as academics. As architects and designers we bring to our work the consideration of the aesthetic material qualities of things along with their health. These are equally important. We want to live with beauty and in spaces that inspire us.
You mentioned that no material you found is 100 percent good in all the categories but that there are superstars. Can you name one?
Jonsara: The industrial hemp and lime system as an alternative to typical industrial insulation is amazing. The hemp plant absorbs carbon and regenerates soil as it is growing. It can be processed in a way that can create new healthier jobs in agriculture. It can be combined to make a precast material which doesn’t require flame retardants and other chemicals in the making, can be mounted quickly on site and provides new opportunities to the masonry trades. It creates very energy-efficient buildings that are breathable and moderate the climate and humidity inside, and continue to absorb carbon throughout the life. And at some point, in 120 years, when the building comes down, it nourishes the soil again. It’s this kind of beautiful superfood for building and culture.
Alison: That emphasis on the local is also really important. Contrary to large-scale manufacturing, these agriculturally based product evolutions rely on the community of farmers in particular areas. It’s a new kind of economy that is less centralized, less nationalized and locally-based and allows indigenous communities to develop an economy that becomes their own and supports their own communities. The Hemp Farm by Winona LaDuke in Minnesota is one such example.
How about a material that is being perceived as a healthy material but which you view critically?
Alison: Anything with bio in it. We are highly critical of things that are called biobased that aren’t, that may have two per cent of plant content for example but have a label on it saying it is a biobased product. For us it is important to understand if it’s truly based on a plant or something biological and not harmful, or if it’s just greenwashing.
Jonsara: But there’s a really interesting debate happening at the molecular level. For example, we say that something is 80 percent algae which is amazing, and these new technologies go to that molecular level and find a binder that is algaenetic or from that same plant life, that is super-effective, so you can tick all these boxes. But sometimes they take that plant and transform it at the molecular level to achieve a similar performance of the petrochemical, and then that molecule, even though it stems from a plant, could still have a similar harmful interaction with our body. So just because it’s made from a plant doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better. That’s the challenge. That’s where we get really skeptical and we have to consult our colleagues from green chemistry who investigate the issue of toxicity.
What is your vision for the future of material health in design?
Jonsara: Material health needs to be affordable and accessible for everyone. Only then can it become real. That’s the ultimate goal, which is why our particular passion is affordable housing or social housing or any spaces that are occupied by people who may not have the agency to choose for themselves.
Alison: When you have access to healthy housing, it grounds and centers all your experiences, no matter who you are or where you’re coming from. It allows for you and your family to flourish. In that sense, buildings can create spaces for social change. The materials that we use are part of that agenda.
Thank you, Alison and Jonsara, for this insightful conversation.
HML coming to Germany
In the last few years, Healthy Materials Lab (HML) has recognized the importance of tracking local changes in policy and regulations in the EU and Nordic countries where two intertwined issues are addressed – toxicity in buildings and embodied carbon content. By doing so, the HML team can find good examples of policies and practices that could be implemented in the US. They are currently developing a new local presence in Germany to understand how and where change is happening, and they are looking for local collaborative partners and funding.
By Parsons Healthy Materials Lab, edited by Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears
Material Health: Design Frontiers brings together leading activists, educators, designers, scientists, doctors, architects, curators, contractors, artists and material innovators to provide a definitive overview of the burgeoning field of Material Health.
Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd., 2022
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