Why Healthy Materials Matter
'Material Innovation' is the talk of the design and building industry today. Almost every day, we–designers, architects, and makers–learn of new products, from across the globe, that showcase small and large-scale innovation with materials. These innovations invariably respond to themes such as the reduction and reappropriation of waste, sustainability at large, and emerging digital and biological fabrication methods.
There is one theme, though, a lens rather, that needs to be highlighted above all others, as we shed light on and celebrate such material innovations–and that lens is the impact of materials on human health and well-being.
Nothing is more significant today than understanding how our existing material and product choices are physically affecting communities, nor is anything more pertinent than evaluating our future choices and inventions in design and construction via their implications on human health.
From VOC-emitting wet paint to carpeting laced with formaldehyde; From building insulation packed with flame retardants to chemicals that linger in our food packaging–we come into contact with toxic elements and pollutants in our everyday life more commonly than we think. From these design and building materials, toxic elements can enter our bodies through a range of pathways including inhalation, touch, and consumption.
Above : Milk-based paint, a healthier alternative that eliminates the harm from VOC's that exist in many conventional paints.
Cover Image: UltraTouch™ Denim Insulation, sustainable insulation material created from natural fibers by Bonded Logic Inc, is among the materials that the HML documents.
Often, the section of a community most affected by such toxic elements and pollutants is also the most vulnerable to serious health damage. Children, young mothers, and their fetuses, and those least equipped to deal with health impacts while being most exposed–such as poor communities living in housing that can contain inferior products and materials.
These issues and their mitigation are at the heart of all efforts at the Healthy Materials Lab (HML) at the Parsons School of Design, in New York. The only one of its kind, the HML is a collective of diverse professionals, faculty, students, and alum, that is leading the way with its research, development, implementation and education efforts for what we know today to be 'Healthy Materials.'
In addition to the many resources–evaluation tools, materials and product libraries, publications and case studies– that HML creates and makes available to the industry and its next generation of designers and architects, HML undertakes one crucial task. First and foremost, it sets out to educate designers, architects, and builders, as to WHY Healthy Materials matter, to begin with.
Many of us are only vaguely aware of the relationship between human health and material selection, topped with a few buzz words from this realm; so it is only when we encounter questions such as "How do materials release chemicals?" or "How can chemicals get into the body?", and even "Who is affected?", paired with poignant answers, on HML's web page, that we are forced to take a hard look at our materials choices. Suddenly, it becomes relevant to evaluate our most exciting material innovations, keeping these concerns in mind.
Unlike other platforms, the HML goes one step further and takes this awareness of health and materials forward, aggregates over 160 resources on its website–open to all stakeholders in this industry. Simultaneous to these online tools and resources, the Healthy Materials Lab works in the field of the industry, partnering with developers, material manufacturers as they create new products and materials, as well as researching and imparting knowledge through educational forums.
Our next article documents some of these resources, with a spotlight on the "Healthy Affordable Building Products" list created by HML. In the meantime and before perusing this article here, we urge our readers to explore the "Why Healthy Materials" page on the HML website, take in several eye-opening facts and prepare to augment and transform their practice, by an awareness of Healthy Materials.