The Healthy Materials Lab is redefining sustainable design

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The answer was sustainability. Mears and Ruth had a long interest in studying the impact of design beyond aesthetics. They observed that many conversations about environmental issues in architecture were dominated by energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions. Interior designers, on the other hand, were thinking about indoor air quality, where people spend most of their time. But few others in the design world were paying attention. “Where is the exhibition [to harmful chemicals] during your lifetime? Ruth asks. “It’s down to the things we live with.”

In 2015, the two received a grant to study the use of building materials in affordable housing. Their initial research found that several factors, including proximity to industrial sites, budget limitations and time constraints, meant that residents often suffered from inordinate exposure to unhealthy environments.

“Materials Used in Affordable Housing Interiors [projects] are often the cheapest building materials, which usually contain the most harmful ingredients,” says Ruth. These common products include two-part spray foam insulation, which can negatively impact thyroid, nervous system development, and other bodily functions; carpet containing stain-resistant PFAS; and other petrochemicals. Mears and Ruth realized that making healthier materials accessible to designers working on such low-cost projects could have a ripple effect across the industry.

The main problem, they said, was the lack of accessible information about what healthy materials are and where designers and architects can find them.

“A lot of what we do is about education and awareness,” says Mears. Ruth and Mears note that there is no single standard for judging material health. Rather, it’s a confluence of considerations – how a product is made, distributed, used and disposed of, to begin with – that dictates whether they consider a product to be healthy. Ruth says one trick is to think about creating products like you would with food: the shorter the ingredient list, the better.

“If you see an ingredient and you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to live with it either.”

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