This article is part of “Rising Up,” a special report first published in the October 2019 issue of Healthcare Design, where sustainability leaders shed light on the top environmental design challenges affecting the industry, their input, and solutions necessary to solve them.

Here, Jean Hansen, sustainable principal and senior professional associate at HDR (San Francisco), discusses the need for new resources, education, and a framework for design with a healthier materials selection process.

Sustainable design challenge: Healthier material selection: A growing body of environmental health research and literature demonstrates the connection between chemical exposures from certain materials and risks that those chemicals pose to human and environmental health. For example, there’s emerging evidence that chemicals such as phthalate plasticizers, formaldehyde, and acrylates commonly used in building products can impact children and lead to the development of asthma among people of any age.

It’s one thing to recognize that building materials impact the built environment and human health. But understanding what a design professional can do to lessen that impact or, even better, to select and specify materials that promote health is an even bigger challenge—especially in the healthcare field where, by their nature, facilities need to promote wellness and well-being. Where does one start to design facilities to support human and environmental health? HDR advocates for the need to provide a framework for design with a healthier materials selection process, identification of the best resources available for safer alternative selections, and the appropriate education to raise awareness and build expertise.

Why it’s an issue: In general, the U.S. government doesn’t regulate chemical safety (except for food, medicine, and cosmetics), and with more than 80,000 chemicals in use in commerce, very little information exists about their toxicity. To design healthier environments, designers today focus on Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs) and/or chemicals of concern, but we now know it doesn’t make sense to phase out one problematic chemical at a time. For example, several stain treatments for carpets and fabrics containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or highly fluorinated chemicals were recently phased out due to their potential for health harm. Their replacements, or “regrettable substitutions,” have been found to pose similar health risks.

Several organizations and programs are being developed to help address healthier materials selection. One such program, the “Six Classes” of chemicals approach by the Green Science Policy Institute, aims to reduce the use of harmful chemicals by focusing on an entire class or group of chemicals of concern, such as phthalates and antimicrobials, offering an opportunity to accelerate reductions in toxicant use and the use of regrettable substitutions. As understanding and awareness of these issues continue, design firms will need to enhance their staff’s knowledge and practice regarding implementing healthier materials on their projects.

The solution: Sustainability continues to be a cornerstone in HDR’s work, which includes transforming how the buildings we design support human and environmental health. To further this goal, HDR awarded (and funded) a one-year research fellowship to explore “Resources and Tools for Sustainable Material Selection for Buildings.” The goal was to develop a new best practice for selecting and specifying sustainable, healthier building materials so that we can contribute toward improving environmental and health outcomes, both by the selection and specification of materials, and with staff capable of educating our clients about the issues.

We started by surveying our staff globally to understand their baseline knowledge and interest in using health and sustainability as a part of the criteria for materials selections and specifications for healthcare projects. A high percentage of staff said they were very interested in learning more and in applying that knowledge to their practice, as well as being able to better speak to this topic with their clients. This led us to identify the best tools, resources, and online education available for our staff and create new guidelines for a material selection decision-making process.

There are many resources available today to help guide design firms and healthcare organizations to adopt a similar program. For example, to begin to apply the Six Classes conceptually in practice, we recommend building awareness and expertise for your staff. Next, set goals for the project, ask manufacturers to provide transparency documentation for product content (such as Health Product Declarations), assess the data received, and use the resources in the market to identify the healthier, more sustainable options.

Based on our experience with surveying our own staff, we’re confident that all firms have staff interested in designing and building healthier environments for our healthcare facilities and those who occupy them.

For more on sustainable design, read “Rising Up” here or in Healthcare Design‘s October issue.