My Aha Moment: Connecting Health to How We Design

by Paul C.N. Mellblom, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C

As part of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Health Leaders Network, I was asked to write an essay responding to the question: When did you first realize that there is a connection between human health and the built environment? Was there a particular “aha” moment or project that you worked on? How did social or health equity play a role in your experience?

In 2013, our firm was selected to work on The Rose, an affordable housing project in Minneapolis, Minnesota, using the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Living Building Challenge (LBC) as an organizing framework. Along with the clients Aeon and Hope Community, we aspired for the project to become LBC certified. Due to cost and operational barriers, we ultimately realized that while we would not be able to achieve LBC certification for the project, we could use the LBC petals as a guideline. As we reviewed the individual petals, healthy materials, energy efficiency, and health and happiness easily rose to the top and guided our design.

My “aha” moment occurred when I realized how little we knew then about the impact products we commonly specify for our buildings have on human health. Even today, knowledge about the chemicals we use regularly in construction is severely lacking, and products are grossly under-regulated.

The following statistics from Rebecca Stamm, senior researcher at Healthy Building Network (HBN) (which are covered in the Healthy Building Network’s HomeFree Materials Matter free educational course) awakened me to the fact that we are potentially slowly poisoning ourselves through the products we put into our buildings. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical inventory lists approximately 86,000 chemicals registered for commercial use—including those used in consumer products. When introduced in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) listed 62,000 chemicals assumed to be safe. Not tested or confirmed as safe, these chemicals were generally assumed to be safe.

• Only a few hundred chemicals have been required to be tested by the EPA for human health impacts, which means only an estimated 1% of the known TSCA listed chemicals have been tested to prove or disprove causation of human health impacts.
• Only nine chemicals or chemical groups have been partially restricted in use, including asbestos, formaldehyde, PCB’s (polychlorinated bisphenols), dioxin, CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons), hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, and radon.

Those nine partially restricted chemicals or chemical groups comprise less than 0.01% of all known chemicals in the EPA inventory. That’s a rather small tally.

Individual efforts, university research, and some municipalities and states have begun to slowly fill the chasm in knowledge and regulation of material chemicals. The Green Science Policy Institute has created an eye-opening video series that outlines the understood and unregulated threats to our health from specific classes of chemicals commonly used in construction materials and other consumer products (e.g., PFAS, antimicrobials, flame retardants, bisphenols, certain solvents, and certain metals).

To reduce the potential for contacting harmful chemicals, MSR Design has worked diligently to actively address the threat of toxic chemicals in our projects by using ILFI’s Red List and Declare label program, as well as other tools to better understand what chemicals are in the products we specify. To help make sense of the myriad information out there about this topic, the firm created a simple screening system for our office’s materials library to remove products that do not comply with our standards for building product transparency and to vet product chemical composition. MSR Design’s Sustainable Materials Action Packet can be downloaded from our Generative Impacts page. We support ILFI’s work to create healthier and more sustainable affordable housing, Healthy Building Network’s policy advocacy for better regulation and awareness of what we build with, and the educational outreach provided by Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab. As a result of our focus on materials health, our new 510 Marquette studio became the first constructed space in Minnesota to achieve LBC Petal certification, including for the materials petal.

I firmly believe that we all benefit by designing and constructing healthier buildings. My hope is that we designers can one day soon quantify the quality-of-life improvements and even the potential extension to a person’s natural life span by better understanding the correlation between living, learning, working, and recreating and healthy environments, rather than accepting the status quo. With time, I am confident that we will find that a healthy built environment provides tangible improvements to life span, quality of life, and well-being.

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