In his book Achitecture’s New Edges, Peter Busby of Perkins + Will writes:
Buildings and communities need to function in many of the same ways living organisms do.
- They must sustain themselves to breathe, eat, prosper and survive.
- They must adapt, changing over time in order to be resilient.
- Finally, they must prosper to support future generations.
Part of sustaining any living organism is avoiding those things that might kill or injure you, like poisons and toxins. That’s why we have always been fans of Perkins + Will’s Precautionary List. Busby writes:
What began as a published list of items that had already proven to have negative environmental and/or human health effects has gradually become a cornerstone of our practice…. We took care not to present the precautionary list as a strict list of items that professionals should avoid at any cost. Instead we offer it up as an information source to concerned architects, engineers and interior designers who want to take precautions to protect people’s health.
So it makes sense they designed and built their new Seattle office, it became a sort of test bed, the first designed to specifically avoid the use of chemicals on the list. It may look a bit bland, but it's healthy. Busby's point about being strict is important, because the precautionary principle is not widely accepted in North America, (in fact it is fought tooth and nail by the chemical industry and its lobbyists) and many manufacturers are really proprietary about what's in their products. So it is hard to be doctrinaire and difficult to actually achieve it. They note in their project description:
Unlike the food industry, there is no federal government agency regulating toxic chemicals in building products. So, Perkins+Will had to start from scratch to source non-toxic offerings for its Seattle office. The firm worked closely with manufacturers to vet the ingredients of every building product against its Precautionary List. But the process proved difficult: some manufacturers wouldn’t disclose their product information, and others claimed not to know what ingredients are in their products.
In fact, they didn’t even succeed completely, getting to 94 percent of their goal. but they are optimists; “Next time we will approach a project armed with the vital knowledge and experience gained from this process, and we’ll get to 100 percent—no doubt about it.”
One can see from the growth of Cradle to Cradle, The Living Building Challenge and the Well Standard that healthy buildings are becoming a bigger concern. I have written that healthy is the new green; Ed Palushock of Perkins + Will says it’s going to be a very big deal.
The industry is at a coming-of-age with respect to the issue of material toxicity. It’s a growing concern and we are wrapping our heads around how to solve for it. The issue of ‘healthy materials’ is today where the issue of ‘healthy buildings’ was decades ago, when the profession banded together to address the issue of climate change.
Personally I hadn’t noticed that the profession had banded together to address climate change, but maybe they will be more interested in this.