Can we identify “healthy” products? Three essential questions to ask manufacturers

Mikhail Davis

What’s hot in green building right now? No, global warming isn’t hot, despite growing alarm about extreme weather events. What’s hot is health. Specifically anything related to the potential health impacts of building products.

The rise of the WELL Building Standard and the addition of a day-long Materials and Human Health Summit to Greenbuild provide two data points supporting this overall trend. Despite growing interest and a host of new tools, the expansion of the health trend beyond simplistic building material “Red Lists”, and into more comprehensive, transparency-based material assessments, is still in its infancy. Many architecture and design firms aspire to do material health screenings, but lack the technical expertise or established processes to consistently add this element to their already-strained project budgets.

As a frequent speaker on this topic, including both Greenbuild Materials and Human Health Summits, I offer three questions that need to be considered as firms begin to engage manufacturers in an effort to identify “healthy” products.

What’s in your product?
This question forms the foundation for understanding what possible health issues a product might present when used in a building. Many new tools are being developed to help manufacturers disclose ingredients in a consistent way. But even the confusingly-named Health Product Declaration (HPD) format doesn’t actually tell you whether a product is healthy – it just tells you the ingredients. Many of the tools like HPD aspire to become as standardized and broadly used as the Nutrition Facts Label we find on packaged foods, but the fact that a box of cookies discloses their Nutrition Facts does not make them healthy. It does, however, allow for more informed choices about what you buy, which is the true value of standardizing transparency.

label

The big difference between ingredients in a building product and ingredients on a Nutrition Facts Label? On a Nutrition Fact Label, exposure is a given.

What comes out of your product?
This is an important question because many building product ingredients, if you gargled with them every day, would seriously damage your health. Yet the vast majority of these ingredients are used in such a way that there is no foreseeable way for a user to be exposed to them. This is the big difference between ingredients in a building product and ingredients on a Nutrition Facts Label; for a Nutrition Fact Label, exposure is a given (or what’s the point?).

The question of likelihood of exposure to ingredients in plastics and other building materials is fraught with technical questions that live in the complex world of toxicology and risk assessment, so I would like to offer a common-sense alternative:  focus your analysis on materials that (1) release volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) or (2) receive heavy wear and abrasion during use.

VOCs, by nature, are emitted from the product, so some level of exposure is guaranteed. Anything you smell is releasing VOCs into your nose, ranging from the wholesome and harmless (fresh baked bread) to the carcinogenic (formaldehyde). Fortunately, green building standards, with help from the California Department of Public Health, have now standardized tests for the most worrisome common VOCs released from interiors products. Numerous industry standards (e.g., Green Label Plus for carpet, FloorScore for hard surface) are harmonized to the strict California standards (CA 01350), so finding low-offgassing products has become as easy as looking for the right certification.

The second category, chemicals used in high-touch surfaces, becomes more complex because exposure only occurs over time and only under the right conditions, usually when repeated washing and abrasion of surfaces causes ingredients to migrate out and end up in dust. The most famous recent example of this is highly toxic and persistent flame-retardants migrating out of furniture and electronics over time. While some potentially hazardous chemicals break down quickly outside the product, usually broken down by microbes, others are highly persistent (no critter yet seems to have acquired a taste for polybrominated flame retardants) and accumulate in the environment over time.

In carpet, the high-touch surface is the face fiber, usually nylon, which is often coated with a stain and soil resistant chemistry based on perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). Due to the toxicity of some members of this chemical family and the persistence in the environment of all PFCs, they were recently added to the Living Building Challenge Red List. Increasingly, premium brands of carpet yarn are moving to integrally stain resistant nylon that requires no coatings that can wear off over time. Interface Americas received an award from Environmental Building News in 2011 for producing the first PFC-free carpet tile platforms and is PFC-free in all products.

photo 1

Interface Americas is PFC-free in all products.

How is your product made?
Finally, health impacts that might affect the end users of a product are but a small piece of the healthy product puzzle. Many of the worst health impacts associated with the life cycle of a product happen far from the comparative tranquility of a school or office environment. Exposure occurs in the mines, oil and gas drilling operations, chemical refineries and plastic factories that supply the raw materials that ultimately make up the products we manufacture. Plastic products traditionally come from chemicals derived from oil, gas, and coal as well as from mined mineral fillers. The air and water pollution associated with resource extraction and refining are typically thought of as environmental impacts, but for the people who live and work nearby, they are definitely health issues. Is a Red List Free product still a “healthy” product if its ingredients come from natural gas fracking that left the local water supply tainted by heavy metals and petrochemicals?

At Interface, we see increasing recycled content and end-of-life recycling as the only viable solution to the many systemic pollution issues associated with the lifecycle of products made from oil, gas, and mineral resources. When a product comes from 80% recycled content, it allows us to know we’re doing our part to address the effect industrial operations have on their surrounding communities.

MAM_hall_2_sm

When a product comes from 80% recycled content, like our Net Effect™ Collection, we know we’re doing our part to address the effect industrial operations have on their surrounding communities.

Staying out of the fear trap
The way most of the discussion of healthy buildings is going, we are quite focused on eliminating the negative impacts building products might have on our health. But we also know that becoming chronically stressed, in this case about all the toxic chemicals in the world, is not good for your health. The challenge is to find your own “Goldilocks” level of worrying that keeps you motivated to change our industrial system without living in constant fear.

I find that it helps to spend equal time on the positive side of the health equation, investigating all the ways interiors products can be designed to help enhance building occupants’ well-being, boost their productivity, and ameliorate their stress levels. So when thinking about toxic chemicals has you down, I recommend picking up Terrapin Bright Green’s new report “The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design,” and pondering all the ways interior products and designs could help people feel as healthy and productive as when they are outdoors. Because after all, designing products that won’t expose you to toxic chemicals is truly only the beginning of the exciting work of designing spaces conducive to health and happiness.

[Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Twitter] [Email]
Posted in Category Sustainability | Leave a comment

Part of Nature, Not Apart from Nature

Our offices can be more than spaces to work. They can actually work for us at a deeply biological level. We know that exposure to nature and spaces that are evocative of nature can help renew our bodies and our minds. Our brains and bodies evolved over tens of thousands of years without buildings, and research indicates that we are at our best when we can recreate physical and psychological reminders of our most ancient home, Earth.

(C) J. Albert Gagnier

Photography: J. Albert Gagnier

Biophilia is at the heart of these realizations – the innate, biological desire and need humans have to connect with other living organisms and the natural world in its entirety. Literally, it means life-loving. According to Dr. Judith Heerwagen, “contact with nature is a basic human need – not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need. Just as we need healthy food and regular exercise to flourish, we need ongoing connections with the natural world.”

In fact, we are nature. Interface’s founder, Ray Anderson, often reminded us, “Anything we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.” Biophilic design holds the promise of embedding this reminder — that we are a part of the web of life and not apart from it — in every space we create.

RESOURCES

Human Spaces

“14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Wellness in the Built Environment”
by Terrapin Bright Green

“The Economics of Biophilia: Why designing with nature in mind makes financial sense” by Terrapin Bright Green

“Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life” film by Tamarak Media

WELL Building Standard

“Biophilia and innovation: Can changing your view change your worldview?” by Lindsay James

[Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Twitter] [Email]
Posted in Category Biomimicry, Biophilia, Biophilic Design, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Documenting a Legend

Leanne Robinson-Maine

Environmental leadership documentary So Right So Smart is airing on Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) in the US during 2015. Interface asked the makers of the film to tell us a little bit about the film’s origin.

“How and why did you decide to embark upon this filmmaking venture?”

MagicWig’s Leanne Robinson-Maine responds:

In simple terms, the answer to that question is a question: “How could we be in the video and filmmaking industry and NOT find a way to document and share with the world the inspiring story unfolding before our eyes?”

MagicWig Productions, Inc. has had a longstanding relationship with Interface as a client. Our founders have been producing meetings and videos for Interface, Inc. since 1995, right after Ray Anderson’s “Spear in the Chest” epiphany. We got to see first hand the changes that the company went through under Ray’s leadership: the initial reactions that “Ray had gone around the bend,” the growing pains involved in changing the culture, the steady embedding of sustainability into Interface’s DNA, and the emergence of a restorative mission for the company. And we have it all on tape. So, we were in a perfect position to use all of that archival footage to share Interface’s inspiring story of transformation with the world.

SRSS Filming Ray Anderson on his porch.

The crew (Justin Maine, Leanne Robinson-Maine and Christopher Haines) interviewing Ray Anderson in 2007 at his North Carolina home. Photo credit: Stephen Ross

At MagicWig we have been cheering for Interface from the sidelines all this time.  We watched in awe as Ray steered his “well oiled” carpet tile manufacturing giant, his third child, toward a completely new and revolutionary goal—one with environmental ethics that really resonated with us. In fact, Guy Noerr, one of the co-founders of our company, has always referred to Ray as “his personal Mickey Mantle”—a legend in his time and Guy’s true hero. And it was Guy who originally proposed to the MagicWig partners that we embark on this “passion project”, producing a full length feature documentary about Ray.

Co-founder Justin Maine, who heads up our video department, responded with the thought that although Ray’s story should be the central character arc of the film, we should explore a wider scope. Ray was a pioneer in his industry—a visionary. But even more interesting was how, with his almost evangelical outreach, Ray held up Interface as an experimental model to inspire other organizations. And the story of Interface’s eco-industrial leadership would be even more powerful when shown in the context of the greater environmental sustainability movement.

The MagicWig team agreed and decided Justin should direct the film. Soon afterward, they brought me on as a writer/producer on the project, and pre-production began. After a period of extensive research, we developed a list of the key parties we were interested in interviewing, from environmental advocates like Paul Hawken and David Suzuki to leaders of a host of other businesses at various stages in sustainability journeys. We wanted to put our finger on the pulse of the corporate sustainability movement from as many perspectives as possible. The list grew as we learned more in each interview and had new questions.

SRSS Story Cards

“The Board” was our visual reference for arranging scenes and topics throughout the editing process.

After two years of traveling around the country during the production phase, we had collected more than 60 interviews and over 350 hours of footage. Trying to decide what went into the film (when there was so much incredible content) was a big challenge and a long process of integrating multiple creative viewpoints (which is how we ultimately ended up with four directors!). Along the way we scripted narration to provide a through-line for all of the different topics covered in the film. Serendipity led us to Daryl Hannah, who turned out to be a huge fan of Ray Anderson. The rest is history. From pre- to post-production, the film took about four years to complete.

So Right So Smart had its world premiere at the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival in January 2009 where it won Best in Festival.  It had its international debut at Reel Earth New Zealand where it won Best Feature. The film has played at over 30 festivals across the globe, has had a limited theatrical release in several US cities, and is currently being broadcast on PBS stations across the country throughout 2015.

SRSS Directors and Star

The four Directors (Leanne Robinson-Maine, Guy Noerr, Justin Maine and Michael Swantek) with Ray Anderson at the Atlanta Film Festival.

We hear so many wonderful responses to the film. Most of them include the sentiment that Ray Anderson, sharing his story the way only Ray could, was critical to their experience of the film and their receptiveness to its message. We like to think that So Right So Smart is continuing the outreach that Ray saw as his mission: using his amazingly magnetic, charismatic personality to engage people and then showing them a living example of change and hope for a more restorative future. We are honored to be able to take a supporting role in sharing the story that we have been so lucky to witness first hand.

To watch the film in your city, visit the film’s website to find the broadcast date for your local PBS channel.

[Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Twitter] [Email]
Posted in Category Culture & Play, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Raising the Bar

Jean Nayar

Known for his high risk efforts in advancing an eco-friendly mission for decades, Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, has fueled the ever-growing environmental movement in America since he organized the first Earth Day in conjunction with then-Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970. Thanks to his efforts as a leader on environmental issues, sustainable strides in this country have been taken on multiple fronts. And if his most recent bet on creating the first significant net positive energy office building in the country pays off, then the world will likely be inspired to get a whole lot greener in the years ahead.

Bullitt_Exterior1_NicLehoux_575x444

The 52,000 square-foot, six story Bullitt Center stands as a shining example of the accomplishments Hayes and the Foundation have achieved in their quest to remain at the forefront of the sustainability movement. Photograph ©Nic Lehoux

Hayes opted to develop the building after searching to no avail in Seattle for environmentally sensitive office space that would meet his criteria. “We were looking for offices that reflected our values,” says Hayes, adding that “our focus is on human ecology with an emphasis on how we can design built environments that are proper, healthy habitats for our species.” Once the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute during the Carter Administration, Hayes continues to advance environmental initiatives supported by the Bullitt Foundation, which offers grants to organizations working on environmental projects in the Pacific Northwest. The 52,000 square-foot, six story Bullitt Center, which is owned by the Bullitt Foundation, stands as a shining example of the accomplishments he and the Foundation have achieved in their quest to remain at the forefront of the sustainability movement.

The structure was designed to achieve certification as a Living Building, which is significantly more ambitious than LEED Platinum certification. To meet it, a building must generate as much energy as it uses each year and use rainwater for all purposes, including drinking. It must also meet lofty standards for eco-friendly materials and indoor air quality. Located on a site that was a forest filled with Douglas fir trees before European settlement, the building was designed by the Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership to function, says Hayes, as a tree would. “Not only does it provide shelter and sustenance for its users, like a tree would for deer, elk, birds, and squirrels, it also produces its own energy from the sun and rain, it doesn’t produce toxins, and it recycles its waste as nutrients.”

Bullitt_Exterior2_NicLehoux_575x350

The Bullitt Center was designed by the Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership to function as a tree would. Photograph ©Nic Lehoux

Since the Bullitt Foundation operates with only seven employees and needed just 4,000 square feet for its own business, the building was designed to be leased out to additional tenants to make it commercially viable. Among the numerous companies and organizations that have opted to occupy the building are the International Living Future Institute, founder of the Living Building Challenge, which defines the standards for Living Building certification, various small companies, and a substantial engineering firm, which completely tailored its business processes to drive down its energy demand by 82 percent with no loss in productivity or convenience. “We tell our tenants how many kilowatt hours of energy they’re allowed to use, and if they exceed it they pay a stiff penalty for high energy bills,” says Hayes.

Bullitt_Interior1_BenjaminBenschneider_575x350

The Seattle office of the International Living Future Institute, founder of the Living Building Challenge, calls the Bullitt Center home. Photograph ©Benjamin Benschneider

The building relies on solar energy to meet its electricity needs, so educating tenants on ways to reduce consumption is necessary to keep the building’s energy use in check. Yet, since the building began operating about two years ago, its energy generating and energy conservation systems not only allow it to meet all of the energy needs of the Bullitt Foundation and other tenants in the building, but also enable it to produce more energy than it consumes, making it the first commercial office building of its size in the U.S. to operate as a net positive energy structure, generating 60 percent more energy than it used in 2014. “The Energy Use Index (EUI) for an average office in Seattle is 95, under our new energy code the index will fall to the low 50s, for LEED Platinum buildings it reaches the low 30s, and for our building we aimed for 16,” says Hayes. “But it has exceeded our wildest hopes. Our EUI in 2014 was 9.4, making it by far the most efficient office building in America.” Its excess power is sold back into the electrical grid for use by others.

A few of the building’s other eco-friendly highlights include a robust rainwater collection and filtering system, onsite treatment of sewage, composting toilets, and project certification from the Forest Stewardship Council—the first office in the U.S. to achieve this status. The building also excludes 362 “Red List” elements that are toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic, or endocrine disrupting. Materials and furnishings devoid of “Red List” elements were also chosen by Robin Chell, principal of Seattle-based RCD, who worked with the Bullitt Foundation to design the interiors of its own offices. “Because we needed to avoid products that contained elements on the “Red List,” everything was rigorously scrutinized and had to be formaldehyde free,” explains Chell.

Bullitt_Interior2_BenjaminBenschneider_575x350

A few of the building’s eco-friendly highlights include a robust rainwater collection and filtering system, onsite treatment of sewage and composting toilets. Photograph ©Benjamin Benschneider

The Bullitt Foundation also needed soft furnishings that would serve as acoustical buffers in the space. So, in keeping with the notion of biomimicry, which guided the design of the building’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and lighting systems, Chell chose felt art works, wool-upholstered soft furnishings, and earth- and moss-inspired eco-friendly modular carpet from Interface’s Urban Retreat collection.  “We wanted to bring in colors of nature with finishes, art, and furnishings that were inviting, stimulating, and reflected their ethos,” Chell explains. “So we started with the carpet, which inspired the tones of the other elements. Aside from offering environmentally friendly products, Interface has an amazing array of design innovations that are almost always ahead of the curve,” Chell adds. Honored with IIDA’s People’s Choice award last year, Chell’s design is ultimately as eco-friendly as it is practical and appealing to the eye.

Bullitt_Interior3_RCD_575x350

In keeping with the notion of biomimicry, Robin Chell Design chose earth- and moss-inspired eco-friendly modular carpet from Interface’s Urban Retreat collection for the space occupied by the Foundation. Photograph ©Brent Smith Photography

Bullitt_Interior4_RCD_575x350

“We wanted to bring in colors of nature with finishes, art, and furnishings that were inviting, stimulating, and reflected their ethos,” Robin Chell explains. Photograph ©Brent Smith Photography

Since Seattle’s climate is often cloudy and gray, creating a six story building that relies on solar energy to meet its power needs was risky. But Hayes was convinced that the potential return on the investment made taking the chance worthwhile. “Other buildings have been designed to meet these sustainable standards, but they are small—usually 2,000-6,000 square feet,” he says. “We wanted to dramatically increase the scale and felt it was doable. Even if we set out and failed, we thought it was still a heroic leap, so we decided why not aim for the moon and give it a shot? We wanted to be taken seriously not only by the academic community, but also by those who actually build.”

Judging by the number of tours (about six per week) that the Bullitt Center hosts in its building for developers, architects, and facility managers, Hayes appears to have succeeded in capturing their attention. And if the building achieves Living Building certification, which it hopes to do later this year, the building will no doubt generate even more interest.

[Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Twitter] [Email]
Posted in Category Biomimicry, Biophilia, Biophilic Design, Design Inspirations, Project Spotlight, Sustainability | Leave a comment

Marsala

Gretchen Wagner

We are all well on our way to an extra fabulous 2015. All those pesky, unfinished projects from 2014 are finally wrapping up, leaving bright space in the new year. And what better way to bring about some change than our annual Pantone Color of the Year feature?

2015′s color of the year is Marsala. Marsala isn’t quite red, and it isn’t burgundy or maroon either. It’s best described as a dusty shade of wine. But we can forego the color analysis and get right down to how you can incorporate it into your new year—other than as the perfect color scheme for your best friend’s wedding.

Marsala situates itself neatly between light and dark on the color wheel with just the right amount of saturation to pair beautifully with smoky, warm neutrals or livened with rich blue-violets and a vivid orchid accent. I look at Marsala the same way I do the perfect navy. When used correctly, it falls into that category of neutral sophistication that just about everyone is trying to achieve. But when paired with some vibrancy, Marsala can pack quite the punch of energy to get you riled up for 2015.

Pantone_Marsala2_575

For the mindful self-care approach, wrap yourself in that cashmere blanket you’ve had on your wishlist since 2012 and pair with lush Marsala velvet throw pillows. Think about Marsala more as an accent to your otherwise neutral wardrobe and find subtle ways to incorporate it into your ensemble. Maybe it’s a new nail color at the salon or a fresh pair of pumps. For the color enthusiast, Marsala is your starting point. Begin with a staple item in the color (i.e. a gorgeous chiffon dress or wide leg pant) and layer with saturated accents.

Whether you’re more subdued or over-hued, Marsala can work for you if you work with it.

[Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Twitter] [Email]
Posted in Category Design Inspirations, Products & Services | Leave a comment