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HLW’s Firm Stand on Healthy Materials Shines Through at NY Build 2024

Tags Event, Insight, Interview, News

Two smiling women standing in front of a colorful backdrop with large printed hard hats, labeled "WORKSHOP 2" at the New York Build Expo, indicating a focus on construction and architecture.

At the annual expo, HLW designers Kate Caruso and Stephanie Haedrich shared their insights on the how’s and why’s of healthy materials in the built environment.

At a well-attended speaker series at NY Build 2024, Senior Designer Kate Caruso and Sustainability Project Manager Stephanie Haedrich made the case that architects, designers, and owners should be knowledgeable about the origins, composition, and lifecycle of materials they specify for their projects. This approach places healthy materials at the heart of a project, ensuring that these spaces not only foster the health and comfort of those who use them but also contribute to the preservation of our planet.

What Defines a Healthy Material?

Healthy materials are those that are benign to human health and the environment throughout their lifecycle—from extraction and manufacturing to use and eventual disposal. They avoid releasing harmful chemicals, uphold ethical production, minimize ecological damage, reduce climate impact, and encourage recycling or composting.

Shifting the Paradigm: Questions to Guide Material Selection

Traditionally, questions around material selection have focused on aesthetics, durability, cost-effectiveness, and availability. However, as we move towards a more health-conscious design philosophy, the criteria must evolve.

“It’s not just about whether a material is on trend or if it meets code requirements,” explains Caruso. “Now we need to ask more probing questions like, ‘How does this material impact human health, immediately and long term?’, ‘Are there risks involved with its production or disposal?’, ‘Are there better alternatives out there?’”

The Invisible Risks: Understanding Human Health Factors

The path to selecting healthier materials involves understanding how traditional materials can pose risks. Harmful chemicals can off-gas from materials, be ingested through dust or contaminated water, or be absorbed through the skin. Furthermore, the production and disposal of materials can expose workers and communities to toxic substances.

Building a Framework for Healthier Material Selection

“Choosing the right materials is about more than just steering clear of the harmful ones,” explains Haedrich, whose expertise contributed to creating HLW’s first 100% healthy materials library, located in our New Jersey office. In particular, she recommends choosing materials that are transparent about their ingredients, free from restricted chemicals, and have low or no emissions of volatile organic compounds.

In addition, adopting frameworks like LEED, WELL, or Living Building Challenge can guide the integration of healthy materials into projects. “It’s all about making sure our buildings do more than just check a box. They’ve got to become places where people actually feel healthier and make our world healthier,” says Haedrich.

Implementing Healthy Materials: Strategies for Change

Transitioning to healthy materials requires concerted effort across the industry. This includes developing healthy materials libraries, advocating for transparency with manufacturers, and adhering to guidelines that prioritize health and well-being. By taking these proactive steps, designers can lead the charge in making healthier environments a standard practice.

Towards a Healthier Future

The move towards healthy materials in architectural design represents a significant shift in how we conceive of and interact with our built environment. It’s a journey that challenges us to rethink our material choices, prioritize health and equity, and design spaces that nurture rather than deplete. As we continue to navigate this evolving landscape, the collective effort of the architecture and design community will be paramount in shaping a future where health and sustainability are inextricably linked.

HLW ArchInsights is a bi-weekly window into the dynamic world of architecture, where we explore industry trends, offer thought-provoking insights, and share the latest news from our firm, guiding you through the ever-evolving landscape of design and innovation.