HLW Healthy Materials Protocol and Library

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Healthy Materials Protocol and Library

White Paper 2023  Sustainability
Healthy Materials Protocol and Library

In this paper, we focus on HLW’s latest initiative, the Healthy Materials Protocol and Library, which aims to ensure that the firm's architectural designs achieve the highest levels of safety and well-being for occupants, while minimizing negative impact on the environment.

The white paper comprises two parts: an interview between three HLW employees—Jacquelyn Haas, associate architect; Stephanie Haedrich, sustainability project manager; and Emmy Funk, senior sustainability analyst—who together explore the challenges and implications of the Healthy Materials Protocol and Library. The second part is a short essay by Jacquelyn Haas, in which she details the challenges of curating the New Jersey office’s new, healthy materials exclusive architectural library. We invite you to read on and learn more about this important initiative and its potential implications for sustainable design in the architectural industry.

and are pleased to release this white paper, which delves into the critical issue of sustainable design in the architectural industry through the lens of recent developments at our firm.

Jacquelyn Haas: So, the first question: What is your background and what led you to this career?

Emmy Funk: I studied environmental science at Rice University. In 2012, it wasn't a stand-alone major and there wasn’t a formal sustainability track. Because of that, I wasn’t clear on what job opportunities existed in this field. My first job out of college was at the EPA in their Office of Strategic Programs We did a lot of environmental justice work in underserved communities, tackling things like Superfund and brownfield site remediations, much of which was on hold when the Trump administration transitioned in. I pivoted to the private sector and worked for a manufacturer in the built environment space focusing on product sustainability and material health. Then I came to HLW and architecture, which was relatively new to me.

Stephanie Haedrich: I don't think I knew your background before, Emmy.

JH: It’s interesting that you came from an environmental justice background. I bet that previous experience plays a big role in your approach to the materials library.

EF: Yeah, definitely. People don't often associate environmental justice with the contamination that can come from inside our homes, but it’s definitely something to pay attention to. In some of the environmental justice

communities we worked in, a lot of housing still contained asbestos and lead. It was just a disaster. That experience definitely prepared me for my work at HLW and the library initiative.

JH: Stephanie, what is your background and what led you to this career?

SH: So, I went to Carnegie Mellon University where I studied architecture. That's where my passion for sustainability really took off. One of my most influential professors was Vivian Loftness. If you've ever heard her talk about biophilia and sustainability, you know how inspiring she can be. She makes you want to just get out there and change the world. It wasn’t until I came to HLW and started working with Emmy that I got interested in materials. Because you’re right, Emmy—materials are so important. Everything in our environment has an impact on our health: the food we eat, the cars we drive, the materials we use every day. People will complain about their clothes not being one-hundred-percent organic cotton, but they don’t even think about the quality of the plastics they’re touching all day long.

JH: I think that’s a great transition to my second question. What inspired you to develop the new protocol for the library?

Part One  Interview

Jacquelyn Haas: So, the first question: What is your background and what led you to this career?

Emmy Funk: I studied environmental science at Rice University. In 2012, it wasn't a stand-alone major and there wasn’t a formal sustainability track. Because of that, I wasn’t clear on what job opportunities existed in this field. My first job out of college was at the EPA in their Office of Strategic Programs We did a lot of environmental justice work in underserved communities, tackling things like Superfund and brownfield site remediations, much of which was on hold when the Trump administration transitioned in. I pivoted to the private sector and worked for a manufacturer in the built environment space focusing on product sustainability and material health. Then I came to HLW and architecture, which was relatively new to me.

Stephanie Haedrich: I don't think I knew your background before, Emmy.

JH: It’s interesting that you came from an environmental justice background. I bet that previous experience plays a big role in your approach to the materials library.

EF: Yeah, definitely. People don't often associate environmental justice with the contamination that can come from inside our homes, but it’s definitely something to pay attention to. In some of the environmental justice

communities we worked in, a lot of housing still contained asbestos and lead. It was just a disaster. That experience definitely prepared me for my work at HLW and the library initiative.

JH: Stephanie, what is your background and what led you to this career?

SH: So, I went to Carnegie Mellon University where I studied architecture. That's where my passion for sustainability really took off. One of my most influential professors was Vivian Loftness. If you've ever heard her talk about biophilia and sustainability, you know how inspiring she can be. She makes you want to just get out there and change the world. It wasn’t until I came to HLW and started working with Emmy that I got interested in materials. Because you’re right, Emmy—materials are so important. Everything in our environment has an impact on our health: the food we eat, the cars we drive, the materials we use every day. People will complain about their clothes not being one-hundred-percent organic cotton, but they don’t even think about the quality of the plastics they’re touching all day long.

JH: I think that’s a great transition to my second question. What inspired you to develop the new protocol for the library?

SH: Whenever I design something, I always want there to be a good reason why I’m conceptualizing or specifying something in this particular way. That’s the purpose of the protocol: to increase access to and understanding of healthy materials.

JH: So, is the idea to provide the framework for designers to make the best choice for their projects?

SH: Yes, I like to think of it as similar to what the FDA went through when they created food labels. It's frustrating because you want people to make good choices, but if they don't even know where or how to look it can be very confusing for them.

You know, I went through something very similar to this process in my personal life. When my son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, it was really difficult to find

“We're looking to push the design industry and encourage innovation to create even safer and healthier products.”

safe foods for him. I had to become really good at reading labels and vetting what was good and what wasn't. So now, when it comes to materials, I have that same skill set of finding the good stuff and avoiding the bad.

EF: Totally understand why you’d make that connection, Stephanie. I think there are a lot of similarities between the two industries because they face the same issues. They are not regulated, and it has to be really bad before it gets regulated or even studied. And supply chains are not transparent.

JH: How do you ensure the materials in the library are healthy and sustainable?

SH: We're looking for products that are transparent in terms of their ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing processes. We're also making sure that they meet certifications such as Cradle to Cradle or Declare. It's about more than just aesthetics.

EF: And we're constantly reassessing what's in the library. It's not a one-time exercise.

JH: What's next for the library and for HLW in terms of sustainability?

EF: We're hoping to expand the library initiative to other offices and incorporate it into our design process more seamlessly.

SH: We're also looking at our own operations and making sure we're walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

JH: It sounds like there is a lot of complexity involved in figuring out what is in our products and how to make them safer. Can you explain a little bit more about the challenges involved in this process?

EF: Yes, it's incredibly complicated. We're dealing with very technical, chemical information that most of us are not experts in. And unfortunately, the onus is often on designers to figure out what is in products and whether they are safe. There are industry standards that have been developed, but those can sometimes be difficult to navigate. And manufacturers don't always transparently disclose what chemicals are in their products, which can make it even more challenging for designers to make informed decisions.

Ultimately, the government should be regulating harmful chemicals, rather than putting onus on individual designers and consumers. But in the absence of chemical regulations, it is up to us to do our best to make sure that we are not specifying products that could harm people's health. And that means digging into technical documentation and trying to make sense of it all.

SH: Right, in some ways, it's a grassroots effort. There's no big government that’s going to come and save us from these manufacturers and corporations. Or if they do, it's going to be years down the line when a bunch of bad stuff has already happened.

JH: Or we've all already changed our behaviors and the government is retroactively like, OK, we'll make some regulations that match what you've already done.

Healthy Materials Protocol and Library
HLW New Jersey Health Materials Library Team. Left to right: Stephanie Haedrich, Leah Cuevas, Kate Caruso, Jacquelyn Haas.

SH: Yeah, like when you look at the history of policy change, it's usually change that happens when the damage has been done or the evidence is irrefutable.

JH: Let’s get into specifics about the protocol. How did the BEYOND team develop it?

Emmy Funk: When we first started discussing this initiative, the big question was where to start and how to create an organized and straightforward protocol based on science-backed research. The impetus was signing the AIA Healthy Materials pledge, which outlines commitments to climate, human health, and social equity that architects and designers should be adhering to. We also consulted with the Green Science Policy Institute's list of chemical groups that have proven negative, long-term human health impacts. We focused on classes of chemicals, such as halogenated flame retardants and PVC, that we know have harmful effects. We took a bold stance on those: We will no longer be specifying any products that have these chemicals in them and they are certainly not in the library. From a high level, that's how we structured our protocol and commitment, and we get into more granular details when executing it.

JH: In reading the protocol, I noticed there are a lot of stipulations about fabrics. Can you elaborate on why you're trying to phase out certain chemicals from textiles?

EF: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to fabrics, there are a lot of additives that are not necessary and can be harmful to the environment and to human health. For example, many fabrics contain antimicrobials and flame retardant coatings that may not be essential for their performance but are added as a selling point or for aesthetic purposes. By phasing out these chemicals, we can reduce the negative impact that these products have on the environment and on people's health.

SH: And having a baseline for the chemicals we're phasing out is helpful because it sets a minimum standard for the products we use. It also creates a psychological effect where we're not just settling for any product, but we're striving for the best. Even if we can only reach the baseline, it's still better than using products that contain harmful chemicals.

JH: Can you explain more about the baseline, good, and best levels and how they are used in the protocol?

EF: Sure. So, once we had these classes of chemicals that we wanted to avoid, we needed a way to categorize products based on their chemical content. That's where the baseline, good, and best levels come in. The baseline level is essentially HLW’s minimum, so we are using the Six Classes of Chemicals to determine what should not be in our projects. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s completely protective of human health, however it already meets a robust minimum.

The good level is where we want to be as a firm. This means that we have proactively screened for any of the chemical classes that we've identified as harmful and replaced them with safer alternatives. This level prioritizes transparency and available information from certifications and standards.

Finally, the best level is aspirational. This is where we want to be in the future, where we're looking to push the design industry and encourage innovation to create even safer and healthier products.

JH: It sounds like building the protocol really relied on a lot of specialized knowledge coming from multiple team members.

SH: It certainly takes a village. One person could not have done this alone. So many different types of expertise are needed to make the call about what materials are even allowed in and at what level.

JH: You definitely need more than one person to make a cultural shift, and that’s really the goal of the protocol and library, right?

SH: Right! Together, the protocol and the library are what’s going to get the momentum going to make big changes in our firm and in our industry.

JH: In discussing healthy materials, I bet semantics and labels are something your team had to contend with frequently. I wonder, are there any examples of “natural” products that don’t fit the protocol?

SH: That’s a good question. So, the funny thing about the word natural is that its deceptive. We like to think that natural automatically equals “good for us” but that’s not necessarily true. For example, arsenic is natural and it’s also a poison. So, I don’t necessarily trust the word natural

when I see it on a product. In fact, I research products more thoroughly if I see they’re making big claims about their naturalness.

EF: Right now, I would say that the bulk of the materials we address in the protocol and have in the library are synthetics. But eventually my hope is we will assess all materials, natural and synthetic, from a holistic standpoint. For example, let’s take natural stones. Stone cutting is really bad for the people that work in those manufacturing centers because the dust they inhale during the cutting is hard on the lungs.

JH: I noticed, too, that porcelain and ceramic tiles are not included in the protocol at this time. Why is that?

SH: Porcelain and ceramic are not synthetic materials, but they may be considered in a future phase when we assess a product's carbon neutrality or distance traveled. Speaking of which, I will continue to share personal anecdotes until someone tells me to stop.

but we could also look at locally sourced versus European materials, carbon neutrality, and equity.

EF: We've discussed expanding the materials library beyond interiors to include architectural base building materials, as well as our signage and lighting groups. We’ve planted the seed, the library will continue to grow, but for now we’re focused on including interiors materials that are abundantly present in every project.

JH: Ok we’re nearing the end here. Here’s my last question: We've talked a lot about the impact a project following this protocol could have. Why do you think protocols like the one you two have developed and HLW’s healthy materials library are not common in our industry?

EF: There are firms that are trying to or have implemented similar protocols. However, I think it’s really challenging to draw clear lines in the sand about what materials and chemical classes to use on projects, and I think HLW is taking a unique position in making a very firm stance

This morning, my husband and I were discussing cucumbers. He had read an article about why there is plastic on cucumbers in grocery stores. I said that while a little bit of plastic is better than food waste, it would be best to buy locally grown cucumbers to reduce travel and plastic waste. However, not everyone has access to locally grown cucumbers, so we debated what is the lesser of two evils: food waste or a small amount of plastic?

Similarly, there are many factors to consider when assessing materials. We are currently examining synthetic materials,

on what we can and cannot use. It gets particularly complicated when you’re trying to balance different impact areas such as climate health. In my opinion, human health should take precedence, even if it means sacrificing carbon goals. Stephanie, what do you think?

SH: Yeah, I agree. The first challenge is really getting everyone on board and deciding as a firm to take a stand, which can be difficult for larger firms like ours. It might be the case at other firms that not everyone agrees on taking that stance, or they don't know where to draw the

Healthy Materials Protocol and Library
“...a good starting point for any architecture firm is to have all staff familiarize themselves with the AIA Materials Pledge.”

Embracing HLW's healthy materials protocol, the London office launched their library earlier this year.

line, or how to quantify the commitment. The solution we’ve come up with for HLW is to first start at the office level. Once the protocol is officially launched, the entire New Jersey office will sign an internal copy, signaling to colleagues and office mates that we’re all aligned.

I think a good starting point for any architecture firm is to have all staff familiarize themselves with the AIA Materials Pledge. Understanding what it means and having everyone agree to it will give firms a clear framework for how to proceed with creating healthy interiors. Developing frameworks and making them work is our specialty at BEYOND. Other firms may not have that built-in capability, but we do. So that's something BEYOND and HLW can be proud of.

EF: I have to admit, it takes a lot of effort. I was hoping we would have a database ready, and everything set up, but it takes time to vet materials, reach out to manufacturers, and get familiar with the documentation. BEYOND is experienced in creating sustainability frameworks and making them work for projects, like LEED, which sets us apart from other firms that may not have an in-house sustainability group. We already have experts in this field and a knowledge base, yet it’s still a challenge for us as a firm to implement. It's going beyond LEED, and we're continuously pushing ourselves to do better.

In a perfect world, the onus would not be on us to ask these questions. We should be guaranteed that the products legally sold on the market won't harm our health or the people who make them. But unfortunately, that's not the world we live in.

I want to give recognition to the full-time architects and designers who already have a lot on their plate but are taking the time to join us in this effort. I'm grateful to be in a place where people are willing to take the time and actively forward this initiative in their practices as designers.

JH: Yes, and we wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of leadership, too. I’m excited to see their reactions, especially once we begin to scale across the whole firm.

JH: Ok, any last thoughts before we officially wrap up?

SH: I think the protocol and library have the potential to really affect change in our industry, almost like a butterfly effect. The reach of our efforts will be bigger than what we imagine because it won't just stop with our individual specifications—it'll impact our clients and the supply chains. The more firms that draw a line in the sand and say they won't use harmful products, the more pressure it puts on industries and manufacturers to find alternatives. For example, on a recent call, a vendor was chatting with us about a product that uses a type of chrome that is toxic; we didn’t want to specify it. They had to change it to get their chair OK’d by us. They had to go way down the supply chain to get the right metal additive, but because of that effort we insisted on, other chairs and furniture pieces in their portfolio don't have toxic chrome. Change can be really hard, but when we make the effort, its effects never just end with us.

EF: I love that, Steph. I think that’s a perfect place to end.

JH: Me, too. Thank you both so much!

HLW Announces

New Healthy Materials Library in New Jersey Office

Launched simultaneously with the firm’s new Healthy Materials Protocol, the library will provide HLW staff with the most contemporary and sustainable building materials for use in projects of all sizes and typologies.

HLW New Jersey’s Healthy Materials Library (HML) is a new, critical resource that ensures that our architects and designers have knowledge of and access to healthy and sustainable building materials. The library was conceived as the first real-life application of BEYOND’s Healthy Materials Protocol, which draws inspiration from the AIA’s Healthy Materials Pledge. It officially launched in tandem with the firmwide release of BEYOND’s protocol.

Creating the HML was a collaborative effort between different teams within HLW. BEYOND (HLW’s in-house environmental consultancy), the firm’s material technology team, and New Jersey–based colleagues worked together to curate the vast number of materials that went into the library.

Healthy Materials Protocol and Library Part Two  Essay by Jacquelyn Haas, associate

“Awareness of healthy materials is not new to HLW,” explains Susan Kaplan, director of HLW’s Materials + Technology department. “We have worked with clients for almost 20 years to figure out how to incorporate healthier options into our projects. With this new protocol and library in place, we’ll be able to elevate and accelerate our efforts.”

The endeavor was not without its challenges.

First, the sheer quantity of manufacturers and materials that needed to be vetted was staggering. Our team’s research encompassed the materials’ raw components, production processes, supply chain journeys, and their ability to be recycled or deconstructed post-use. We also had to become knowledgeable about myriad certifications that the design industry industry uses to identify healthy and ecoconscious materials. To speed this process along, we reached out to manufacturers’ reps and asked them for audits of their own products.

Finding substitutes for entire product categories comprised of toxic materials was another significant challenge. One such product category was LVT (luxury vinyl tiles). LVT is a popular choice for flooring in many buildings, but it’s been shown to pose significant health risks. Finding an alternative product that matched the aesthetic, durability, and price point of LVT was difficult, but not impossible, thanks to our research and relationships with expert manufacturer reps. We were able to include biobased tiles and rubber flooring in the Healthy Materials Library as the alternative.

“We are willing to leave no stone unturned to ensure products that go into our projects are as healthy as possible – both upstream and downstream,” says Jonce Walker, principal and managing director of BEYOND. “Not only do our clients deserve this level of attention, but so does the labor force that produces these products.”

Finally, the team was very conscious of greenwashing in the AEC industry and took measures to ensure that the HML would not be another unfortunate example of designers talking the talk but not walking the walk. Some products have generic claims on their spec sheets that don't necessarily relate to an accepted standard or certification to back it up. For example, some brands advertise their wallcoverings as being made of "biobased vinyl." However, after extensive research, our team found that the products still contain PVC, which does not satisfy the Healthy Materials Protocol. Such instances require extensive collaboration between BEYOND and the material technology team to ensure that the library only contains products that meet the highest standards.

In conclusion, creating the HML is a challenging and ongoing process. Evaluating the large quantity of manufacturers and products, calling out greenwashing, and finding substitutes for toxic materials are some of the primary challenges that the team must continuously tackle. Collaboration is critical to ensuring that the library represents the latest and greatest in materials knowledge. Despite the challenges, the HML is essential for creating a healthier and more sustainable built environment.

“With this new protocol and library in place, we’ll be able to elevate and accelerate our efforts.”

Meet the Team

e: jhaas@hlw.com

p: 973-307-9971

e: shaedrich@hlw.com

p: 973-201-4023

e: efunk@hlw.com

p: 212-353-4659

Stephanie Haedrich Associate, Project Manager Emmy Funk, WELL AP Associate, BEYOND Sustainability Analyst
www.hlw.com
Jacquelyn Haas, NCARB WELL AP LFA Associate, Architect
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