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Promoting Health through Building Materials

On average, 90% of a person’s life is spent in an indoor environment. Whether at work, school, or leisure activities, people find themselves within the confines of buildings. The desire for safe and peaceful environments has only intensified as a result of global health crises and growing climate anxiety. Architects and interior designers face a critical challenge: to create spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also healthy. At the heart of this endeavor lies the choice of materials. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recognized this crossroads and developed the A&D Materials Pledge to encourage architects and designers to specify healthy materials. The Pledge defines a healthy material based on the materials’ impact on the following categories: ecosystems, climate, humans, social equity, and circularity.



Addressing the degradation of ecosystem health is crucial for a sustainable future, as the consequences impact both the natural environment and human well-being through loss of biodiversity, water scarcity, food insecurity, and more. Architects and designers can support ecosystem health through material selection by specifying products that do not hinder natural cycles of air, water, and life, in the supply chain and through company practices. The best place to start to limit negative ecosystem impacts is with the manufacturers. This can be through conversations with representatives about their material procurements or by reading a publicly available corporate responsibility report. When selecting materials, make sure they have an environmental stewardship certification for the product categories. Some notable examples include FSC Chain-of Custody certificate, Cradle-to-Cradle certification, and Living Product Challenge. If a third-party certification is unable for a product, ask the manufacturer for an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). EPDs are material transparency documents that list the environmental impacts across the life cycle of a product. Even without a certification, architects and designers can still evaluate the health of a product by reading its EPD.


Operational carbon emissions are not the only climate change impacts associated with buildings, embodied carbon of materials contributes significantly as well. Embodied carbon of materials refers to the cumulative carbon emissions in the production of materials, from raw material extraction to manufacturing to installation. The majority of the embodied carbon in building materials comes from cement and steel, but interior materials also have high embodied carbon partly due to frequent replacements. EPDs are also beneficial for evaluating carbon impacts as life cycle assessments are often done as part of the EPD process. A more effective way to evaluate the embodied carbon impact of the materials in a building is to do a whole building life cycle assessment (LCA). This compiles the documented carbon impacts in the EPDs of materials and assesses carbon impact on a building scale in comparison to a baseline building. This provides a more holistic view of the building’s embodied carbon rather than looking at each material in isolation.

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