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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Igniting the Healthy Building Materials Movement:
A Conversation with Perkins&Will

Here, Mary Dickinson, co-director of Perkins&Will's Material Performance Lab, sheds light on the firm’s efforts related to the environments in which we live, work and play; the market drivers for those initiatives; and the challenges and keys to success along the way.

In an effort to recognize the ways we can each make a positive impact on people and the planet, Shaw hosted a webinar with Sustainable Brands™ in October 2019, called “Sustaining Human Ability: Taking a People-Centric Approach to Sustainability.”

Mary Dickinson, co-director of the Material Performance Lab at global architecture and design firm Perkins&Willl and a firmwide sustainability leader, was among the participants. Mary has worked on more than 5 million square feet of sustainable design projects; and in 2017, she personally led the development of the firm’s enhanced Transparency portal — an online educational hub replete with data and key resources.

In the conversation with Mary, she shed light on the firm’s efforts related to people, the environment and the environments in which we live, work and play; the market drivers for those initiatives; and the firm’s challenges and keys to success along the way.

That conversation has been adapted here for print:

Mary, can you share a little bit about Perkins&Will, and the firm’s efforts related to people and the planet?

Mary Dickinson: With a legacy dating back to 1935, Perkins&Will has focused its last 20 years on sustainability. In that time, the definition of sustainability has evolved considerably. Today, the firm embraces a philosophy it calls “Living Design” — design that holistically restores, protects and nurtures life on Earth.

In addition to sustainability, Living Design includes critical elements like resilience, regeneration, diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing:

  • Resilience asks if something can stand the test of time.

  • Regeneration studies what it would take to make an entire ecosystem self-sustaining.

  • Diversity and inclusion concentrate on design that fosters a sense of community for all people.

  • And wellbeing focuses on the human experience of design: when using a space, do people feel well in all aspects of their life — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually?

In 2008, Perkins&Will ignited an industry movement toward healthy building materials with the debut of its Precautionary List — a catalogue of substances known or suspected of harming human and environmental health, and that are commonly found in building materials. Later, the firm established its Material Performance Lab, one of seven in-house research labs — this one focused on continuing the investigation into product ingredients and their impact. The goal is to “educate design professionals (and the broader public) on choosing healthier, more sustainable products for the built environment.” Since its inception, the Lab has reviewed more than 1,500 products from over 100 manufacturers, and has seen a tremendously positive response from the marketplace thanks to cross-industry collaboration.

What market needs, insights or shifts are driving your efforts?

MD: Our big vision is market transformation — an evolution toward universally healthy building materials. In collaboration with the Healthy Building Network (HBN), we have identified key product categories, as well as manufacturers who are committed to the same goal of human and environmental health. That sends market signals to design professionals that there are other product options available. And in response to increased demand, we are able to see more and more products being specified and come into the market.

A decade ago, we were working on building the demand for transparency. We didn't even know where to find products that had substances of concern in them. With tools like the Healthy Product Declaration, the concept of material health and transparency has gained a lot of momentum. We have reached the point of supporting manufacturers who create all the declarations and working with our design teams to use the tools when presenting products to clients. It has become a much easier conversation over the last couple of years.

Can you share a little about some of the challenges you faced through this initiative or project?

MD: There are three design challenges that we have been working to overcome, but they have been part of our success story, as well:

  • The first challenge was a learning curve. At Perkins&Will, we have nearly 3,000 design professionals across the globe. You can imagine the challenge of providing our professional staff the knowledge needed to understand declarations and certifications and teaching them how to apply that knowledge when looking at different materials. There are a great deal of materials in our projects.

  • That leads me to the second challenge: Limited product options can lead to limited creative palettes. Designers can feel concerned if there are not a lot of choices that meet certain health-based criteria — say, a requirement that all substances of concern be removed. While the market has certainly made great strides in recent years, its transformation isn’t complete. We’re working on getting there.

  • The third and final challenge, is with the universal adoption of these design principles and practices. I believe it’s just a matter of the time that it takes for the teams to do their work and do it well — balanced against the schedule they have to meet.

What have been your keys to success?

MD: Always think about who our target audience is — who we wanted to share this information with. If we’re trying to overcome the challenge of the learning curve, our target audience is designers. What we realized is that we could no longer work in spreadsheets — as we tend to do with sustainability tracking — to convey some of this information. We had to start meeting folks where they were and using their design language. Designers start with laying out a palette of materials and talking about the space. Then they talk about what makes up that room and what products will be used, which leads to more questions. With early knowledge of the project, might we choose materials for that space differently? Design it differently?

We have also worked really hard at overcoming that learning curve with different resources that we provide. Our designers are big fans of HBN’s HomeFree and Pharos sites. HomeFree really breaks down the information so you don't feel so overwhelmed; you don’t have to be a chemist to understand it.

Being able to provide resources such as mindful MATERIALS — essentially a library housing all of these materials, declarations, certifications, and the products’ level of optimization — is also key to our success. This really helps our designers identify where each manufacturer is with regard to its sustainability efforts. We've worked on helping folks feel like it doesn't have to be all or nothing. We have broken it up. We can start by focusing on the materials that will be used in greatest volume — for example, flooring or ceiling tiles. If teams are working on an interior space, they just look at the mindful MATERIALS library and analyze their top 10 materials by service area. Or, if they are working on an architectural scope, they look at the top 10 architectural materials.

By breaking it up into smaller pieces, we have attracted many more designers into using that minimum standard. As a result, there's a lot more knowledge-sharing happening, and a much greater collective accomplishment of health-based design goals.

This article is one in a series of articles recognizing 10 diverse organizations intently focused on products and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability™ recognition program.