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Product, Service & Design Innovation
AIA Materials Pledge Enables Architects, Designers to Create Spaces Where People and Natural Systems Thrive

The places where we work, play, eat, sleep, learn and heal can have an impact on our wellbeing. And everything from access to daylight and sound levels in a room to material selection and color schemes affects how we experience a space.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) developed the Architecture & Design Materials Pledge to inspire a shift in how architects and designers evaluate the products and finishes that they specify. Leading up to organization’s annual conference, Shaw VP of Sustainability – Commercial Tim Conway spoke with Sustainability Strategist Melissa Wackerle about the Materials Pledge and the impact it aims to have on people and the planet, as part of Shaw’s annual sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program.

What was the motivation for the AIA community to develop the Architecture & Design Materials Pledge?

Melissa Wackerle: Architects and designers have the foremost ability to influence and determine the products that go into buildings. Through the building materials specifications they make daily, AIA members have tremendous power to make a direct and significant impact to mitigate climate change and create buildings and communities where all people and natural systems can thrive.

To that end, AIA developed the A&D Materials Pledge. Driven by a desire to clarify architects’ and designers’ ask to building product manufacturers and inspired by our 2030 Commitment program — which drives accountability around ambitious imperatives for climate action — the A&D Materials Pledge outlines five overarching statements that will lead to more intentional product specification across their portfolios over time.

What are those five areas of focus?

MW: The pledge supports holistic selection of materials that enhance human health, climate health, ecosystem health, social health and equity, and circular economy. These outcomes truly manifest sustainability’s triple bottom line of people, planet and prosperity.

Participating firms pledge to support:

  • human health by prioritizing products that support and foster life throughout their life cycles and seek to eliminate the use of hazardous substances.

  • social health & equity by prioritizing products from manufacturers that secure human rights in their own operations and in their supply chains, positively impacting their workers and the communities where they operate

  • ecosystem health by prioritizing products that support and regenerate the natural air, water and biological cycles of life through thoughtful supply chain management and restorative company practices

  • climate health by prioritizing products that reduce carbon emissions and ultimately sequester more carbon than emitted.

  • a circular economy by reusing and improving buildings and by designing for resiliency, adaptability, disassembly, and reuse; aspiring to a zero-waste goal for global construction activities.

Since publishing these five statements in an open letter to the profession and industry in 2018, more than 160 architecture and design firms of all sizes have signed on. They collectively represent more than 20,000 employees of A&D companies committed to healthy and sustainable materials selection.

Image credit: AIA

How is the pledge being implemented by AIA members?

MW: Once firms join, they’re provided with a Materials Pledge Starter Guide. This guide (available to all for download) expands on the pledge statements to provide specific actions firms can take to make an impact across the five pledge areas. It also includes five general actions any firm can take, including:

  1. Updating a firm’s sustainability or climate action plan to reflect the pledge.

  2. Creating or refreshing the firm’s materials library or policies.

  3. Making materials and product selections based on pledge criteria.

  4. Building literacy and training employees about materials.

  5. Encouraging conversations.

AIA has also developed a variety of additional online resources and education including our five-part AIAU Materials Certificate Series.

What's working well?

MW: Signing the A&D Materials Pledge — like setting any organizational goal — opens the door for additional conversations for design teams about the importance of materials in achieving sustainability goals.

In a study of pledge participants from November 2021, nearly 90 percent of respondents report training staff on materials since signing the pledge, and 60 percent report pledge-specific conversations among project team members. Nearly half of respondents have updated their materials library and policies to accept only healthier, sustainable materials — laying the groundwork for lasting change.

What's the most common challenge you've heard?

MW: Our challenge has been a need for clear and consistent definitions and benchmarks of healthy and sustainable materials.

In that November 2021 study, 70 percent of A&D Materials Pledge signatories indicated that they seek more consistent goals and benchmarks to measure their progress; and 87 percent of respondents wanted to see more manufacturer data.

While 40 percent of respondents reported that they are currently adopting systems to organize their materials libraries and specify better products, an additional 46 percent plan to do so in the future. This represents a tremendous opportunity for market transformation toward heathy and sustainable materials and products.

We also recognize the important of supporting building product manufactures, like Shaw, to better recognize the return on investment for research and development of materials that meet emerging industry standards. We’re working with industry partners to connect market demand for sustainable products to manufacturer investment in better materials.

So, what's next?

MW: To meet this challenge and opportunity, AIA has been working with mindful MATERIALS — a longtime collaborator that emerged from AIA member-led architecture firms — to develop a Common Materials Framework as a critical pathway to providing the clarity and consensus around sustainable materials that can provide this consistent definition for materials with benchmarks that span the five topics of the pledge statement goals for the entire industry.

mindful MATERIALS is also leading a Manufacturer’s Materials Commitment around the A&D Materials Pledge. We applaud Shaw’s leadership as an early signatory to that initiative.

This article is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. Each of the 10 organizations selected for this year’s recognition program is a leader in its own right and offers something from which we can all learn about putting people at the heart of sustainability. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this series.