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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Parsons’ Healthy Materials Lab and Library Offers Resources for Designers, Architects, Students

Shaw’s Tim Conway recently spoke with the Lab's director, Alison Mears, about how it is raising awareness about building material ingredients and educating the next generation of designers and architects.

The Healthy Materials Lab and Library at Parsons School of Design is one of nine organizations selected as part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program, which recognizes a diverse slate of organizations working on innovative projects and initiatives that support the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Shaw’s Tim Conway recently spoke with Alison Mears, director of the Healthy Materials Lab, to learn more about how the lab is raising awareness about building material ingredients and creating resources for the next generation of designers and architects.

TC: Can you please tell us the story of how the Healthy Materials Lab and Library came to be, and what you offer?

AM: The Donghia Healthy Materials Library was established over 20 years ago with support from Parsons alumnus Angelo Donghia, as an academic resource. It is dedicated to helping the next generation of designers make responsible material decisions. With curated product collections and frameworks for evaluating materials, the library offers guiding strategies and hands-on examples of products making positive impacts on human health, environmental justice and social equity. It is open to all students and faculty at Parsons and the larger New School community. It is also a resource for design and architecture faculty and professionals in the NYC community.

Healthy Materials Lab (HML) at Parsons was established in 2015 and funded as part of a multiyear grant from The JPB Foundation. The HML is committed to removing toxic chemicals from common building products, especially in affordable housing. At its founding, the Lab was the first design and architectural academic organization that positioned human health at the center of design decision-making in the built environment. When HML was established, we also became new stewards of the materials library. The new material knowledge that is an outcome of the Lab’s research informs the organization and collection of products and materials in the Library. The ongoing research contributes to a constantly evolving and dynamic materials collection.

Our work in the Lab and Library can be divided into four main areas. We offer education courses, as well as other resources — including industry and academic presentations in our Learning Hub. Our Materials Collections curate samples of design materials, databases of certified products and ‘design-forward’ product libraries. We also compile resources including material health research, design approaches, guidance and best practices for designers and architects.

TC: Can you share some of your projects?

AM: A few of our recent projects include:

  • The PA Hemp Home is a demonstration project with DON Enterprise — a consumer-controlled, nonprofit organization in Western Pennsylvania that empowers people with disabilities to live as independently as they choose. HML is designing the house renovation incorporating hemplime and will conduct indoor air quality monitoring and testing.

  • An Elder Housing project to develop new housing on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota is a collaboration between HML, local women and Winona LaDuke’s Honor the Earth organization. The effort includes designs for new homes that celebrate the long lives of the women; enhance their current work; and build places of sanctuary for themselves, their grandchildren and future generations on their own land. The first homes will be constructed of hemp combined with local lime to create new models of sustainable, healthy homes.

  • The Benefield Building, designed by Citizen HKS (a project of HKS Architects) in Richmond, Virginia, poses the question, “How can affordable housing prioritize a robust community engagement process and achieve a net-zero distinction?” HML worked with the design team to identify materials that are healthier, more sustainable, and — by drawing from historic buildings and current community initiatives — representative of the local community.

Our website also includes case studies and our podcast, “Trace Material,” which is supported by funding from the National Endowment for Humanities.

TC: Given that you’re training the next generation of architects and designers, what trends are you watching? What do you see motivating your students?

AM: Everyone has been impacted by the COVID crisis. For students, the last 20 months have been tough — lonely, stressful and difficult. But the crisis has revealed the critical relationship between human health and the built environment, and the importance of our design and architectural work in creating healthier places. We also know that we have even more challenges in front of us as we confront the climate crisis head on. Students are committed to being part of the change we all need to make — creating equitable, just and sustainable futures.

TC: What’s next?

AM: In the last six months, HML has seen a significant change in the way architects, designers and educators perceive material health. We all can make the clear links between fossil fuels and their petrochemical byproducts and the typical building products we use that can be full of unregulated toxic chemicals. Instead of being a topic on the margins of practice, we document a sea change in our industries, with colleagues eager to become deeply sustainable and incorporate material health into practice. Architects and designers are deeply committed to their design roles; and as more of them take on the challenge to create healthier environments for all people, we anticipate a significant and welcome shift in the marketplace as the demand for healthier materials increases.

We hope our work at HML continues to help our colleagues change their materials practices and look forward to highlighting tools for a successful and healthy design and installation process at a Greenbuild Connect + Learn on December 9. Free forums like this are critical to the design communities shared commitment to being part of the change.

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. The nine organizations selected for this year’s recognition program have displayed tremendous effort and progress to support the wellbeing of people and the planet amid the unprecedented challenges of 2020. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.