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Image: The Elder Housing project's first homes will be constructed of hemp combined with local lime to create new models of sustainable, healthy homes. | Healthy Materials Lab
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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
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.
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
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.
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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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Published Dec 7, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.