Material Evidence

A building can be more than the sum of its parts, but those parts play a crucial role in protecting our health and the environment

Tour the Perkins Eastman’s Chicago Studio, which earned a rare WELL v2 pilot Platinum certification

From Perkins Eastman Co-CEO Nick Leahy’s perspective, it was a no-brainer to sign the American Institute of Architects’ Materials Pledge, which commits the firm to use building and design materials that support the health and well-being of people, our climate, and those who manufacture and produce those products. “We spend so much time inside—how we build and with what materials is important and needs to support our health and the environment,” Leahy says. “It’s just staggering that there hasn’t been more of a push on this sooner. Thankfully there’s now movement to focus on material health.” The pledge, he says, is akin to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

The Material Pledge complements the AIA’s 2030 Commitment for firms to drastically reduce carbon and greenhouse-gas emissions from the energy consumed in new and substantially renovated buildings within the next decade. Both these initiatives form a “holistic framework” for building design and construction, says Tanya Eagle, a sustainability and materials-health expert with Perkins Eastman. They also form the foundation of a letter to the Biden Administration that Perkins Eastman and more than 130 other large firms across the country sent to The White House in February, urging action on new federal standards and regulations for the U.S. building industry.

McKelvey Hall at Washington University; design by Perkins Eastman

McKelvey Hall at Washington University is on track to receive Gold for LEED v4. Photo copyright Sam Fentress

“There’s a lot of confusion around the market about some of these topics,” says Heather Jauregui, Perkins Eastman’s director of sustainability. “There are so many standards out there, and they’re not all equal.” The letter calls for developing a national standard for disclosing building-product ingredients and their impact on human and environmental health “to prioritize the protection of people.” It also calls for a minimum standard for embodied carbon in those products—the amount of carbon and greenhouse-gas emissions that can be released in their manufacture and transportation—and urges the Environmental Protection Agency to “enforce and expand” the existing Toxic Substances and Control Act, which was passed in 1989. On that last point, says Eagle, “everyone assumes that the government is keeping us safe from hazardous substances, but in reality, not even asbestos is banned. This letter is a call for government to stand up more, but we also have to take responsibility for immediate action.”

Perkins Eastman is already striving on multiple fronts for its work to match the goals outlined in the letter. “We want to educate ourselves and our clients, and also take measurable actions starting now and looking to the future,” says Eagle, who sits on the AIA’s Materials Knowledge Working Group, and helped create the Materials Pledge passed by the AIA board in November. Within Perkins Eastman, a network of architects and designers have formed a Material Health subcommittee to highlight the topic internally and advocate for it more broadly across the industry. More than 50 firm employees have earned Healthier Materials and Sustainable Buildings certificates from the Parsons School of Design to become better informed. “We’re developing our own targets, aligned with the Pledge, that we want project teams to identify and track with clients,” Eagle says. Designers and architects should be prepared to talk to clients about material health and make sure they’re prioritizing building and design products that support the health of our planet and our communities. The best examples are on display in the firm’s newest studios in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and in recent projects with clients who are equally enthusiastic about material health, such as McKelvey Hall at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Chicago Studio
Perkins Eastman Chicago Studio 7

Folding-glass walls can enclose spaces for privacy without sacrificing natural light in Perkins Eastman’s Chicago studio. Photo copyright Andrew Rugge

Since Perkins Eastman’s new studio opened in Chicago’s Rookery Building in 2019, it’s earned the WELL v2 pilot Platinum certification, making it the first project in the state of Illinois, the sixth in the United States and just the 35th in the world to achieve the title. It means the studio included strategies that advance human health through design interventions, operational protocols and policies to foster a culture of health and well-being. What put them over the top to earn Platinum is how far the team pushed to prioritize material health, says Madona Cumar, the job’s project manager. “We were able to go beyond the minimum requirements that support healthy materials,” she says—everything from adhesives, sealants, and paint to doors, window frames, and tile. Cumar credits the buy-in from Patty Lloyd, the director of sustainability for contractor Leopardo, to vet every product during construction. “She really wanted to be on the forefront of it and understand the process better,” Cumar says. “She was able to quickly set up a spreadsheet of products [required] for WELL, checking them off and finding alternatives if necessary.” Suppliers were quick to step up too, donating or discounting products to fit within the project’s budget.

Perkins Eastman Chicago Studio

Reception and meeting space in the Chicago studio. Photo copyright Andrew Rugge

The design team installed air-quality sensors as part of the WELL certification to monitor indoor air quality in a transparent way. The monitors can identify heightened levels of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, humidity and particulate matter. They are so sensitive that the levels spike even when new material samples come into the library or deliveries arrive. They detect when the cleaning crews use new supplies that aren’t in line with the non-toxic agents outlined in the studio’s contract. “It’s great that we have these monitors,” Cumar says, “but what’s even better is we chose to go WELL.”

The Pittsburgh Studio
Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh Studio 7

The new Pittsburgh studio features abundant natural light and a variety of workspace options.
Photograph by Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

Two years after Chicago’s debut, the new Pittsburgh studio is scheduled to open its doors on May 3. Throughout the process of building out the 25th-floor space at William Penn Place in the center of downtown, designer Jane Hallinan was inspired by Chicago’s example. Her enthusiasm only grew as a result of the Parsons certificate program, especially when it comes to interior design. “Once I took that course, I was obsessed with material health,” she says. “It’s the one area where interior design as an industry can really take ownership and drive meaningful change.”

Material Evidence 1

Designer Jane Hallinan restricted the variety of design materials in the new Pittsburgh studio. There is only one type of flooring throughout, for example. Photograph by Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

Hallinan purposefully kept her product choices for the studio to a minimum, so she could do a deep dive into each one. “By minimizing the variety, we were able to make sure the materials we did specify were really packed to the brim with sustainable and material-health attributes,” she says. Hallinan  relied on several sources for help, such the International Living Future Institute’s Declare program that provides “nutrition labels” for products from participating manufacturers and certifications that they’re free of Red List ingredients—the “’worst in class’ materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem that are prevalent in the building products industry,” according to the program. She also turned to Mindful Materials, an online database of building materials that are vetted for their health and environmental attributes. She discovered new products and manufacturers in the process. The makers of acoustic felt wallcovering that had been her go-to in previous projects, for example, did not have sufficient information attesting to its health and environmental safety, so she found a new vendor, Autex, that had all the right declarations and documentation that their products are Red List-free. Those discoveries in turn have led Hallinan and her team to clear out the materials library and restock the new studio with only those products that are similarly vetted. “I feel that we should prioritize placing products on our shelves that meet material- and environmental-health criteria to help our teams specify more responsibly,” she says. “We’re so excited for this new office—it’s been an amazing opportunity to embrace these [environmental] initiatives.”

McKelvey Hall, Washington University
McKelvey Hall, Washington University; design by Perkins Eastman

Overhangs and sun shades prevent heat gain through the window walls at the new McKelvey Hall at Washington University. Photo copyright Sam Fentress

The James M. McKelvey, Sr., Hall is Perkins Eastman’s latest project with Washington University as the university has transformed the East End of the Danforth Campus over the past decade. The building that will house its Department of Computer Science & Engineering was designed and built with some of the most rigorous standards for material health, senior designer Jennifer Romeo says. “The client had a thorough and comprehensive plan for sustainable operations on campus,” she says. “We worked with them to identify what that would mean for McKelvey Hall in detail and how we could raise the bar for not only this project, but future projects.” The school’s sustainability team brought together the architects, contractors, and outside consultants for collaborative charrettes throughout the design-build process. The original intent was to achieve Silver for LEED v4. The v4 certification is the green-building rating system’s latest and most advanced rating that judges buildings on their potential long-term performance—and the team scored so many points on that new scale that they’re now on track to receive Gold. Material health has an expanded focus in every category of the v4 certification, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, “going beyond looking at total amount used to evaluate the impact on human health and the environment.”

McKelvey Hall, Washington University; design by Perkins Eastman

An allee of pin-oak trees had to be taken down for construction during the East End campus transformation. They were recycled, however, in the form of tabletops and floating shelves like the ones present in McKelvey Hall’s cafe.
Photo copyright Sam Fentress

Washington University hired a consultant to help vet every material that was selected for McKelvey Hall, which was screened against a multitude of variables, including the LEED v4 requirements; Red List chemicals; healthcare-level standards outlined in the Healthier Hospitals Initiative; and the WELL Building Standard. The interiors team, likewise, made furniture and design selections that were in line not only with Declare, but with the Cradle to Cradle certification, meaning they were manufactured with minimal waste and less harmful ingredients in facilities that use renewable, carbon-free energy. “I have a better understanding of what products are sustainable and usable,” Romeo says, noting that many of the interior finishes are free of harmful substances that are disturbingly common in the built environment, such as flame retardants, PVC, and off-gassing hydrofluorocarbons. The lengthy vetting process, however, demonstrated how difficult it is to get transparent information from manufacturers. “We’re hoping this ongoing dialogue with manufacturers helps us identify products that are more preferred than others and incentivizes manufacturers to provide this information more readily.”

McKelvey Hall is scheduled to open this fall, and the university’s sustainability team plans to conduct a post-occupancy evaluation to determine how satisfying the design, layout, and air quality is for students’ and faculty’s health and well-being. “We’re eager to see how people respond to the outcome of these efforts,” Romeo says.

Industry Outlook
Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh Studio 14

A Maker Box for experiments and innovation is a central feature of the Pittsburgh studio.
Photograph by Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

In the absence of clear federal environmental standards that govern building materials and their production, industry groups are forging their own paths, as the AIA has done with its Material Pledge and 2030 Commitment. Each sector’s approach, however, doesn’t necessarily coalesce with another. “Even with LEED and WELL and the AIA, we’re still not speaking the same language,” says Steve Kooy, the technical director of health and sustainability for BIFMA, the commercial-furniture industry’s trade group that has its own environmental vetting process known as LEVEL certification. At the same time, the American Society of Interior Designers is developing educational resources with organizations such as BIFMA, the Sustainable Furnishings Council and the International WELL Building Institute to help designers make the most environmentally responsible product selections in their work. “We’ve been in conversations across the industry to try to understand how interior designers can lead impactfully on this,” says Susan Chung, Ph.D., ASID’s vice president for research and knowledge.

With so many initiatives across the industry—not to mention a pervasive amount of undocumented “green washing” claims—it’s easy to see how a single federal standard would make life easier for everyone. But no one is holding their breath. “If we’re just waiting for laws and regulations to pass, it will take far too long and be way too late,” Hallinan says. Especially in light of COVID, Leahy adds, architects, designers, builders, and manufacturers need to act in any way possible to optimize indoor environmental quality. That ideal is particularly germane to Perkins Eastman’s stated mission, he says. “The craft of architecture means we really need to think about the materials going into our buildings, because we’re creating environments where people need to thrive. That’s what Human By Design is all about. ”