Healthy Building Materials and Workplace Design

  

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Just as we demand greater transparency in where our food comes from or how many chemicals are in children’s toys, there is a drive now to understand the contents of materials in the environments where employees spend most of their time. Leading experts on workplace design and corporate real estate recently gathered for a special CoreNet Mid-Atlantic educational session. Appropriately set at HITT’s Co/Lab, which explores innovation in building, the presenters examined how the selection of building finishes and furnishings influences the health and well-being of workplaces. 

Healthy Materials Matter

As our economy has shifted from industrial to knowledge-based, an enterprise’s greatest value builder is its people. Katie Rothenberg of HITT Contracting cited a study by Ocean Tomo that shows a dramatic 30-year growth trend in the value of intellectual capital, when compared with tangible assets in the market capitalization of the S & P 500.  In 1975, intellectual capital accounted for 13 percent of market cap; in 2015, it accounted for 83 percent.  Yet, the recruitment and retention of talent becomes an increasing challenge in a tight labor market. An attention to health and wellness in the workplace is an indisputable incentive to attract that talent. 

Why Chemicals Count

Most real estate professionals are not experts in chemistry. Even so, every member of the planning, design, and marketing team must be attentive to the impact that materials selection can make on new or renovated facilities.  Rothenberg noted that, 84,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of the 1976 Toxic Substance Control. Of the new or existing chemicals reported under the regulations, 62,000 were grandfathered in, fewer than 200 have had a toxicity assessment and only five were banned. 

David Cordell of the global architecture firm Perkins and Will noted that the human body is a magnet for chemicals that can be absorbed through respiration, skin contact, and digestion.  But because the body doesn’t easily break down man-made chemicals, they live on in organs and tissues.  Yet, there is much science doesn’t understand about their impact on health.  Cordell noted that in umbilical cord blood samples, 287 chemicals were transmitted from the mother to the baby—with 257 of those being commonly found building substances, such as flame retardants, wood preservatives and adhesives. 

Because corporate real estate professionals advise and market healthy and productive work environments, an attention to materials selection is becoming an imperative. For example, antimicrobials embedded in many paints are classified as pesticides. Hexavalent chromium found in stainless steel production, leather tanning, textile manufacturing, and wood preservation is a known human carcinogen. Cordell’s advice? It’s better to spec a substance that is proven benign, rather than one that is unclassified. Designers, for instance, are increasingly selecting plant-based binders in ceiling tiles and aluminum finishes instead of chrome, while rejecting materials with antimicrobials because, while they may be marketed as deterrents for odor-causing agents, there is no benefit to human health.  

As Cordell noted, it’s an opportunity to turn a vexing conversation about chemistry into discourse that “makes you feel good.” 

Certifications as Signposts

Corporate real estate professionals must ask and demand from suppliers and vendors of furniture and building materials information about what’s in them, said Tim Conway of Shaw Carpeting.  Conway pointed to a number of available certification and rating systems that can point the way.  And he said that a company’s acquisition of a certain certification may be less critical than using the required information to create as healthy an environment as possible.  Useful rating systems include: 

  • Health Product Declaration (HPD) discloses chemicals and their hazards scanned against the impact on human health. These disclosures are created by an ad hoc multi-disciplinary group that seeks to establish a standard format for building product content and associated health information. The certification is not third-party certified, but provides important information.
  • Declare and The Red List created by the nonprofit Living Futures Institute. Declare lists all the ingredients in building materials, while the Red List identifies the most harmful worst-in-class materials, chemicals and elements that are known to pose serious risks to human health and the environment.
  • Cradle to Cradle is a nonprofit that identifies and measures product impact on human health and the planet. Shaw Carpeting’s Conway encouraged corporate real estate professionals to move away from the idea of checking a box to acquire certifications, but instead use them as a way to tell a different story about your building.    

Conway noted that corporate giants such as Google, SalesForce, EY and Kaiser Permanente already employ the ratings systems.  But they aren’t just a tool for Silicon Valley or health companies.  American Family Insurance, for example, is actively focusing on chemical avoidance efforts. 

Real Estate and HR Partnerships: Long-Term Value Over Short-Term Costs

One of the challenges in chemical avoidance is cost.  The three panelists agreed that real estate professionals must partner with human resources experts to make the case for creating healthier workplaces.  Perkins and Will’s Cordell noted that metrics can show how air quality improvements lead to less absenteeism and more productivity. He urged corporate real estate professionals to conduct pre- and post-occupancy studies and to turn to organizations such as the Harvard School of Public Health for studies in the impact of design and material in the workplace. Cordell noted that the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), boasting the world’s first WELL and LEED Platinum interiors at their new headquarters, had Cornell University study the impact. Pre- and post-occupancy studies found a 19 percent drop in absenteeism, while productivity climbed 16 percent. It is impossible to say that all the improvement was due to materials selection. Even so, a conservative estimate suggests that a 5 percent increase in productivity amounts to roughly 3 minutes per hour, or 2.5 weeks per year—a potential $7 million return on investment over 10 years. 

Incorporating many of the strategies that the panelists suggest is not easy.  It involves reframing the conversation and changing habits. Conway posed a provocative question that sums up the challenge: “If we look at things through the lens of responsibility, can we change the way we think about materials and space and hand over the keys to the client that gets the most out of people?” As one participant put it, “Open your eyes. There are opportunities to make change.”

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