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In January, our New York based colleague Amy attended the ‘Thriving: Health in the Built Environment’ workshop hosted by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). The session was located at the New School in Manhattan, part of the esteemed Parson’s School of Design, and also home to the Healthy Materials Lab.

The session featured top speakers from academia, medical & research positions alongside manufacturers, designers and architects. Key aims were to explore:

  • How the human health movement connects to broader ecosystem health
  • Acquire the knowledge to advocate for manufacturing and product selection that boosts human and environmental health
  • How building design can influence and support human health and productivity
  • Investigate the different scales of design—personal, community, and ecosystem, and identify opportunities for leveraging them to contribute to a healthy, thriving environment

Alison Mears, Director, and Jonsara Ruth, Director of Design, at Parson’s School of Design and Healthy Materials Lab corrected a misconception that:

  • “When it comes to improving material health it is, in fact, the Manufacturers that are innovative, open-minded and creative, and the Architects and Contractors that are conservative and stuck in their ways!” – (I should say, not all of them!)

Robin Guenther, Senior Advisor at Health Care Without Harm and Principle at Perkins + Will Architects (and also a TedTalk speaker):

  • Robin quoted from her experience that even in the design of Healthcare facilities “Health has never been a priority or part of the conversation”
  • “There are no nutrition labels at Home Depot [a building materials retailer/supplier]. You have to be tenacious about asking what’s in the materials.”
  • She questions whether the promotion of good health is currently the responsibility of the individual or society.
  • The problem of promoting healthy materials is that production happens a long way from users; the effects of manufacture are hidden.
  • Toxins in products are “put away” in buildings for the life-span of the building, therefore are our Grandchildren’s problems.
  • Most products are oil derivatives and inherently flammable so are dosed with chemicals to be considered “safe”
  • She made reference to a number of Harvard studies coming out that prove cognitive function in green buildings score higher, and The Lancet medical journal reported that “Climate change is a medical emergency” – see this excellent infographic

The subsequent panel discussion between Margaret Whitaker, PhD, Chief Toxicologist at ToxServices, Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale and Dhruv Raina, Director of Product Sustainability at Tarkett discussed:

  • The Living Building Challenge, created by ILFI, a rigorous performance standard for buildings designed to encourage buildings to “give more than they take”:
    • Regenerative spaces that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.
    • Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site. Living Buildings produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water on site.
    • Healthy and beautiful.
  • Living Product Challenge is a framework for manufacturers to create products that are healthy, inspirational and give back to the environment, 40 products are currently registered and only 9 certified, but the scheme is gaining mass in the industry (the flooring industry are currently the leaders)
  • The Declare label is a “Nutrition Label” for building products providing transparency of where the product comes from, what it is made of, and where it can go at the end of its life.
  • The “Red List” contains the 22 worst in class materials prevalent in the building industry and pose the greatest risk to health as they bioaccumulate.
  • “How dangerous is your couch?” A New York Times article highlights how common chemicals used to make products “safer” (such as flame retardants) are actually toxic, and that these find their way into living beings.

After a brief coffee break (with polysterene cups and plates – don’t get me started on the irony!!!) we were back to focus on Health and Biophillic Design, with Amanda Sturgeon, the CEO of ILFI and author of ‘Creating Biophillic Buildings’ and panelists Catie Ryan, Director of Projects at Terrapin Bright Green, and David Briefel, Sustainability Director at Gensler:

  • Amanda kicked off by questioning, “How can we experience the same physical psychological & emotional benefits of moving through the urban landscape as we experience in natural settings?”
  • It is “all well and good when buildings are located in ample space and pleasant surroundings but the majority of projects are in cramped urban environments with little to no view or external biophillic features”
  • Katie Ryan stated a simple example: “we noted a 6% increase in productivity by angling desks away from perpendicular to the window (so occupants could view outside from a normal seated position rather than having to turn away from their work)… This equated to a 3000% Return on Investment!”
  • We were introduced to the CookFox stress mapping exercise for a post-occupancy study of a LEED commercial interior project. Occupants reporting most stress were in internal offices, close to noise and with low fresh air flow. Remediation measures included relocating tasks to more appropriate spaces, and introduction of biophillic features.
  • Stress affects different types of people in different places. The airport scenario was used to show how different users (business people, families, groups, elderly, children etc) experienced stress at different points on a journey through an airport.
  • A study of 6 hotel lobbies in Manhattan reported significantly higher usage rates if they incorporated biophillic design strategies. Can a hotel lobby serve as a refuge from the urban environment?
  • Low-income population are most affected by the Built Environment, and health issues as a result, raising the topic of addressing Equity. Improving Equitable Opportunity through built environment improvements is a big problem in the USA, and is not the same as gentrification

If you would like to know more about how to value wellbeing in your workplace, hotel or retail space or how to ensure the interior design of your space enhances people’s wellbeing, feel free to drop us a line at design@grigoriou.co.uk or call us on 00 44 207 580 0611 and we would be delighted to help you find the right answers for you and your organization!