Material selection is a core component of any building project. Every material—from façade treatments to flooring—must be specified by a design team.
Unfortunately, not all building materials are created equal. A growing body of research has shown that many materials use chemicals that are hazardous to human health. At the same time, material manufacturing increases global carbon emissions and threatens wildlife habitats.
These negative impacts have made building materials the next frontier in sustainable design. Architects and interior designers are looking for ways to specify healthier materials, reduce environmental impacts, and advocate for industry-wide change.
To push this effort forward, we have adopted the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Architecture & Design Materials Pledge. This article will explain the Materials Pledge and how we plan to implement its framework.
What is the Architecture & Design Materials Pledge?
The Architecture & Design Materials Pledge is a framework for evaluating products and finishes. It encourages an industry-wide shift in how designers specify materials on all projects by asking participants to commit to five statements:
Social Health and Equity
Below, we’ll discuss each statement in greater detail.
1. Human Health
The Human Health statement is a commitment to evaluating material emissions and harmful substances in products.
Research has linked many chemicals in building materials to chronic health conditions like asthma, cancer, and neurological disorders. Off-gassing from Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can cause short-term health problems like headaches, dizziness, and eye, nose, and throat irritation—a condition known as “sick building syndrome.”
By vetting product ingredients, designers can protect the occupants and steer the industry away from hazardous material ingredients.
2. Social Health and Equity
The Social Health and Equity standard encourages designers to specify products from manufacturers that secure human rights in their operations and supply chains.
In a globalized economy, many goods rely on complex supply chains that span multiple countries. Human rights violations—including child labor, modern slavery, discrimination, and dangerous working conditions—can occur in these conditions.
As the primary advisers and decision-makers on product selection, designers can better support human rights by adopting tools and methods to evaluate products and manufacturers. The intent is to use decision-making power to advocate for change.
3. Ecosystem Health
The extraction, production, and assembly of building materials can lead to air and water pollution, soil degradation, and habitat destruction.
The Ecosystem Health standard calls on designers to vet products and prioritize materials that respect and restore the environment. Like the Social Health and Equity standard, the Ecosystem Standard requires additional research into supply chain practices.
Corques Liquid Lino, a healthy alternative to traditional vinyl flooring.
4. Climate Health
Sustainable design often focuses on improving building performance and reducing energy consumption. However, it is also important to consider embodied carbon levels—the greenhouse gas emissions that arise from manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of building materials.
According to the AIA, construction materials generate 11% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
The Climate Health standard encourages designers to reuse existing building materials and prioritize those with low embodied carbon levels. Products like CarbonCure, for example, can substitute carbon-intensive concrete.
Felt acoustical panels made from recycled plastic.
5. Circular Economy
The Circular Economy standard encourages designers and their clients to think long-term, invest in durable structures, and plan for future reuse.
Building demolition and renovation significantly contribute to carbon emissions. According to the EPA, it can take 65 years for an energy-efficient building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing one.
The standard calls on designers to prioritize adaptive reuse over new construction and consider the disassembly of building components.
The circular economy pledge calls on designers to prioritize adaptive reuse.
Implementing the AIA Materials Pledge at Neumann Monson
Adopting the Architecture & Design Materials Pledge means consistently working toward its long-term vision. The Pledge is relatively new, and as an early adopter, we have the opportunity to help the AIA establish reliable metrics for propelling the industry forward.
Over the last year, we have been working with material representatives to gain information and remove products from our library that contain hazardous ingredients like halogenated flame retardants, phthalates, antimicrobials, and bisphenols.
Currently, we are updating our master spec—a document that outlines products contractors can and cannot use—to better reflect existing material initiatives like the International Living Future Institute’s Red List and the Declare Label. Additional research is needed to understand supply chains and the environmental impact of individual products.
While we are still in the early stages of implementing the Materials Pledge, we are excited by the opportunity to drive the industry forward.
Learn More About Building Materials
Material health is a new concept for many building owners—but it is an important consideration on any project. By considering the social and environmental impact of individual products, you can help reduce embodied carbon emissions, support fair labor practices, and protect occupants’ health.
Although the AIA’s Architecture & Design Materials Pledge is in its infancy, it’s an exciting opportunity to advocate for change.
During the design process, you can expect conversations about materials, durability, and life cycle costs. Learn more by reading about material selection.