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materials matter because people matter

I had the honor of speaking at AIA’s Materials Matter Series–Just Do It: Strategies for Projects alongside a panel of speakers from various firms in the A/E/C industry. The purpose? To educate our audience on the environmental and human health impacts from materials we use on our projects, and to discuss strategies for material selection when decisions are driven by various stakeholders and sources.

Using better materials in construction should be common sense, but often times we don’t think about the long-term effects—focusing only on the here and now—and if hazards are out of sight, they are often out of mind. Here’s a simple and quick recap on why healthier material selection in design and construction is a BIG deal.

  • How bad can it really be? About 15% of construction work fatalities each year are caused by exposure to harmful substances or environments. In 2015, 136 construction workers died due to these circumstances. [Bureau of Labor Statistics]

  • The health of our workers matters—the men and women who are in the field every day, working in the dirt, dust, exhaust and concrete. They breathe this air whether they’re indoors completing a tenant improvement project, or they’re outside laying foundations or installing building envelopes. They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, friends, and loved ones.

  • In 10, 15, or 20 years, construction workers who build the spaces where we work, live, and play should be able to enjoy their friends and families instead of falling victim to a preventable illness. We are all responsible to help keep the workplace free from materials known to cause sickness.

  • Over the last 15+ years, our industry’s focus on eliminating sick buildings resulted in installing better materials on the inside: furniture that doesn’t contain Urea-formaldehyde, insulation without asbestos, air conditioners that don’t use Chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs], and Low VOC paint are now the norm. But what about the rest of the building process?

  • As tradespeople, the best defense is to know the materials you’re working with and to wear the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] when hazards present themselves. Respirators/dust masks, goggles, and gloves are quick and easy insurance for your health. Just Do It!

  • Project managers and other team leaders must have materials conversations with their clients and the design team. When you see a product specified that has harmful components, simply speak up. Ask questions. Check with local reps and investigate alternatives. If you aren’t sure which components are harmful, review The Red List, a down and dirty guide to the worst components in building materials. A client may not wish to pursue LEED Platinum or Living Building certification, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in learning about other options so they can make healthy, informed choices.

We all have opportunities to improve the world we live in. Materials matter, because people matter.