Understanding a product’s environmental impact is a challenge that extends beyond the availability of Health Product Declarations and life cycle assessments. Even with those disclosure documents in hand, specifiers and clients must interpret often-complex information. For help, Perkins+Will—a longtime leader in sustainable design and a promoter of transparency in material disclosure—opened a part-time fellowship position with the task of educating the firm on material-health issues. We pitched a few questions via email to the fellow, Michel Dedeo, who holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and consults on the Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project, to learn about his job and how his work is affecting the firm’s specifications. Dedeo will hold the post part-time for four months but the firm said in an email that it hopes to hire more material-health fellows in the future.
Describe your job.
I have two roles: First, to educate the firm on issues surrounding health in the human habitat; and second, to guide the architects and designers in interpreting and navigating current and emerging trends in science as related to human and environmental health. The materials we use in buildings are expected to hold up for many years, but these new and innovative products aren’t time-tested. My role as a chemist is to look at material composition and help designers and clients determine what makes the most sense.
How is your work here informed by your work with Pharos?
Pharos allows architects and designers to compare products based on a number of criteria, including health impact. My work at Perkins+Will also involves building tools to facilitate product comparison, but on a more a targeted and immediate scale. I help designers determine on an ongoing basis what products have harmful chemicals.
Can you describe a typical workday?
One of the things I love about this job is that there is no average workday. Much of what I do includes things like researching code requirements, compiling resources for designers on products, and fielding questions about harmful substances. We are writing a paper, for example, on flame retardants in building products and how the harmful ones can be avoided. I’ve helped to compiled resources for achieving new material-health LEED credits and helped teams early in the design process to set goals and priorities. I help specification writers by providing guidelines for each type of material, from the insulation in the walls to the fabric for curtains.
What are the challenges in getting material-ingredient information from manufacturers and suppliers, and where are you making breakthroughs?
The biggest challenge is the same one facing the industry at large: a lack of information about what’s in our materials. I make the best recommendations I can with the information available. There have been some promising breakthroughs, including fruitful conversations about sourcing flame retardant–free upholstered furniture with Knoll, Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Interline. While many of our questions still go unanswered, little by little we have the opportunity to meet people in manufacturing who share our passion for material health and are similarly engaged in the process of pushing their companies—and the market as a whole—forward.
Is there any aspect of your role that has come as a surprise?
I’ve been surprised by how many hands a project passes through from concept to completion. Architects design a building, sometimes hand it to a specification writer, who hands it to a contractor, and then to subcontractors. I’m typically consulted early on, before the specifications are written. Important decisions are made in each step that can affect the material health of the project, so it’s essential to arm each of those people with as much information as possible. I currently have no contact with contractors, so it’s very important to educate my architect and designer colleagues who work on-site.
Perkins+Will is a large firm with significant resources to promote a sustainability strategy. How can some of its tactics—such as “Precautionary Lists” and material-health fellowships—be applied at the scale of a smaller firm?
It’s my hope that in 10 years, you won’t need a PhD in chemistry to ensure a building is healthy; there will be a marketplace full of safe options as manufacturers increasingly see value in ingredient disclosure, evaluation, and optimization. Every firm, no matter the size, has a responsibility to do some due diligence. [Today, anyone can visit] online databases that include a great deal of product information and can help identify healthy materials. GreenWizard and Pharos are affordable, easy to use, and are regularly adding features and materials.
Should all firms have a material-health expert on staff?
If material health is a high priority—and it should be—it makes sense to have access to someone with a background in a field like chemistry or toxicology. Some questions to ask are whether your client base is willing to invest in material health and if the architects and designers on your staff have time and interest to explore alternatives. Budget, of course, is something to consider. Like any specialist, a consultant might make sense for small- to medium-sized firms.
These comments have been edited and condensed.