Courtesy Perkins+Will

"The Precautionary List is a great catalog not just for architects to have for themselves, but also for architects to have clients look at." —Juror Jackilin Hah Bloom

Increasingly, manufacturers offer products that purport to support sustainability, performance, and wellness initiatives. But in many cases, these so-called wonder products still contain an array of chemicals—some of which are toxic—that the presence of which is often obscured from end users. Architects can turn to existing databases that detail information about the environmental and health risks of building products, but the information tends to be cluttered and overwhelming.

That’s why Mary Dickinson, Assoc. AIA, a senior associate based in the Dallas office of Perkins+Will, developed the Precautionary List, a free, online database of materials and chemicals—no login required—that is a part of the firm’s greater, ongoing effort to make the construction process more transparent. Using the website’s simple interface, architects and contractors with a list of a particular product’s ingredients in hand can search by chemical compound to find an objective description of associated health and environmental risks, written mostly in layperson's terms. The site also lists which building products it commonly appears in, including their corresponding MasterSpec divisions, and, where applicable, the government and industry organizations, such as the International Living Future Institute, recommending against its use. Users can also search by product type—such as gypsum-based acoustic panels—to find what chemicals it likely contains.

Courtesy Perkins+Will
Courtesy Perkins+Will

Dickinson is less interested in proscribing materials outright than she is in giving architects and their clients information to help make intelligent, safe choices. At a project onset, she says, “designers can have a dialogue with their team about which chemicals are in which products, and then … have a dialogue with the clients to discuss which products can work.”

At the same time, she adds, the database allows users to find less toxic alternatives that perform equally as well as conventional products. “We needed to be able to show that just because someone recommends switching materials, doing so doesn’t change the performance,” she says.

The database, which is updated regularly and peer-reviewed, works both upstream and downstream. Not only does it explain how materials might affect users’ health over a building’s operation, but it also shows whether their production process has negative effects on the health of the workers who make them, Dickinson says: “We want people to understand the full life cycle of a product.”

Project Credits
Project: Precautionary List
Design Firm: Perkins+Will, Dallas . Mary Dickinson, Assoc. AIA, Monica Kumar, Suzanne Drake, Breeze Glazer, Brodie Stephens, French Clements, Max Richter, Robin Guenther, FAIA, Paula McEvoy, FAIA, Phil Harrison, FAIA, John Haymaker, AIA, Joel Register, Murali Selvaraj, Derek Veren, Tina Lam, Kate Doornbos, Dylan Dechant, Veera Kumar, Andrew Salveson (project team)
Researcher: Melissa Coffin
Research Partner: Healthy Building Network . Michel Dedeo, Jim Vallette, Bill Walsh, Tom Lent
Fabricator: Perkins+Will
Funding: Perkins+Will
Special Thanks: All manufacturers that provide transparent disclosure of their product content, all owners that support product transparency as a part of project goals, the design community, users of Perkins+Will’s Transparency website