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6 myths about embracing non-toxic materials in interior design

October 25, 2019

By Vickie Rush

If you’re not specifying healthy materials on your next project, you’re missing the boat

Transparency is one of the biggest trends impacting interior design right now, and no, we don’t mean floor-to-ceiling windows. For too long, we’ve been in the dark about the make-up of our interiors products, and/or how they’re made. But today, interior design professionals are well-informed about how harmful many conventional products for interior spaces are to human health, how these products can be made from nasty stuff (from the Red List), how toxic they are to produce, and how the chemicals contained within can leach into the environment via manufacturing or everyday use. But as advocates for our clients, we want to know even more. Transparency (pushed forward by the green design movement, certifications, and client demand) means manufacturers are under pressure to reveal what’s in their products, how they’re produced, how they perform over a lifecycle, and their degree of recyclability. Increased transparency gives designers the data on the materials so that we can make informed decisions about what to use. Transparency ultimately results in change.

Yet, conventional unhealthy materials persist in the marketplace. There’s lots of data to interpret and some manufacturers spin it to their advantage. While others have yet to embrace transparency. Selecting healthy materials is a complex undertaking, so designers must conduct a lot of research to give informed advice to clients.

BPX Energy in Denver, Colorado.

While we make it standard practice at Stantec to suggest and choose materials that promote human health, there are still myths and misconceptions about choosing these products that are holding back wider adoption across the industry. Once healthy materials become industry standard, we won’t have to worry about things being made from mercury, arsenic, or lead. But today, products that contain substances known to harm our health are still being used, so the industry has a long way to go.

To help you make the right choices, we’ve outlined six myths you need to be mindful of for your next office, residential, hospitality, or healthcare interiors project.

1. Time. It’s overwhelming and consuming

If your project is pursuing a certification such as LEED or WELL, we establish those goals early in the process and materials selections follow from there. But even if we are not pursuing a green certification, at Stantec, healthy materials selection is just what we do behind the scenes. We’re committed to a healthy materials philosophy. As an interior designer, it’s my job to make decisions and we’ve assembled a library of healthy materials to choose from. We label all the materials in our libraries so that when we are making decisions, it’s just part of our workflow. It’s second nature. It doesn’t take any more time to consider non-toxic (Red List-free) materials since we’ve already screened all our products.

2. There’s a limited selection

This is no longer the case. Today, there are tons of options available in finishes and materials, and more options are becoming available all the time. Some materials, such as ceramic tile and fabric, will clean the air of pollutants. As transparency emerges as the standard and we see what’s in products, we are asking for alternatives that are less toxic. Manufacturers are getting creative and innovative in response to designers’ curiosity in their products.

Clients are pushing this, too. A major tech client has its own rating system for products, for example, that we must meet on every project. California’s largest healthcare provider developed its own materials requirement, which included the ban on vinyl products in its spaces, creating a ripple effect across the industry. Now, a lot of new alternative products in flooring or fabrics are becoming available. Together, clients and designers can shift the industry toward healthy choices.

3. It will break the cost/budget

Just not true, generally. There’s really no upcharge for choosing these products unless perhaps you’re going for a certain stringent rating or perhaps if unrealistic choices are made. Usually, it is possible to substitute healthy materials while staying on budget.

4. They’re ugly

In the beginning, when green products came out, people thought they were going to be ugly. They’re anything but. If anything, today’s aesthetic has switched to embracing natural surfaces and textures. Designers know that nature, and products that look natural, enhance occupant well-being. See “Biophilic design, what is it, why it matters and how we use it.”

5. Too high maintenance / not durable

Are natural materials or non-toxic surfaces too hard to clean? Or are they tough enough to withstand our cleaning and maintenance regime? Like many of our assumptions about healthier materials, these worries hold no water. A linoleum floor can wear just as hard and clean up just as well as one made of vinyl.

6. No one cares

Are sustainable, health-promoting materials just a fad? Why should you care? If you’re an employer, you should care. Health-promoting materials will improve your staff morale and bottom line, and there are plenty of proven metrics to back it up. For example, 76% of employees report struggles with wellbeing and stress. Studies show that if your occupants know you choose healthy materials, they’re more excited to come to work. World Green Building Council’s “Eight features that make healthier and greener offices”). Higher indoor air quality can reduce chronic illness and work-related stress, and improve productivity. A Harvard study found that increasing the ventilation rate boosted cognitive function and productivity 8%.

At Stantec, we advocate for the use of healthy, non-toxic materials at every opportunity because we believe it is the right thing to do. It’s part of our nature to design with community, and people, in mind. Together with you, we can shift the market toward healthy material choices for all.

Explore our Healthy Materials Guide.

  • Vickie Rush

    A senior interior designer, Vickie has led the design of multiple projects across Southern California. Focusing on sustainability and green-building practices, Vickie designs spaces that improve quality of life.

    Contact Vickie
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