It is no secret that every element of a building—the foundation, exterior envelope, structural system, mechanical systems, and interior finishes—has an outsized effect on indoor environmental quality and the natural environment. Making informed material selections is both increasingly complex and critically important. “Buildings account for at least 39 percent of energy-related global carbon emissions on an annual basis. At least one quarter of these emissions results from embodied carbon, or the carbon emissions associated with building materials and construction,” according to the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute. And that’s only the carbon impact. There is much more to consider when making material choices.

Efforts to reimagine the design profession’s specification of materials have a long way to go, but progress is being made. Perkins Eastman is digging deep into its own material research and selection processes and helping to inform larger industry initiatives. Among those leading the way are Heather Jauregui, director of sustainability; Tanya Eagle, leader of sustainability standards; Christine M. Vöhringer, a sustainability specialist; and Jane Hallinan, the interior design liaison for material health.

The wide variety of sustainable materials on the market, such as natural cork, recycled terrazzo, reclaimed wood, products approved by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and biodegradable and PFAS-free (free of “forever chemicals”) textiles, makes sourcing easier and more effective than in the past. Palettes prepared and photographed by Colletta Conner of ForrestPerkins (above) and Hallinan (below) | © Perkins Eastman

In Eagle’s role outlining sustainability standards, she explores the many elements that make a material healthier. “The big picture is so important, and carbon is a huge component,” Eagle says. “But to get the whole story, you have to ask other questions as well: Are you focusing on the impact to human health? Are you focusing on issues of equity in the supply chain? What about materials’ impact on ecosystems?”

Identifying and specifying holistically healthier materials and products is a challenging process. A plethora of product labels denoting “healthy” or “green” attributes, differing standards across third-party rating systems, a lack of transparency in the manufacturing process, and competing or contradictory certifications and data make material specification a time-consuming endeavor. “If you don’t know enough about how those certificates or labels have been vetted, or if they’ve been vetted at all, then it’s really hard to make an informed decision,” Jauregui says.

Eagle is participating in groundbreaking efforts to simplify both the selection and codification of healthier materials through her work with industry organizations and initiatives.

In 2016, Eagle joined the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) materials working group and contributed to the creation of the institute’s Architecture & Design Materials Pledge and Healthier Materials Protocol—its official position, language, and guidelines. She is now co-chair of the AIA Materials Pledge Working Group, which recently released new reporting benchmarks for the industry to track progress related to material selection and specification.

Her involvement with the AIA has influenced Eagle’s engagement with mindful Materials (mM), a nonprofit focused on aligning the building industry around a common language for holistic material sustainability. As a Catalyst Member of its AEC Forum, Eagle, along with Hallinan and architects and designers from other firms, is working to coordinate language and standards. The “mM Portal,” a free online database of healthier products launched in 2023, employs the Common Materials Framework to enable users to search by sustainability impacts, as well as by certification or standard. The comprehensive database aims to streamline the sourcing process and foster a united and consistent materials message within the industry.

Spreading this message among clients is equally important. “There is so much information out there, and I can talk with them all day about the many details that make a great product, but what’s most important is getting the client to understand why one material choice is better than another,” Hallinan says. “To champion it, we have to make healthy, sustainable materials part of the design narrative.”

This comes into play, for instance, in Perkins Eastman’s K-12 Education practice. The firm has set the standard for holistic design in public schools, with multiple projects aiming for net-zero energy and LEED and WELL Platinum certification. With school projects, Vöhringer says, “We are targeting quality materials that meet sustainability and wellness standards but are also incredibly durable and can be sourced in large quantities.” Collaborating with school leadership, the teams draw from an established collection of qualified products.

Along these lines, Vöhringer is working to standardize commonly used materials for Perkins Eastman’s other practice areas, so designers don’t have to search high and low for the appropriately vetted product from one project to the next. To streamline the process, Vöhringer is using the Boston studio as a test case for the firm-wide material library protocol, which dictates that materials must either be entered in the mM Portal or have a minimum threshold of sustainability criteria. Moving forward, material libraries in the firm’s 24 studios aim to only store materials that support Perkins Eastman’s commitment to the AIA’s materials pledge.

Annie Bevan, CEO of mM, underscores the vast amount of research pointing to the harmful effect materials—from the beginning to end of their life cycles—can have on humans, climate, ecosystems, and social health and equity. To drive change in the building industry, she says, “we must address the problems from a holistic perspective. To do that, alignment and collaboration are imperative.”

“As architects and designers,” Jauregui says, “we have a lot of influence on both the health of the planet and the health and well-being of the occupants who are using our buildings and spaces.” The time is now to upend the building industry’s approach to materials. N