Two university labs are pioneering research into design solutions that lead to healthier homes.
To create healthier homes, we must first know what’s making them unhealthy and how to fix it. Two university programs, the Healthy Materials Lab at the New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design, are exploring just that.
Both labs were founded out of a desire to study traditionally under-researched areas. The Healthy Materials Lab began as a research project, but its director, Alison Mears, quickly realized that they would have to teach people that there was an issue in the first place. “The issue of toxic chemicals in building materials hasn’t really been addressed by architects and interior designers," she says. "Part of that is because they don’t know what’s hiding in the product they’re using.”
Mears and her team expanded the lab to include education, offering an online course and seminars that are open not only to Parsons students, but also to professionals looking to learn more. The curriculum delves into the often-overlooked relationship between building materials and health, as well as how to make smarter choices.
A major facet of the lab’s work has been on the impact of paint with low-or zero-VOCs, including a high-profile collaboration with the New York City Housing Authority, where the lab sought to improve the interior air quality of the city’s day care centers. “You never think about your indoor environment being harmful to you,” says Mears. “When people think about sustainability and the environment, they’re often thinking of the outdoors. But the spaces we’ve created for ourselves, that’s our environment.”
At RISD last spring, an interior architecture class took what they’d learned about biophilic design—a concept that emphasizes connecting people to nature in the built environment, from erecting a living wall to sourcing furniture made of natural materials—and designed a biophilic workspace that’s now open to all students. “We wanted this to be a case study so that this type of design becomes more than just a concept to students,” says Jennifer Bissonnette, the biological programs designer at the RISD Nature Lab. “They can explore how it feels to be in that kind of space and how they might make similar choices working with local ecosystems.”
Both the labs are looking at ways that their curriculum can be folded into other departments, from architecture and interior design to chemistry and health programs. “I think universities have a duty to teach young people how to live well in this world,” says Bissonnette. “Students deserve to know what challenges are before them and how they can face them, and to have the skills to design in a way that makes a difference.”
The more you know: A guide to green certifications
You can’t make green choices if you don’t know what they are—and you can’t sell those decisions to clients if you don’t know why you’re making them.
“Education is the most important entry point to green practices; becoming familiar with these certifications and how they work, what they provide and what they don’t cover is key,” says Alex Wilson, the founder of BuildingGreen, a resource on sustainable architecture and design. While there are hundreds of helpful courses, seminars and conferences, any of which can jumpstart an understanding of green design, there are also more official routes you can take. We break down three of the most widely accepted green design certifications.
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
- What it is: An offshoot of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED is undoubtedly the most well-known indicator of green design. While one portion of this certification applies to buildings themselves, it also offers certifications for designers, including specialty programs on interior design and creating LEED homes. The bulk of these certifications are targeted for commercial spaces, but the principles they impart, like how to produce less waste or use healthier materials, can be applied in residential settings as well.
- How to get involved: Professionals seeking certification all start with the LEED Green Associate exam, a two-hour test with 100 multiple-choice questions. (The USGBC offers study materials and courses as test prep.) In order to maintain their credentials, Green Associates must earn 15 hours of continuing education within two years of passing the test. Designers interested in pursuing a specialty certification, like Interior Design + Construction or the Homes designation, can either take a combined exam or take the specialty-only exam at a later time.
Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS)
- What it is: Passive House is a rigorous energy standard that can be applied to all types of buildings. Elements like balanced ventilation, an airtight building envelope, double-paned windows and super-insulation work together to reduce the energy needed to heat and cool, resulting in structures with extremely low carbon footprints.
- How to get involved: Like LEED, PHIUS offers certification for both projects and individuals. The PHIUS certification involves three phases: an online course followed by a five-day in-person class ending in a three-hour exam.
Living Building Challenge (LBC)
- What it is: The Living Building Challenge is perhaps the most intense standard of green building. Run by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the LBC requires that buildings produce more energy and water than they use (also called “net positive”)—and to be certified, the efficiency must be proven.
- How to get involved: While ILFI currently offers certifications only for completed buildings, not professionals, the organization has created two free resources for the building and design industries: the Red List, an alphabetical compilation of the worst chemicals used in materials that are prevalent in the building industry; and a database called Declare, something of a nutrition label for products, which details where and how the product is made, what it contains and what happens to it at the “end of its life,” meaning whether or not it can be recycled.
Two not-to-be-missed exhibitions are tackling the relationship between design and nature.
Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival
XXII Triennale di Milano, Milan, Italy
This thematic exhibition, curated by Paola Antonelli, highlights the concept of restorative design and comprises four major commissions, multiple loans, and 22 international participants. (In the U.S. pavilion, “RECKONstruct” explores how new materials can help bolster a sustainable, circular economy.) “Broken Nature” is held in conjunction with a slate of conferences, panels, workshops, screenings and performances in Milan. Through September 1, 2019.
Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, New York
Encompassing more than 60 works (including garments in glowing transgenic silk, above) across various design disciplines, including architecture, urbanism, product design, landscape design, fashion and communication design, “Nature” highlights the ways designers across the world are collaborating with scientists, engineers, farmers, environmentalists—and nature itself—to create a more harmonious and regenerative future. The exhibition, which is running simultaneously at the Cube design museum in the Netherlands, will address sustainable production methods, identify new ways to protect future generations, and deepen our understanding of, and relationship with, nature. Through January 20, 2020.