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.”