The case for healthy materials in a post-COVID world

As the world tries to recover from the ongoing global pandemic, questions are being asked as to how this can be prevented from happening again, but also how we can create healthier environments for ourselves. In the post-COVID world we are all starting to notice how our health and wellbeing is being affected by the large proportion of time we spend inside buildings. The impact of the physical materials we are surrounded by are an often-overlooked factor. 

At the same time, we are still facing a climate emergency, and it is critical to find a path to recovery that is both sustainable and just. The materials we construct our environments from need to be considered when designing green economic recovery strategies. We must take a combined approach to both crises. 

What are Healthy Materials?

At WSP, we believe that ‘healthy materials’ sit at the intersection between improving health and wellbeing and the transition to a circular economy, which are both more relevant than ever in the current circumstances. They are materials with reduced health impacts, such as lower levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) leading to better internal air quality. But they should also have lower carbon impacts, often being natural products. ‘Healthy materials’ should be healthier for both people and planet.

There has never been a more important moment to make our building environments healthier, and to do so with minimum environmental impact. Materials have historically been under-considered in favor of greater energy efficiency, air tightness and so on in buildings, but according to our research, they can have a significant health and carbon impact.

Why do we need Healthy Materials?

Impact of COVID-19 global pandemic

Following the lockdown there will be greater focus on ensuring access to healthy building environments, and this cannot be achieved without focus on materials. The European Commission estimates that we spend 90% of our time indoors and under lockdown conditions it is likely that this has been much higher for most. Whilst indoor air quality is of course affected by external air quality, internal pollutants, for example in the form of VOCs and SVOCs from construction materials, also have a major impact.

Furthermore, research by the World Green Building council has found that employees are typically a business’s greatest expense, making up 90% of their expenditure, and as a result employers should be incentivized to invest in their health both in office environments and while they work from home, as is likely to become the ‘new normal’. Currently, strategies are often based around the treatment of indoor air quality issues, without necessarily addressing the causes.

Green Economic Recovery

Governments worldwide are looking for sustainable methods of economic recovery, with many promising to ‘build back better’. Despite temporary reductions in the last few months, we know that current levels of carbon emissions are unsustainable, and as more and more carbon is released into the earth’s atmosphere, we are seeing serious changes to climate patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events. Materials have a disproportionate impact on the carbon emissions of the construction industry, which is only starting to be addressed in the monitoring of embodied carbon. 39% of global carbon expenditure is attributable to the built environment, and around a third of this originates from the materials we use to construct this environment.

In order to reduce this, we must use lower carbon materials, use less of them and reuse them. However, these materials must also have lower toxicity levels, as toxic chemicals can accumulate with each reuse cycle, therefore impeding a transition to a circular economy.

Client requirements, policy and building standards

Built asset owners, landlords and clients should be, and often are, very interested in encouraging the use of healthy materials in development and refurbishment projects. Affordable, and portable air quality monitoring systems are available to consumers and are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. As a result, it has never been easier for building users to live-monitor their internal environments, and if these are found to be unhealthy or even unacceptable, building owners and clients can be left vulnerable. Additionally, when reporting scope 3 emissions, the carbon impact of materials can be a hotspot, so selecting lower carbon materials can be a cheaper solution than offsetting. 

Building standards such as WELL, Reset, BREEAM and the Living Building Challenge are often driving the specification of healthy materials to satisfy indoor environment credits and strategies, as well as those that require carbon reduction. However, achieving policies such as the UK Climate Change Act 2008, the commitment to achieve Net-Zero by 2050 and local climate emergency declarations will require materials promoting better planetary health.

What are the benefits of Healthy Materials?

At WSP, we see four core benefits to the use of healthy materials;

  1. Improving indoor air quality and occupant health

As discussed above, building materials can be a source of internal pollutants, which can have a negative impact on indoor air quality and as a result occupant health. Research is emerging on the impacts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), often found in building materials such as paints, furnishings and plasticizers used in vinyl flooring products, and have been linked with allergic and asthma symptoms, respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease and cancers. But other perhaps more surprising building materials such as PIR insulation or PVC windows can off-gas chemicals such as styrene and polyvinyl chloride, which are known or suspected carcinogens.  

  1. Improving feelings of wellbeing among occupants 

Using healthy materials constructed from natural or ‘biophilic’ products such as timber or cork can have benefits for building users and increase perceptions of wellbeing. These materials are often visibly natural, and research confirms a human preference for the natural rather than the built environment. Including natural elements such as these in a building design has been shown to reduce stress and increase productivity and creativity. 

  1. Reducing the carbon impact of buildings

Because healthy materials are often natural, and non-fossil fuel-based they therefore tend to have a lower carbon impact, although of course there are exceptions. Our research found that over a typical building lifecycle, swapping out fossil fuel-based materials such as vinyl flooring or polyamide-based carpet with alternatives such as linoleum flooring or wool-based carpets can make significant carbon savings. 

  1. Increasing the circularity of buildings 

The impact of the current extractive economy should not be underestimated; raw material extraction is now responsible for 50% of global emissions. A transition to a circular economy should eventually eliminate this issue, by reusing and recycling materials continuously, using the resources already in circulation. However, if building materials contain harmful and toxic chemicals, such as those mentioned above, this process can be impeded as chemicals can accumulate and prevent reuse. Therefore, selecting healthy materials can increase the circularity of buildings, and this can be assisted by better material transparency and the increasing use of third-party schemes such as Declare labels and c2c certification.

Ultimately, as we try to find a path to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing our use of materials in the built environment that are healthier for both people and the planet must be near the top of our agenda.

This article is written by Fiona McGarvey ARB RIBA Senior Sustainability Consultant at WSP

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