Reading Product “Nutrition Labels” Helps Ensure Healthier Homes

Using the right building materials is crucial to eco-friendly design.

By Tim Button

The past year has rapidly reshaped our ideas of home. The extended sheltering in our homes resulted in the design and building community’s new focus on a wide range of design issues including flexibility, functionality, sustainability, hygiene and health. As people spend more time inside, they are increasingly aware of the impact their homes can have on both their own health and that of the surrounding environment. This growing consciousness for health and wellness has been driving rapid changes in the food business. People make more sophisticated choices when they go food shopping. To begin educating oneself about healthier home design choices, one could take cues from grocery lists.

Learning to recognize ‘the bad guys’ — toxic ingredients and additives that are harmful to the health of your home — is paramount.” 

Reading the Label

Designing healthy buildings means specifying healthier interior products. Even though designers and clients don’t always want to spend extra time or to get bogged down in the chemistry, making healthier choices doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Just like one reads a label on a cereal box, one should look for the list of “ingredients” in an interior material or product. The simplest lesson that applies to both: the less ingredients, the better: natural, locally sourced stone; wood, treated with non-toxic water-based, oil-based or wax-based finishes; organic cotton; wool (which is also fire-resistant). Though synthetic fabrics tend to get bad rap, some materials — like recycled polyester — are often a good choice, with many beautiful options offered by manufacturers.

Learning to recognize “the bad guys” — toxic ingredients and additives that are harmful to the health of your home — is paramount. The list is long but some of the worst offenders include formaldehyde, PVC, styrene — all linked to various health problems including respiratory issues and various cancers. Many products marketed as anti-bacterial play on our fear of germs but can actually be more hazardous, wiping out microbes in our homes that are actually beneficial or necessary. Materials that are nonporous, and thus, don’t need resealing, like porcelain stoneware, various ceramics, silver and copper, are naturally anti-microbial. One should not be shy about asking questions. When dealing with an architect, salesperson or a manufacturer, it’s good to ask “What’s in it?” “What is it made of?” – but reading a label is a sure way to make more informed choices.

Considering shelf life

Though interior finishes and furnishings account for a small fraction of the overall “greenness” of the home in the beginning, if they are not durable, they will need to be replaced over and over again, which makes them highly toxic to the environment and, potentially, to ourselves. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that 12.1 million tons of furniture ended up in landfills in 2018. When it comes to furniture, the best thing one can do is reuse it. In our practice, we have examples of furniture that has survived multiple moves, generational changes, and in some instances, outlived the buildings they were originally purchased for.

Reusing furniture is not only better for the environment but also it often means that it off-gasses much less. Particularly, though it may seem counter-intuitive, in newly constructed homes it makes even more sense to use reused furniture! While the new, airtight buildings are superior to older ones in energy efficiency, that also means they create conditions for higher air pollutant levels, which are locked inside by the homes’ top-notch insulation. Vintage furniture has often been treated with less chemicals — look for any signs of mold or mildew, which cause health issues of their own.

Knowing the sources

Assessing the health and environmental impacts of materials and products is complex and can be confusing. The claims from product manufacturers sometimes vary and even contradict one another. Fortunately, a growing set of green product resources and tools exist to help project teams educate themselves and their clients. One may begin by checking out sites like Mindful Materials (http://www.mindfulmaterials.com), International Living Future Institute (https://declare.living-future.org ), and U.S. Green Building Council (https://www.usgbc.org). For specific products, I turn to a list of trusted vendors who have been producing eco-friendly material for decades, including Carnegie Fabrics, Interface and Forbo for flooring, and Crossville for countertops and tiles. While these sources are a tip of the iceberg, they are a good place to start.

Tim Button is partner and co-owner of Stedila Design, a NYC-based interior design firm with a wide-ranging portfolio of residential, retail and commercial projects across the U.S. and internationally. Since joining the firm in 1980, Tim has designed and managed hundreds of projects of every scale including the complete interior design work for Pelli Clark Pelli’s The Visionaire, Battery Park City’s most environmentally responsive residential building. Tim holds a BA in Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and is a graduate of its
Environmental Design Program. Since the beginning of his career, Tim has balanced high-end aesthetics with sustainable function and environmental awareness. www.stediladesign.com

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