What’s in that chair?

Making sustainable design choices requires materials transparency

You are what you eat. More than any time in recent history, we’re thinking about what we are eating: what’s in it, where it comes from and what it does to us. Whether we are joining the movement toward “clean eating” (consuming less processed food), counting calories, embracing organic food or just reading ingredient labels more carefully, we’re looking for more information about our food in order to make healthy decisions. This interest in what’s in our food is producing a mainstream response. Some fast food chains (which are now required by the Affordable Care Act to post caloric content of their menu items) are also pledging to let us know about GMOs, artificial ingredients and non-food additives in their offerings. Ultimately, these changes support a move toward transparency in identifying food ingredients. There’s no doubt that this is good PR, but it’s also likely to be good for business and good for health as well.

The presence of potentially dangerous substances in consumer products makes headlines. In 2007, we witnessed a massive recall of Chinese-made toys found to contain lead paint. In 2008, the U.S. banned six phthalates (chemical plasticizers) in toys. Dovetailing with this heightened awareness are continuing waves of research that disrupt previous impressions of what’s safe for daily use: reusable water bottles for example. And yet this awareness hasn’t always extended to the materials in our buildings. Ironically, when the U.S. banned phthalates in toys, it neglected to ban them in flooring for schools.

The demand for transparency is primarily inspired by the millennial generation, which takes more of a preventative attitude toward health and wellness than its forebears and demands detailed information on what it consumes. We spend 90% of the day indoors. More often than we realize, we’re surrounded by toxic materials. How long until this mainstream millennial awareness extends to design materials?

Yet, the design industry in America has a long way to go in materials transparency. Many of our products are manufactured in China where oversight on materials is limited and costs are cheap. Our biggest challenge is dealing with manufacturers who are reluctant to disclose the contents of their materials. Typically, they respond that their materials lists are proprietary information or that their manufacturing process renders toxins harmless. We often find certified non-toxic materials are only available from European manufacturers.

Why is transparency important to us as designers? We’re designing the spaces in which humans live, work and play. Our materials choices will have lasting effects on the health and wellness of people over their entire lifetimes.

Just as we seek to invite nature into the spaces we design by incorporating views and daylight, we should be using materials that celebrate nature and promote health. To make informed design choices, we need to know what’s in the materials we use in our designs. Only then can we be confident we are creating the healthiest indoor environments possible.

How are we approaching materials at VOA? At VOA, we are looking beyond sustainability and neutral outcomes to making a positive impact. We’ve launched an internal group called +impact to promote new thinking about sustainable design practices. Our first +impact program is a materials library of toxic-free design elements in our Chicago office promoting the use of non-toxic materials in VOA projects. The library educates our designers on the Red List, its alternatives and what ingredients to look out for in materials they consider using. Recently, we’ve successfully applied toxic-free alternatives in the interior design for the new Hyatt Place in Chicago.

How do we talk to manufacturers about transparency? We’re starting a conversation that asks our vendors tough questions about their products. If these vendors can’t disclose the ingredients that make up their products, they can simply answer a few yes or no questions in our survey. For example: Do you have a Health Declaration for your product? Does your product contain any Red List ingredients? Are you Cradle-to-Cradle certified? Those that are ahead-of-the-curve on transparency can answer these questions easily. Those who lag behind are engaged in a dialogue about materials transparency. In either case, we’re increasing awareness of the importance of transparency in the design industry.

The time has come for more transparency in design materials from the building industry. We live tomorrow in what we design today.

Keep an eye on the VOA blog for more +impact stories on materials transparency and sustainability.


    Hello Susan,very beautiful thoughts thank you for sharing with us. As a textile designer myself what sustainability are you implementing on textile products for soft goods? what are your thgouhts on fabric being green and sustainable?

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