Transparency is a new website from the architecture firm Perkins+Will that launches on November 17th. The site looks to be an exciting new home for information about toxins, asthma triggers, and other nasty substances commonly found in the built environment. The most recent iteration of a research project that began in 2002, Transparency should be required reading for anyone hoping to learn more about removing carcinogens from the buildings they live and work in. I had a chat with Chris Youssef, a materials expert and interior designer for Perkins+Will who compiled much of the research for Transparency. Here's what he had to say about the project.
Tell me about the beginnings of Transparency.
This project started in 2002 when we were working on a campus center. At a team meeting the leader said "I want this to be a carcinogen-free building" and it was my job to research every material that was to be used to make sure that it had no known carcinogens and wasn't made of anything with known carcinogens. It took a great deal of research and eventually I discovered that certain toxic substances kept showing up over and over again. So that research was the basis for the Precautionary list that we released in 2009.
How does the new site differ from what you put out in 2009?
We always knew that the the Precautionary list would be a living document. We've been working since then to discover what we should add to it. So what we have now for the Transparency website is information about asthma triggers, asthmagens, and flame retardants as well as a white paper on fly ash in concrete and other resources. Plus the original 25 substances that we put out in the Precautionary list. We're trying to advocate for a precautionary approach to the substances used to make the built environment. Our belief is that products that are harmful to humans, animals, and the environment should not be used in our projects. And we've gotten emails or comments on websites from smaller firms that don't have the resources to do all this research thanking us for our work. It's a depot of information that really hasn't been compiled until now.
What's the goal of the new site? To advocate? To inform?
We hope the site opens people's eyes to these harmful substances. We need architects, clients, and users to be more engaged in the manufacture of what's out there to make this market transition to more green products. A piece of plywood you're using to build a house may say "formaldehyde-free" but you don't know the other glues and solvents used in it. We want a nutrition label on building materials.
So what new information is Transparency offering to users?
Asthma triggers, asthmagens, and flame retardants are areas where we've done new research for Transparency. We identify not only what substances in the built environment can trigger asthma in someone who has it, but also what can cause it in people who don't have the disease. For example chlorine can trigger asthma, and it's found in some household cleaning solutions. But the immediate effect of that is felt if you're cleaning with a product with chlorine and you have asthma. But if the chlorine is in a building material you may not notice it right away.
And how about fire retardants?
Fire retardants are a bit harder because there's not an apples-to-apples substitute for a lot of fire retardants. But here the hope is to educate people to go to the manufacturers and say that we know the health effects of the substances you use and we want you to alter how you make your product.