What Materials Can Promote Health in Interior Architecture?
Recent statistics suggest that if someone lives until they are 80, around 72 of those years will be spent inside buildings. This makes sense if we bear in mind that, when not at home, humans are working, learning or engaging in fun activities mostly in enclosed, built settings. Contemplating current events, however, this number is expected to grow. In an increasingly chaotic and uncertain world, marked by the ongoing effects of climate change and the global pandemic, the desire to stay indoors in a protected, controlled and peaceful environment is stronger than ever. Architects face an important challenge: to create comfortable, productive and healthy interiors with well-regulated parameters, considering factors like indoor air quality, daylighting and biophilic features from the initial stages of design. Of course, this involves choosing materials sensitively and accordingly, whether it be by avoiding certain health-harming components or by integrating non-toxic products that soothe and promote wellness.
We can all agree on the following statement: good architecture is healthy, safe and sensitive. It must protect us from outside threats and should certainly not cause more harm than good. But when we speak about health, it is crucial to be up to date with what it truly means today. Instead of being associated merely with physical conditions, the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” This implies that the general aspect of health now includes the correlation between social and psychological, alongside the commonly known medical factors. And, of course, there cannot be long-term human health if we do not consider environmental sustainability in the equation.
The invisible threat of indoor contaminants
What Building Materials Can Be Harmful to Our Health?
To the surprise of many, air pollution is much higher indoors than outdoors. Thus, it is important to be aware and understand where it comes from, especially since it is hard to detect. Indoor contaminants come in various sizes and compositions. They might be microorganisms such as fungi and mold, which tend to grow in wet, warm environments, or molecular-type contaminants like allergens that can come from insects, rodents, pets, and so on. Other hidden hazards include CO2 and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that originate from building materials, home furniture or cleaning supplies. All of these pollutants can be detrimental to physical and mental health, even more so if they accumulate. Significant amounts of mold, for example, may cause severe allergy symptoms, while high exposure to CO2 can affect users’ performance and productivity. Formaldehyde –one of the most common VOCs– is particularly concerning, potentially affecting concentration levels and causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory loss and even depression. Overall, poor indoor air quality is the cause of 50% of all respiratory diseases.
Design strategies for healthy interior spaces
Understanding where they come from, architects can implement certain design strategies to eliminate or minimize indoor contaminants, such as ensuring the proper natural ventilation, exposure to natural light and the presence of plants. However, one of the most effective ways to mitigate the propagation of indoor pollutants is by choosing modern, non-toxic, sustainable building materials that are purposely created for safe construction and use in the home –hence promoting physical, mental and environmental health. We present some examples below to help architects in the selection process, grouping each material according to its function: construction, flooring surfaces, wall finishes and insulation.
When it comes to conventional construction materials, wood has proven to be extremely beneficial for physical and mental well-being. Studies suggest that the visual presence of wooden elements can lower stress more effectively than plants, while rooms with around 45% of wooden surfaces boost perceptions of comfort, lower blood pressure and improve cognitive performance. It is pivotal, nonetheless, to source the material from sustainably managed forests or use reclaimed wood in order to ensure environmental health. Similarly, bamboo is known as a happy material; viewing it can calm a stressed mind, decrease anxiety and improve concentration. It is also highly sustainable: a fast-growing grass, bamboo requires no fertilizer, self-generates and, compared to an equivalent tree mass, produces 35% more oxygen and absorbs as much as 12 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. Although not a natural resource, stainless steel is also a good alternative when creating healthy environments because it is infinitely recyclable and emits no toxins (which explains its popular use in cookware).
For the healthiest home, solid surface flooring tends to be a better option than carpet, laminate, or vinyl flooring. Carpets trap pollutants and are never perfectly clean, while some laminate flooring can release dangerous levels of formaldehyde. It is thus recommended to use wood flooring with a low-VOC finish or tiles with a low-VOC sealant, such as ceramic, porcelain and glass tiles, which are all easy to clean. If carpet is still the preferred choice, it is possible to use wool carpets and wood or felt paddings that are made from natural, renewable fibers, making them chemical-free and sustainable. For installation, it is important to look for non-toxic adhesives or hook fastener systems that don’t require adhesives at all.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests avoiding drywall made from synthetic gypsum because it is produced from coal waste and may be contaminated with mercury, sulfur and VOCs that could be released into the air. In its place, architects can use recycled, low-carbon-footprint alternatives, or even implement innovative technologies like VOC-eating drywall, which captures contaminants and dilutes up to 70% of VOCs found indoors. Wall paint is another important component to consider, bringing life to any room and positively impacting occupants’ moods. There are many options out there, however, that emit long-lasting toxins that can be hazardous. Fortunately, paint technology has evolved and, together with new environmental regulations, has led to the development of healthier, more sustainable products. Although they can never be guaranteed to be 100% non-toxic, Zero-VOC and Low-VOC paints are one alternative. But to further promote human and environmental health, water-based natural paints are almost always going to be a safer option.
Insulation is an important part of any healthy home, regulating temperature by restricting airflow. For more than a century, most homes were built with fiberglass insulation, which depending on the type of exposure can cause respiratory issues and inflame the eyes and skin. Hence, it is ideal to utilize green insulation materials that are certified with low VOCs and do not contain chemical flame retardants. Some materials that meet such criteria include sheep’s wool, cotton, cork, cellulose, and even roots. All of these are sourced from nature, are safe to handle and require minuscule amounts of energy to produce in comparison to fiberglass.
Going back to the beginning, it is true that good architecture is healthy, safe and sensitive. But to make this statement a concrete reality, architects must continue to develop design strategies oriented toward human and environmental well-being, starting from the basics: choosing the best materials.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: What is Good Architecture?, proudly presented by our first book ever: The ArchDaily Guide to Good Architecture. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.
What Building Materials Can Be Harmful to Our Health?