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Designing for Health: Materials – The WELL v2 Standard

by Jon Young, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, Sustainability EIT II

“Of roughly 85,000 chemicals available in the market, few are adequately tested for human health impacts. Hazardous chemicals are widespread and can be found in our water, air, food, and products we use every day. These chemicals migrate into our bodies, our children’s bodies, and our pets and wildlife, costing us our health, the loss of millions of IQ points, and contributing to climate change.”

Healthy Building Network (HBN)

Whether you’re looking at a small home or a large commercial project, the materials, and products selected for the construction and operation of that building play a significant role in the health impacts on the building occupants. Logically, this makes sense – Any toxic chemicals you bring into your building will then become part of the indoor environment, resulting in a diminished quality of air and water, which can then result in negative impacts on your health.

Unfortunately, these toxic chemicals can be difficult to get rid of once they are introduced, and have a further-reaching impact than you may expect. For example, PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a manmade cancer-causing chemical first produced in 1929 that was widely used in caulking and elastic sealant materials until they were eventually banned in the U.S. in 1979 due to unintended impacts on human and environmental health. Over a decade later, it was discovered that those particles rode air and ocean currents all the way up to the Arctic and were found in high-levels of concentration in polar bears, fish, and killer whales, causing negative impacts to these populations.

“An estimated 95% of chemicals largely used in construction lack sufficient data on health impacts.”

WELL v2 Standard, Materials

Similarly to the exposure of harmful chemicals that we have inadvertently brought all the way to the Arctic, many chemicals which are toxic to human health are still widely used in our buildings today, and if you’re not careful about it, you’re probably coming into contact with them on a frequent basis. What is perhaps even more concerning is the fact that a large majority (95%) of chemicals used in the construction industry lack sufficient data on health impacts, so we really don’t fully know the extent to which we may be causing harm to ourselves by using these materials.

In order to combat this issue, organizations such as Healthy Building Network (HBN), Cradle to Cradle, HPD Collaborative, GreenScreen, International Living Future Institutes (Red List), and Mindful Materials are working to provide greater transparency to the life-cycle, environmental, and health impacts of building materials. One way this is done is through Health Product Declarations (HPDs) which provide a consistent reporting of product contents and associated health information for products used in the built environment to ensure a health-conscious selection of building materials.

826 Houston Street, Designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture (Austin, Texas)

Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment, Concept 8: Materials

Issue: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), lead, asbestos, arsenic, dioxin, mercury, cadmium, pesticides, biocides, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are only some of the toxic chemicals found in buildings due to various source materials, including insulation, paints, coatings, adhesives, furniture, composite wood production, and flooring materials. Usage of these materials can negatively impact our health by diminishing air, water, and environmental quality.

Health Implications: Exposure to these materials can have a wide range of health impacts including respiratory irritation and cancer. Lead exposure accounts for approximately 0.6% of the global burden of disease. And unfortunately, an estimated 95% of chemicals used frequently in construction still lack sufficient data on health impacts.

Solution: Green Buildings can help reduce human exposure to hazardous building material ingredients by mandating emissions and content thresholds for building materials and products used in buildings. Health and Environmental Product Declarations can be utilized in order to bring transparency to the ingredients and impacts of the materials being used.

WELL v2 Standard’s Recommended Strategies:

  • Restriction of hazardous ingredients such as asbestos, mercury, pesticides, VOCs, SVOCs, halogenated flame retardants (HFRs), wood preservatives, PCBs, and lead for all newly installed building materials, components, and furnishings
  • Managing the lead hazard potential in exterior planters and soil by conducting a risk assessment, abatement, and determinations in the top 1.5 cm of existing bare soil
  • Restricting hazardous or harmful ingredients in soap, shampoos, cleaning disinfection, and sanitization products as well as program training for staff, a plan for the maintenance of a cleaning schedule, and a protocol for entryway cleaning and maintenance
  • Selecting optimized materials such as those that comply with Declare: Living Building Challenge, GreenScreen Benchmark 1 standards, or Cradle to Cradle certified products for all installed furnishings and interior finishes
  • Minimizing pesticide use through IPM and when necessary, the use of low-hazard pesticides accompanied by signage detailing pesticide information at the site of application
  • Requiring safe ongoing management and disposal of hazardous waste, including construction and demolition waste
  • Requiring ingredient disclosure, product descriptions, and transparency labels for all newly installed interior finishes and furnishings
  • Requiring adherence to emission thresholds for newly applied adhesives, sealants, paints, and coatings as well as for newly purchased furniture, furnishings, flooring, and insulation
  • Providing a digital or physical library on compliant products to building occupants in order to promote health and wellness awareness
3400 Cityline – Generational Equity – Level 1, Designed by Corgan Architects (Richardson, Texas)


Building materials used from construction to operation can have a significant impact on the health and wellness of building occupants. However, during the design process, materials don’t always get the attention they deserve, partially because the information on their health and environmental impacts isn’t readily available for all commonly used materials. However, by following WELL v2 Guidelines on material design and selection techniques, and utilizing natural materials as well as other third-parties for verification of the ingredients and impacts of building materials, we can improve and optimize our spaces for a healthy indoor environment and promote increased health and wellbeing for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our society.

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Dripping Springs ISD – Walnut Springs Elementary School | Corgan Associates | Dripping Springs, Texas

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