Welcome to HomeFree, the Healthy Building Network’s new initiative that supports affordable housing leaders who are improving human health through the use of healthy, high-performing building materials.
I know from personal experience that this is easier said than done – but it’s possible. In my recent past role as Vice President of Housing Development at Aeon, a Minneapolis non-profit housing organization, I led an ambitious project to build a 90-unit mixed-income apartment using the Living Building Challenge as a framework. Incorporating healthy materials was a particular focus. I didn’t think it would be stress-free, but what surprised me was why it was so hard to build the project we called The Rose with healthy building materials. To be honest, I just wanted a list of the best products to use, but I soon learned that it’s not so simple.
Incredibly, most chemicals used in building products (and our everyday lives) have not been tested for their human health impacts. When I say most, I mean that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has over 80,000 chemicals in their registry, have done testing on about 200, and regulate only 5. Yes; read that sentence again.
Next is the transparency issue: unlike food products, building products don’t list their ingredients. It is very difficult to find reliable information about chemicals used in building materials, and when it is disclosed, it makes me feel as overwhelmed as I did back in my high school chemistry class. When we built the Rose, we avoided “red list” chemicals as much as we could, but never knew if the red list chemical was swapped out with a “regrettable substitution,” i.e. a slightly altered chemical with similar hazard characteristics. In short, information is difficult to access, it is complex, and products often change. The good news is that transparency is definitely a new trend with manufactures, and the more we ask for this information, the more we will get it. So, ask!!
Finally, there are sometimes cost premiums and performance questions with leading edge, healthier products; however, this is not always the case. We (and when I say we, I mean our great design firm – MSR) were able to identify healthier options that met our budget and performance spec. Even swapping out one or two products can have an incredible impact!
It ain’t all doom and gloom!! In fact, I am so confident about the possibility that I recently left my former position to ensure that the affordable housing sector gets access to and can help shape the growing array of tools and resources to find the healthiest products that reflect our organizational values and our project budgets. Collectively, affordable housing represents a huge market sector that can and should engage and negotiate with manufacturers to provide products that fit our needs. HomeFree was born out of this vision.
HomeFree is tackling the barriers to using healthier materials by connecting project teams to reliable tools, information, and experts. Peer-to-peer sharing will help improve tools and build a useful library of materials. We will connect leaders from other market sectors who will share relevant strategies that can be adapted to ours. Together, we will harness the affordable housing market power to create incentives for product manufacturers to offer a healthier array of products that fit our criteria and budgets.
Sure, it’s not easy, but it is not impossible. Using healthier materials is important to the people our industry serves. Low wealth communities are disproportionately impacted by exposures to unhealthy chemicals – from lead poisoning to asthmagens – in the home, in their neighborhoods and on the job. Removing unnecessary chemical hazards from our built environment can make home, work, and communities healthier. Healthy materials = healthy lives.
I invite you to learn more about HomeFree, and become part of this exciting and important mission!
Gina Ciganik is the Senior Advisor - Housing Innovation for the Healthy Building Network.