The Transparency Project: transparency.perkinswill.com
Reviewed by Mishelle Oun
Issue 12 Summer | Fall 2013
Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Lung Association, and other agencies have revealed that our indoor air is often more harmful to human health than outdoor air pollution. Asthma, for example, can be aggravated, or caused by exposure to chemicals offgassed by common building components like wall paint, flooring, countertops, furniture, etc.1 Exacerbating the problem, the average American spends 90% of their time indoors.2 Fortunately, many design professionals are acknowledging their role in indoor air quality (IAQ) conditions, and are taking action, seeking alternative materials and techniques to deliver spaces that are benign by design. Perkins+Will, an architecture firm recently recognized as one of the top ten innovative architecture firms by Fast Company3, is pivotal to this industry-wide change. With the launch of their Transparency website (Transparency), transparency.perkinswill.com, the firm is leading the movement to design healthy buildings and spaces.
In 2011, Perkins+Will launched Transparency as a comprehensive tool to help designers, builders, and their clients make more informed design decisions, built upon the precautionary principle, which states that
“if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the people or the environment, or when no scientific data is concluded, one should proceed with caution.”4
The database offers valuable information about substances found in many architectural and interior products that have been evaluated and classified by multiple regulatory entities as detrimental to the environment and human health.
There is a great deal of information in Transparency, well organized into clear categories, with the Precautionary List, Asthma Triggers & Asthmagens, Flame Retardants, and News, Media, & Additional Research as the starting points. Users can explore and search based on different criteria: alphabetically by name, by health affect, by chemical type, as well as by Construction Specification Institute (CSI) Division- the industry standard for specifying materials.
A good place to start is with the Precautionary List. Here, users can select a substance from one of many listed, such as volatile organic compounds, urea-formaldehyde, cadmium, etc., for more information. For example, users can discover that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is commonly found in resilient flooring, wallcovering, furniture, and window treatments. Another click reveals information about PVC’s known and suspected health effects, another section lists laws and building codes that regulate the use of PVC. Users can learn about alternative materials and PVC-free material options and even see green building credits with which PVC-free materials correspond, such as LEED, Green Star, and Living Building Challenges rating systems.
While the online tool is currently geared toward the built environment, product designers, apparel designers, and others should also take notice to the valuable information it can offer. Perkins+Will is setting the standard for designing solutions for the challenges of the 21st century and their Transparency tool is setting the bar higher for all designers. It challenges us to design a future where responsible, sustainable, and healthy building environments are the norm, and provides us a tool to shape a world in peace one building at a time.
“It is our belief that products that are harmful to humans, animals, and the environment should not be used in our projects, and to that end, we seek to inform our clients of available alternatives so as to permit them to make informed decisions.”5
1 U.S. EPA/Office of Air and Radiation. Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (6609J) Cosponsored with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. (2009). The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality. EPA 402-K-93-007.
2 Westervelt, A. (August 8, 2012). How Our Buildings Are Making Us Sick. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/08/08/how-our-buildings-are-making-us-sick/
4 Science and Environmental Health. (1988). The Precautionary Principle. Retrieved from http://www.sehn.org/wing.html.