Committing to healthy and sustainable materials

Sustainable Architecture
Photo by Nic Lehoux

Sustainable architecture and human-centered design is inherent to Shepley Bulfinch’s design philosophy and practice. We approach sustainability holistically, evaluating the broad range of elements that the term “sustainability” encompasses and pursuing those most relevant to the project and place. By aligning the goals of the project with the values of the institution, we ensure that the core sustainability principles are incorporated into the project’s programming and design recommendations. 

Studies have found critical links between the design of the built environment and the physical and mental health of its occupants. Our team approaches each project with this in mind throughout the design process. At a project’s onset, we work closely with the client to understand their values and outline the myriad of ways in which the building’s design could impact its users and the broader planet. This allows us to create a customized design approach that reflects the client’s priorities around the health and wellness of people and planet. 

Photo by Nic Lehoux

To create an energy-efficient library with special collections in North America, the design team, including Shepley Bulfinch, Maya Lin Studio with Bialosky + Partners, Thornton Tomasetti, and Transsolar worked together. Along with Smith College, we developed a Sustainability Charter that summarized the sustainability goals and referenced requirements from targeted third-party certification programs (like LEED, Passive House, and Living Building Challenge) to serve as a guiding document for the renovation. The Sustainability Charter features four primary sustainability goals: 

  • Include the collaborative use of space to reduce use and carbon emissions; 
  • Create one of the most energy efficient libraries with special collection spaces in North America; 
  • Emphasize the health and well-being of students, campus community, and the environment; 
  • Enhance the local ecology and Smith College’s historic campus 


“Red List” materials refer to those which contain chemicals known to pose serious risks to human health and the environment, frequently used in building materials. In addition to targeting and incorporating materials free of Red List chemicals, Smith College and the design team decided to use the iconic building as a platform to advocate for positive change in the marketplace and encourage manufacturers to eliminate “Red List” Chemicals from their products.

There are many building materials that have been identified as harmful to human health by various organizations. For example, The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) identified a list of “Red List” chemicals, which projects looking to meet the criteria of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) must avoid. The production of materials can also contribute to pollution, environmental degradation, and habitat and species loss, among other issues. The use of healthier materials is also an environmental justice issue: there are disproportionate health effects from toxic chemicals, typically used in low-income housing and in areas that are communities of color, and women are more vulnerable to chemical exposure from toxic chemicals. 

At Neilson Library, eliminating the use of Red List materials was particularly important because of the long hours spent by students and staff in the building. Photo by Nic Lehoux
The team started by developing a product list that focused on the highest priority product categories: those that directly impacted occupant health and air quality, are prominently featured in building, products that have high extent and cost, and market transformation potential. Some of these product categories included: flooring, interior paints and coatings, acoustic and thermal insulation, interior wall systems, and furnishings. From there, the team determined the baseline for replacement materials research and vetting, based on the ILFI’s Red List.  

Shepley Bulfinch and Maya Lin Studio signed a letter of commitment communicating the intentions of the healthy materials initiative, which was used to support the next phase of the process: manufacturer outreach. The project’s sustainability consultant, Thornton Tomasetti led the materials vetting effort, requesting transparent ingredient disclosure from manufacturers. These results were shared with the design team in biweekly calls, during which alternates were proposed, feedback was provided by Shepley Bulfinch about use from a design perspective (durability, performance, aesthetics, etc.), and healthier basis of design products were discussed and confirmed. A list of healthy materials was finalized that fulfilled progress towards the elimination of Red List materials and the Sustainability Charter’s goals. 

Photo by Nic Lehoux
Industry-wide, there is certainly still work to do to achieve complete elimination of Red List materials. When Neilson Library was being designed, some Red List-free options were easily available: carpeting free of PVC carpet backing, no HFRs, and PFCs, in fibers; a Red List-free painting schedule that met additional LEED requirements; and formaldehyde-free mineral wool insulation. For other products, Red List-free was possible with a few tweaks: ceiling tiles required innovative plant-based acrylic binders to remove formaldehyde, and rubber flooring that was formaldehyde, BPA, and PVC free was used. There were some products where Red List free simply wasn’t possible at the time, but the manufacturer committed to change: alternates for laminated veneer lumber, for example, were tested by the manufacturer, but none passed the strength requirements. 

All told, the project team educated and advocated to over one hundred manufacturers, included ninety-six products with healthy materials language in their specs and sixty-eight products specifically designated as “Healthy Materials Basis of Design” and successfully influenced other large institutions. Smith College is seen as a leader in healthy materials by other institutions.  

Consideration of the embodied energy, toxicity, and life cycle of the products we specify are central to our design process. We specify rapidly renewable materials whenever possible. Building on the Smith College initiative, we have developed an internal Healthy Materials working group that works to educate, enact, and further our commitment as we continue to incorporate healthy people / healthy planet principles in our building projects. 

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