Can You Guess Where You Spend 87% of Your Life?

What do you really know about the materials that make up the buildings that you live almost your entire life in? (That’s right! About 87% actually!) What are they made of?  Where do they come from? Where do the leftovers go? The design of the building is one thing, but ultimately it is the quality of the materials that make a lasting impact. As designers we are given the opportunity to bring so much positivity and beauty to our world, but just as with all opportunities of such magnitude, it can be squandered.  We are the ones responsible for what our buildings are made of, and it is our ignorance which is killing our home.  

The process of creating many of these materials is a wicked problem in itself.  Between the collection/mining of the raw material, manufacturing, and shipping between it all creates insane amounts of carbon emissions.  The various processes from the gathering of the raw materials to its final sale can be continents apart, exponentially adding to the embodied carbon of materials and is something that many manufacturers and designers just overlook. It’s all about aesthetics right?  If it isn’t aesthetics, its cost; and with cheap materials comes chemicals. Chemicals that are extremely toxic for the environment and the people that come into contact with them, both during and post manufacturing. These chemicals come in the form of “better” alternatives, “safe” fire-resistant coatings, and even “environmentally safe”.  

I am exploring the toxicity of building materials as my wicked problem.  It is shocking to see just how many materials that are not only toxic to produce, but continue to release these toxins throughout its lifecycle.  New materials are being created almost daily, and unlike the medical and food industry, these materials don’t really have any kind of regulations or rigorous testing before they are released to the public.  For building materials, it has to be proven that they cause harm before any kind of action can be taken to regulate them. Even once it is proven that the material causes harm to people it comes into contact with, it can still take decades to see any kind of regulations put into place.  Pretty scary huh? These materials toxic just existing in your environment, so just imagine what they do when they are burned. What happens when all of these new plastics and materials that claim “fire-resistants” actually burn? They release DEADLY carcinogens into the air that we breathe.  Manufacturers are releasing these kinds of materials to designers and contractors to be put into the buildings that people grow and live in without performing or just ignoring any kind of safety testing. And what about when these materials begin to decompose? Contrary to popular belief, buildings aren’t built to last forever anymore, and many of these materials haven’t been around for long enough to begin to measure the effects of what happens to these materials when they begin to age and fall apart.  And what happens when these materials end up in landfills?

Construction waste in around wicked problem with the design industry.  Building materials come in stand sizes, while the buildings that are made from them are not.  Again, these sizes are rarely taken into account during the designing of the building. The construction of buildings produces massive amounts of waste that is just taken away and likely ends up in landfills.  All of those chemicals and coatings just end up in the dirt, left to deteriorate and releasing who knows what into the environment. Out of sight out of mind right? Wrong! That ideology that not only designers, but people alike have, is killing us and our planet. 

Yes these are issues in the building industry, but they really wicked problems?  Well for one, many people causing the problem don’t even realize or are hiding that it exists.  Each material poses a different issues and requires a unique solution, and some of the solutions or alternative materials that have been proposed or produced have been proven to be just as harmful or worse than the material that it is replacing. Yikes!  The ever developing technology has allowed for the rapid development of materials. As long as we continue to push for more and develop more, new materials with unknown effects on the body and environment will continue to make an appearance. As long as buildings are still being designed and built, materials will be produced and waste will be created.  As long as we maintain the ideology that success equals development and development equals building new, these wicked problems will remain. The source of wicked problems is the ideology of humanity. If we don’t change the way we look at the world, we are doomed.

However, not all hope is lost!  People are working to change this ideology and make steps to creating a better world.  Our own university is doing just that. Last week we took a field trip to see the facilities where people are hard at work to make our campus more sustainable.  I found the upholstery shop to be quite relevant to what I am studying. Instead of just throwing all of the worn out furniture on campus away, they recycle and repurpose them!  Instead of bringing more toxic materials on our campus, they recycle antique pieces without adding to the massive carbon emissions it requires to produce a brand new piece of furniture. That’s pretty sweet.  I didn’t quite realize sophisticated our recycling and composting facilities we have here on campus are. Not only are they recycling, they are making money for it. I’m sure that money they have made has definitely offset the costs for all of that equipment.  This doesn’t completely make up for the wasteful overwatering of the landscaping on campus, but I guess I’ll give them points for composting the cuttings and dead plants.

Can you believe that there are more people at this university than in the town I grew up in?  That’s a lot of waste. Take a second to imagine all the cardboard just from all of the new dorm furniture ended up in landfills?  We would likely be swimming in it by now! It truly warmed my heart to see all of the efforts that our university is putting into sustainability.  It gives me hope that maybe my generation will be better.

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