Episode 02 Extra
In the Room with Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth
Hear the full interview with our expert guests from Episode 02, Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth, founders of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design. Learn about who holds the power to make our built environment healthier and a case study featuring America’s largest landlord, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Plus, hear a warm introduction from Kimberly Seigel, a research knowledge manager and co-director of our Material Performance Lab.
Check out the comprehensive Healthy Materials Lab (HML) course that Monica mentions in the interview: Healthier Materials and Sustainable Building.
Amanda Kaminsky is the founder and principal of Building Product Ecosystems (BPE), which works with building owners and diverse partners to center material flows and whole system health in construction-industry decision making. Listen to this podcast about Amanda’s journey from the Durst Organization to BPE in search of healthy building materials.
Also mentioned are HML’s collaborators in the Healthy Affordable Materials Project:
- First Community Housing, San Jose, CA
- Heather Henriksen, Chief Sustainability Officer, Harvard University
- Dr. Joseph Allen, Director, Healthy Buildings Program, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University
Kimberly Seigel: Here we go. [Breathes in]
[“Head over Heels” by Etienne Roussel / Epidemic Sound, cheesy romantic song from Inhabit 1.2, “Love in the Time of PFAS,” featuring an edited interview with Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth, cues in. Clock winds and a low rumble sounds. Then a heartbeat cues in.]
Erika Eitland and Monica Kumar, in unison: Inhabit is a show about power, the power, the power of—
Perkins&Will Chorus: —design.
[Rumble and heartbeat fade out.]
Kimberly Seigel: Hey Inhabit listeners. My name is Kimberly Seigel. I co-direct the Material Performance Lab, and I’m a research knowledge manager at Perkins&Will. I love that I can be a part of the Inhabit team as a member of the Advisory Board. In case you couldn’t already tell, this podcast has got brains, facts, laughs, insights, and actions. Just when you thought listening to a podcast was a passive activity, it inspires you to enact change in a way that suits you. And if you’re listening to this, it means you’ve started your journey on the Healthy Buildings Movement. So welcome.
[“Head over Heels” melody drops out and only the bass line plays.]
In this edition of “In the Room With,” we are sharing the full interview with Alison Mears and Jonsara Ruth of the Healthy Materials Lab, at Parsons School of Design. You’ll hear our hosts, Monica and Erika, dive deeper into our belief that design is a public health intervention. I am perpetually fascinated by the connections around us. So my No. 1 Inhabit takeaway is that research, design, and policy are all human-driven constructs informed by decisions. But since decisions are made by people, it’s really all about relationships. Inhabit listeners, you are no stranger to our love languages. So here are my research, design, and policy highlights. Number 1: Research. When it comes to the definition of design research, our experts discuss the significance of propositions: research FOR design versus research THROUGH design.
[“Head over Heels” melody slow fades in.]
I found this intriguing because at Perkins&Will we integrate research into practice. Number 2: Design. Jonsara and Alison show the value of stepping outside your comfort zone, to forge relationships with partners and stakeholders and to test things out in the real world. And Number 3: Policy. You are going to hear Erika say the decisions we’re making are not just for the few. That really resonates with me, because it highlights the power of bringing in all stakeholders when we are pushing for equity and better policies.
[“Head over Heels” cuts out.]
Jonsara and Alison provide so much food for thought—the total cost of materials, the importance of collaboration, the role of industry … But let me not give too much away. Here is “In the Room with Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears.”
Erika Eitland: So I’m super excited, because I get to kick off this interview. What is a “design research lab”? Just to get us going—
Alison Mears: I think we like to differentiate ourselves from a scientific research lab. Early on in our life as a lab, we were often asked, you know, “Where’s your equipment? Where are the benches? Where’s that scientific equipment we associate with a lab?” And so we wanted to make sure people understood that design can be used as a, as a research tool, and it can inform the projects that we work on. We often call ourselves a “practice-led research” as well. So it’s “design-led,” “practice-led” … But rather than creating white papers or working in the space of theory, we really wanted our work to be informed by practice and for us to be able to impact practice to make change immediately, not to have to wait for years and years. So we’re impatient.
Erika Eitland: Oh I’m right there with you. Because I did stem-cell research for three years, and nothing is more sterile and sad than that experience.
Jonsara Ruth: You know, we also get our hands dirty and sometimes dig our hands into materials and do research through design. So, you know, there’s that old question, Do you do research for design? Do you research through design? Is design a tool for research? And I think we do some of each?
Monica Kumar: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the lab? Like, was there a gap you were trying to fill? Or how did you two find each other in the, in the sort of creation of this lab?
Jonsara Ruth: How did we find each other? I think we found each other because we have offices next door to one another. Alison was directing the undergraduate interior design and architecture programs at Parsons, and I was directing the graduate program of interior design at Parsons. And so we often wanted to create a door or window between our offices. Because the big underpinnings for the MFA, the graduate program for interior design is to ask, What is interior design … to begin with? And Alison, as the director for the undergraduate was asking similar questions: What is interior design? And how can we take the bigger questions that are happening in the graduate program and bring those questions into the undergraduate program? And so we had a lot of conversations, and we had a lot of time spent in the hallway between, you know, exchanging books and fierce conversations and doing projects together. And so one of the underpinnings of the graduate program really was, like, What is sustainability for interiors? And what do we mean by indoor air quality? And how does indoor air quality inform interior design?
Monica Kumar: Absolutely.
Jonsara Ruth: And so although we were kind of doing it in this one little program, it wasn’t widespread. You know, it wasn’t widespread throughout Parsons, or by any means throughout design education or even architecture education. And then we were approached by a group of people, the Durst Organization, who were doing some similar kind of research into materials, into how materials affect health and the whole ecosystem. And Alison and I joined a group that would meet e very week, Alison?
Alison Mears: Every, every two weeks in these impossible schedules.
Jonsara Ruth: And we would gather around the table with leaders in the field of these kinds of topics. But really, Amanda Kaminsky there was trying to change industry. So she would say, like, we need to tackle the concrete industry—
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Jonsara Ruth: —what do we do? Well, the first thing we do is we bring all the leaders in concrete together around one big table and talk about it. And there, Alison and I were sitting at the table, talking about these things.
Erika Eitland: So like, literal concrete, like, stuff we use to build buildings. This is who’s at the table.
Alison Mears: Yeah, and how we could make the kind of transformations in those common building products, I think that for me was the insight in that group of— Like, how do you remove flame retardants from insulation? How do you make a better concrete? How do you create a closed loop for gypsum board so that the really good forms of gypsum board, you know, all of those off cuts that happen on-site can actually be recycled and used again to make new gypsum board. So quite rarefied conversations, but it was really not about the idea of something it was about the implementation and systems change piece of this that was really important.
Monica Kumar: You’re, you’re hitting on something, actually, I want to pursue this little line, because I think it’s so important to what we want to talk about on the podcast, which is how does change happen? And I think there’s these heroic individuals that get mythologized in history, but it’s actually these, these acts of people coming together with different stakes. And so Amanda Kaminsky, of course, you know, we all know the name was she the originator of, you know, we need to get these people at a table together
Alison Mears: She was definitely the convener and to the heroic individuals, she was definitely one of those as well. And it was her idea, I think, to call this, this group Building Product Ecosystems. So it really was this ecosystem approach to making change. She was in a position of authority at Durst. Durst has the capacity to impact the market through its buying and through its, uh, the production of the buildings that it is responsible for. So it is able to act in a way that’s quite unusual as an owner. And her work within that organization, looking at sustainability and looking at toxics in materials, gave her a kind of insight. And then that kind of authority that she had through that position allowed her to convene really important people, not, not so much us, but other people who were at the table to get them to spend the time with that group to really think of tackling those problems. So it was a fantastic approach. And it really was what helped us as we, we wrote a grant to support this work further beyond that group within the context of affordable housing.
Jonsara Ruth: Just to build off what you said, Monica, I think this is a really important point, which is like, what makes change? And, you know, sitting around those tables for three years definitely influenced the way I understand how to make change. Because you can get people around the table. I mean, she could get people around the table. The Durst Organization, you know, everybody wants to have their business. So they’ll come to the table if you ask them. But then what do you do with them once they’re at the table? Watching how Amanda, facilitate those meetings and also how the conversation went in those meetings was inspirational and really influential, I think, for us. I think it actually influenced the way that we developed our e-learning program, our online learning program. How do you bring people around and then pull out the best of their expertise and allow them to have a conversation in a kind of nonjudgmental way, like, people would say, you know, the antithesis of what you might want to hear about the evolution of concrete. And then she and others would steer the conversation in the right direction, but slowly. And eventually, everybody was on board to say, Wow, maybe we do need to replace the fly ash that’s currently in concrete that’s making everybody sick. Maybe there’s a benefit—an economical benefit as well as a health benefit to making this change—and now nine years later, eight years later, concrete’s being made with pozzolan that’s made from recycled glass, instead of fly ash.
Monica Kumar: Yeah. Absolutely.
Jonsara Ruth: And that’s, you know, less than a decade to have that huge shift happen in the production of concrete in New York City is enormous. You know, it’s already been tested for its strength. It’s stronger than the concrete was before this change. We’re lucky enough and really honored to be at that table with these watch that shift.
Monica Kumar: —watch it happen. I know that’s— I feel like I’m, I’m by proxy getting like a peek behind the veil of how the sort of behind-the-doors decision making and change happens, which is really, really exciting. So is it is it fair to say that some of those conversations were the sort of impetus for starting this lab?
Alison Mears: Mmmm, yeah, I think so. There was an opportunity for us to start writing a grant with one of our fellow participants around that table for a project called the Healthy Affordable Materials Project, and it brought together four organizations: ourselves as a nascent organization, you know, just in the process of becoming, and three others who were experts in this area: the Green Science Policy Institute, the Healthy Building Network, and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. And we and the three organizations formed this project with the intention of transforming the common building products that are used in affordable housing to remove some of those toxics that we have talked about.
Jonsara Ruth: And so at that time, you know, the other organizations that were already established. At that moment, I was running the Interior Design program. Alison at that point was the dean of the School of Design Strategies. We had these other lives, other professional commitments. We just thought, you know, this is a big enough topic, an important enough topic.
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Jonsara Ruth: It really needs some major change. I mean, affordable housing in general needs change. But the whole building industry needs change.
Jonsara Ruth: And this is an opportunity not to be passed up. That’s when we said, You know what? We can jump into anything. We had worked together on a couple of other huge projects where they seemed insurmountable, and we were able to succeed in redesigning the East Wing of the White House together, for instance. And we though, Oh yes, we can do this. We can start a lab.
Erika Eitland: In the last ten years, if you were to say, these are the three biggest things that led to these incremental shifts and change. Clearly partnerships is at the heart of it, you have these moments of, just, humble listening and bringing those diverse perspectives to the table. But I’m wondering, you know, something that maybe felt uncomfortable to the both of you first, and then you realized, No, this is, this is a secret sauce, other than just being fearless as you both are.
Alison Mears: It always felt uncomfortable at the beginning. Because it was a totally new area for me. And I was the dean of one of these schools at Parsons. I was kind of used to taking on these challenges. But I think it was new knowledge, and this ability to really say, you know, there’s a problem, and I, Alison, need to acquire this new knowledge to be able to participate in this area. So it was challenging to have three partners and to be the design school part of this, I think. But we do like the challenge, and I think it’s the ability to want to take on the challenge and also to embrace collaboration and to bring in people from any number of different fields to help us. And I think, I’m an architect, Jonsara’s a designer and an artist. Our team is made up of all kinds of different people. We don’t see ourselves as sequestered in any particular field. So I think that gave us an advantage in this space to really be able to say, you know, how do we make change in something that is as conservative and as difficult to make change as construction. So I think being able to strategize, imagine, use all of our design skills to draw from the experience that we have—the diverse experience that we have—all of those things, I think were really important for us at the very beginning.
Erika Eitland: I love that.
Alison Mears: And not to give up.
Jonsara Ruth: I think that’s it, you know, we do come from the architecture and design industry, and coming into this as a collaborative grant with people who are in science and strategy, and 20 years of healthy building networks research. They were looking at us and saying, What are you going to do? You know, you’re a design school. And, you know, that was a prompt, provocation for us to say, What is our role? What is design’s role in this? And I think, like Alison said, bringing our long training as designers and architects where we know that imagination is powerful, and we know that strategy is powerful, and that we had to really ask ourselves that question, What is it that we bring? and what is it through design that we bring? One of the things that we came to was translation, that design is a translator. Design as a discipline is a translator of all kinds of things. You know, we know that as a designer of the built world, we translate big ideas into the built world. But we can also translate very complex ideas into very accessible information.
Erika Eitland: What’s exciting to me is that translation of even just the public health research directly into changing the spaces that we occupy, and I think your mission statement hits it just so beautifully, which is: We’re dedicated to a world in which people’s health is placed at the center of all design decisions. And so for me the question as the public healther is, Well what was at the center of those design decisions from the beginning? And I’m curious, you know, what are those barriers that we’re kind of fighting so that health can have that like magical, most important place?
Alison Mears: Everything right? In building when you think about construction, you think about who makes choices when you first conceive of a project? So you have a developer or potential owner who brings money and power and prestige to the project. They bring, you know, control of the land to the project. Often people like us are hired to help facilitate that process so that the central, kind of the power players in that construction process are the developer, the potential owner, the financial entities that are supporting the building of that project. You know, and the potential users—or in our case the future residents of buildings—are very secondary to that conversation. I would say that since COVID and since people now understand what public health means, there is a spotlight on these public health issues like, you know, the transmission of viruses, and to the health of all of us. And so it used to be very difficult, I think, for us to make that relationship between the work that we did and public health. I mean, we did— We thought we made it fairly well. But I think it didn’t really register with people in the way that it does now, where we all see how vulnerable we are and how we’re all conscious that we need to make healthier places for us all.
Jonsara Ruth: Now I would love to turn the tables, Erika, and hear what you think about COVID and public health and the built environment. But, I know, this isn’t that podcast, but—
Erika Eitland: But I think you know, because I’m like getting all, like, jazzed up over here. You know what, I think there was a Healthy Buildings Movement for a long time. I mean, you guys even just working on this for the last 10 years. And yet, this is like our public health moment to make sure that the Healthy Buildings Movement is truly successful. And so this is where people are finally cross-talking, that translation is happening. And hopefully, we’re not myopic. We don’t just treat it as COVID, but we say, you know, But what about a world where our daylighting is doing more for our circadian rhythm, our acoustics is making sure that all kids can learn properly, our materials that we’re selecting are not just for the few. And I think that’s something that I’m so curious to learn from you guys is, OK, like food, the healthier option costs more. And so when it comes to healthier materials, how do those building products not cost more? How do we make sure that this movement is actually the equitable part of this process now?
Alison Mears: Well, so that’s the kernel of what we do. That’s why the affordable housing piece is so important for us, I would just say that we talk a lot about planetary and human health. And we make that connection between the work that we do, all the decisions we make when we specify and install a product in terms of its lifecycle, the implications at every point of that lifecycle. To your point about cost, which is always the really interesting thing, right? What is the cost of producing polyvinyl chloride? What is the total cost of producing that product? It can be a very cheap alternative as a floor tile in a house, the cheapest potentially. And yet its entire lifecycle cost is really profound in terms of the amount of human disease that is triggered by the phthalates in that flooring, by the vinyl production in the factory, to the fenceline communities across the street from it. So the question of cost is absolutely critical in construction. And we do have lots of alternatives that we’ve considered that are affordable. But I think we need to talk about total cost. We can’t default to some 20th-century, you know, version of how much something costs in terms of its sticker price.
Jonsara Ruth: The retail value, yeah.
Erika Eitland: That is very important.
Jonsara Ruth: You know, the cost question—and that’s what people jump to first is, Oh, well healthier materials always cost so much. But actually, if we had more awareness of these long-term costs like Alison just described and the healthcare costs to having unhealthy materials, and advertise all of that, we would quickly see a change in the market, because we could see an economic benefit for creating healthier environments where people aren’t so reliant on the healthcare system because they don’t have the same kind of problems. How much do we spend—and I don’t know the answer to this—but how much do we spend on just treating asthma this country?
Erika Eitland: To nerd out with you for a minute, we know asthma, according to the CDC, contributes to 14 million school days missed every year, and it’s leading to chronic absenteeism. Everybody’s acting like it’s a new thing that our kids are out of school. But when we think about air quality and these issues that you’re bringing up, this was happening for a long time. And so now we gotta kind of get in there and change this conversation. One thing that’s coming up for me is like, Alright, developers, Alison says you’re an important decision maker. We see you. Think about the full cost. Don’t just think about what’s coming in on that invoice when we’re, you know, estimating a project. Because that ain’t the full story here.
Alison Mears: Yeah. And I think to your point, Erika, I think there are developers who are starting to think in this way. They’re seeing the long-term benefits of building with better products, not only for the rental value of their product increases if it’s a healthier building, the performance of the workers who are working in that office building is better than if they were in unhealthy building. So there are long-term benefits for developers now. So you see them starting to really embrace the Healthy Building Movement, because there’s a market opportunity for them. So it could be they just took a little longer to come along. But now we can see these examples of the market actually maybe being a leader in this.
Jonsara Ruth I would just add, I mean, there’s first costs, right, material costs. And they go into a spreadsheet that works in a certain way. You know, we figure out budgets in a certain way, which is about, you know, first cost of material. But if we think about the durability of material, the long-term maintenance of materials, if we think about how long will it be before you need to replace that floor? Or how, how many times will you need to clean that floor, re-polish that floor, not to mention the cleaning products that you’ll bring into that building. And then you look at a different material which might have a little bit higher first cost, but in the long term, it’s going to last a lot longer. It cleans up with soap and water. They might say, Oh, wait, maybe we need to do our spreadsheets a little differently, so that we’re looking at long-term costs.
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Jonsara Ruth: In the long term, we’re going to save a lot of money maybe by using these materials.
Monica Kumar: Well, so to offer a sort of add-on to that, as a designer who’s looking at that and thinking, Great, I finally have my argument for swapping out this bio-based resilient flooring for the vinyl flooring—at this point, they’re almost cost equal, but I can use this lifetime-cost argument—and then you have the construction budget being separate from the operations budget, which is just something we come across all the time. And the point is not that necessarily but this myopic thinking that we’re talking about, which is, like, how do we on a whole bigger level go from a sick-care model to a preventative-care model? And our buildings could be part of that. So I guess what I’m asking is not to focus on those people who are saying, Sorry, my construction budget is X and my operations budget is Y, so your first-cost, lifetime-cost is a moot point. But I’m curious, like, Who are you working with or who are you seeing that’s sort of doing the good work of saying, OK, well, that’s not good enough of an answer for the toxins in my, in my building?
Jonsara Ruth: You know, that’s where owners have a big role to play, the owners of buildings. And so, especially when looking at affordable housing. If we’re looking at owner-developers, people who will remain in that community, that are building buildings to stay in that community and want to maintain them, want to keep them over a long period of time. Those are the real targets for this kind of work.
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Alison Mears: Yeah, you look at First Community Housing in San Jose, California. Fantastic. Always been interested in sustainability for the last 25 years. And they really promote and advance better materials in their buildings. They support tenant engagement so that tenants can become stewards of their spaces. You know, they’re always looking for ways to, to move their processes forward so that they make better buildings. So there are real heroes in this space that you can track and follow and copy what they’re doing, essentially.
Jonsara Ruth: But we’re also seeing, you know, real advantages in working with architects and designers. You know, because part of the job of being a good designer is being a really good relationship builder and a really good advocate. And having a marketing ability, frankly. You know, having clients, long-term clients, where they start to listen to you and they listen to your advice. Working with some designers now we can see that their influence over their clients is really where we need to help. We need to help build their capacity about healthier-materials knowledge because they have the ears of their clients, more so than we do. Definitely. You know, designers are quick to adopt these ideas. They get it within an hour of a conversation or even half an hour of conversation. But then, having them work with their clients on this is key.
Monica Kumar: Yeah. I’m so glad you said that because I think the education is there. And for our listeners, we’ll definitely link to the amazing course that the Healthy Materials Lab has put together. It’s not just 101, it’s like 201, 301. It’s like, the course is so, so wonderfully comprehensive but digestible. I think the education is there is my point. I think that the barrier is now what does that building capacity for designers look like? What do you see as the sort of next step in building that capacity, taking that knowledge into action?
Alison Mears: I mean, we’ve all taken courses online or in person. And these are great ideas and you take your notes, and you imagine how this might impact the work that you do. But making that bridge between kind of theory and practice is a challenge for all of us, right? How can we transform the paint, you know, that we typically use, that we specify on every project that we do with variation in color or finish and substitute it for a better paint? How do we go through that process of change within our own practice?
Monica Kumar: Right, and a paint that has no track record, you know, or no substitute, right?
Alison Mears: That’s right. And who your contractors or your subs are going to say, No no no. I’ve never used that. I’m not going to risk doing it. So I think those, those bridging points of, of creating little webinars and one-hour courses that really show people, you know, what’s possible. Here’s an example: The painters at the New School, where Parsons is, transformed their painting processes through a little engagement with us where we showed them how you could use this lime-based paint—slightly different than your typical acrylic paint—that it was possible. It wasn’t too difficult. And you got the kind of results that you needed.
Jonsara Ruth: You know, we’re working in the backend with a few collaborators and helping them to put together documents to convince their clients. And so that’s the other evolution of our work is to make some resources so that an architect or designer can say, Here, the Healthy Materials Lab made this. Let me just share this with you. This might be what we need to talk about in order to convince the client that this is really important. To your point, how do we get out of an old way of thinking and bring a new way of thinking? And sometimes a designer working with a client needs a third-party resource to pull into the conversation.
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Jonsara Ruth: So working with contractors, you know, definitely. Proving that materials work. Also educating contractors more about their own health in installing these products and how that’s really important for them. We know that they’re overexposed to a lot of the toxics in building products. And so then they will become advocates also. So bringing in all of the stakeholders along the way of building a building is where we’re, we’re looking at now.
Monica Kumar: I remember Alison had told me about an example of getting NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] to move some of their paints specs. And are you able to speak a little bit about that experience and who needed to be at the table?
Alison Mears: Yeah, you know, that took a while. That was early on in the kind of process of at the Lab, I think in our second year. Through our roundtable conversations with Amanda Kaminsky, we discovered that NYCHA was still specifying older paints: paints that had started being in production in the ’60s and ’70s. Not lead-based paints, but really high-VOC paints. And it kind of stuck with us through the launch of the Lab. And, you know, and then we, we started to focus on these common building-product categories like paint. And we reached out to NYCHA and said, you know, We’re really interested in working with you and helping you change some of the common products that you specify. You know, how could we do this? And so we started working with them on a couple of prototypical projects, mostly on some of their early childhood education structures that sit within the NYCHA projects across the city. I think they have about 250 or so of these little early childhood education facilities. And we said, you know, would you be interested in doing a project with us where we specify the paints for this project, we specify some palettes for you to use, and then we can test some of these paints we’ve been talking about to see if your painters—who are hired by NYCHA—are happy to work with these new paints. And so we went through that process—it’s actually on our website, Color and Health, all the little palettes that we came up with—tested the paints with their painters, who were up for it, very happy to have different paints that we’re less toxic to them. And through that kind of evidence based process of it’s possible, it can be beautiful, it can work, it can be in this quite, you know, tricky situation of early childhood where you’ve got kids and you have to be able to scrub down surfaces. So there was a performance piece of this. It helped them make a decision to transform their specifications for just ordinary paints. And if there’s one thing that they can do in NYCHA, they still can paint even though they have limited budget.
Erika Eitland: Just for our listeners. So NYCHA stands for the New York City Housing Authority, and they are the largest landlord in the country, I believe. So even something as simple as changing to healthier paints is having a huge ripple effect, because NYCHA, this housing authority, is actually what causes ripple effects in other housing authorities around the country. And so this beautiful moment of being able to say, We can have slow and steady transformation, in something like the biggest landlord in the country is a big public health win—not just for the workers, but also for the sort of ripple effects that it’s going to have on lots of communities who are going to use those spaces over time. So that’s a great story.
Alison Mears: Yeah, I think there are 650,000 residents in the 170,000 units of housing at the New York City Housing Authority. So yeah, we were very happy with that. And, you know, it was difficult because it’s a government department, but they liked the idea of testing it before committing to making change, I think.
Erika Eitland: I love that.
Jonsara Ruth: You know, we say, New York City Housing Authority, but um, it comes down to people. You know, Bruce [Eisenberg], who’s working in capital projects, is an architect. He’s at NYCHA because he’s passionate about, you know, making people have better housing. And, you know, he sits on a lot of critiques at Parsons, and he just was open to this idea. So there’s these huge changes that happen, and we talk about these huge numbers as organizations. But again, like, it comes down to a couple of people who say, Yeah, you know what, what you’re saying is right. And it comes down to relationships. So I think that’s, that was the beginning of your of this conversation. And I think that’s just a really important thing to remember. And that you can make change from within. You know, NYCHA is a very hard place to make change. But there’s some amazing people who work there, really pushing the stone up the mountain in the best way.
Monica Kumar: Well, I think what’s amazing about that example that sticks out to me the most is Yes, the numbers and the impact of the change, but also the fact that you saw a need and you reached out to this massive, monolithic organization—or it might seem that way from the outside—and they weren’t receptive. So those are those sort of, like, little changes, whereas someone like me with a policy background might think, Oh no, you know, that is such a big mountain to climb, because you’re going to have to reach out to them to rewrite their standards and guidelines. And here you are just doing it on the back end, just making it happen.
Alison Mears: That’s the No. 1 rule of community engagement, isn’t it? Is making the connection with a person, like, one to one and establishing a relationship.
Monica Kumar: So I, I do want to ask about change at that policy level. The Healthy Materials Lab, your target audience is, let’s say, designers and architects, and we’ve talked a little bit about the power that they have for translation, for imagining a different future. The website lists some ways to change, which I think are awesome: demand transparency, spread awareness like we’re doing now. One of the things that you’ve mentioned is advocating for policy changes. I think that’s really interesting because there’s a lot of designers and architects out there that say, Well, we’re apolitical. You know, that’s beyond our scope. So what do you have to say to that? You know, what is the role of policy in this? And what’s the role of architects and designers for policy?
Jonsara Ruth: It’s a big question, and like you said, there’s different ways of making change. And your, your background in policy knows that, like, there’s all these checks and balances and there’s, you know, we have to dot Is and cross Ts and convince people on the other side of the aisle, and so it is a steep challenge, but super important, because when you change regulation, you change it for everybody. And so, that needs to continue to happen. What we can do is advocate for that change. You know, our little experiment in American democracy and capitalism really runs on the supply-demand question. And so if there’s a lot of demand, there will be more supply. And that’s the way this works. So we as designers can demand transparency in materials. We can demand to have materials that don’t contain some of the most toxic ingredients. We can say, We want to build this housing or early-childhood education center without those ingredients. And then the manufacturers will have to go back and demand that. So, you know I think that we can advocate from within. You know we can look at Harvard actually. We can look at the amazing work that Heather Henriksen has done in combination with Joe Allen in the Healthy Buildings Program there in making huge change in industry with manufacturers by saying, We’re a building owner. We would like your product. But we cannot have PFAS chemicals. We cannot have flame retardants. We cannot have antimicrobials in our buildings. Because they are going to harm the future reproductive health of our students, of our faculty, of our staff. That kind of advocacy can happen. And then we can simultaneously also work on the regulation and policy side.
Erika Eitland: I wondered in the last couple of questions if you don’t mind if I get a little personal? You know, you’re talking about all of these pervasive chemicals. We’re talking about policy change. We’re changing, you know, concrete—all of these incredible things. But in your beautiful homes that we get to see you in now, what are those small changes that you have been making in your own homes?
Alison Mears: The whole plastics thing for us, particularly in the last and a half has become increasingly problematic as we look at planetary health and thinking about the problems with the refining of oil and gas into petrochemicals that are then used in the building industry. The big picture, right? It’s a big problem. But we create the demand for those products when we specify products for construction or when we purchase things for our own home. And so being increasingly aware and concerned about the amount of plastics we personally use in my own family and just reducing, reducing, reducing—even though we were pretty parsimonious about plastics use before—but generally kind of advocating and reducing our own consumption of those things is a way you know, for families to make choices about what happens in the bigger marketplace, reducing that demand for those things.
Jonsara Ruth: I would say that, from the perspective of indoor air quality—I mean, that’s what we think about a lot as affecting our health—the air that we breathe, what we ingest from our environment that are microscopic or what we absorb through our skin microscopically—really have a big impact on our health. Cleaning products are one way that we can shift our indoor air quality in a huge way. There are all kinds of VOCs in cleaning products but all kinds of other solvents and things that can be harmful. So changing out cleaning products for some basic, you know, recipes. And then age-old recipes like white vinegar and baking soda and add a few drops of essence of peppermint or lemon or eucalyptus is a fantastic way to just change the air quality in your home to be healthier—
[“Corny Old Love Song” by Franz Gordon / Epidemic Sound very slowly fades in.]
—and have very effective cleaning products as well. There are so many great recipes out there now. And actually you can purchase them at stores. I mean, that’s the big change I’ve seen in just the last few years that you used to have to make these things and now they’re available, natural cleaning products. You know, I, I had to convince my partner at home that that was a really important thing, and [laughing] it took a while.
Monica Kumar: —that it could still be effective without the chemical smell, right? It’s so embedded in us, what is clean, it’s, yeah.
Erika Eitland: Yeah Pinesol. That pinene and limonene really gets me going, but it’s the VOCs that are killin ya. Yeah.
Jonsara Ruth: Yeah exactly. Well you could use a little essence of pine and a little essence of lemon and, you know, put it in vinegar and water. You’ll be good. So— [laughs]
Erika Eitland: [laughs]
Jonsara Ruth: Yeah.
Monica Kumar: There are so many we could ask you, and I, I think that’s a good enough place to say thank you for now.
Alison Mears: Yeah, thank you for inviting us.
Jonsara Ruth: Thanks, Monica.
Alison Mears: Great conversation.
Jonsara Ruth: And Monica and Erika, maybe we should interview you sometime.
Alison Mears: Great idea.
Erika Eitland: Happy to nerd out. [laughs]
Monica Kumar: As a young designer struggling to implement healthy materials, I’ve got a lot to say about it, so … [laughs]
Jonsara Ruth: Well, just, just wait. You might see that little email come in soon.
Erika Eitland: Perfect.
Monica Kumar: [laughs]
[“Corny Old Love Songs” continues, louder.]
Kimberly Seigel: Jonsara Ruth is the design director of the Healthy Materials Lab and associate professor at Parsons School of Design at the New School. Alison Mears is the current dean of Parsons School of Design Strategies and an assistant professor of architecture. That’s it for “In the Room With”! You’re listening to Inhabit, Perkins&Will’s brand-new podcast about the power of design. Again, you can catch Jonsara and Alison in our very special Valentine’s Day episode about our love affair with chemicals.
[“Corny Old Love Song” ends and fades out.]
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Monica Kumar: Inhabit is a production of Perkins&Will. I’m Monica Kumar.
Erika Eitland: And I’m Erika Eitland. Check out our show page at inhabit.perkinswill.com, for the show notes, music, and links to all the resources and references we mentioned on this episode. And follow us on Insta at @perkinswill.
Monica Kumar: Lauren Neefe is our executive producer and edits the show. Anna Wissler is our art director and assistant producer. Mixing and sound editing by Threaded Films. Music courtesy of Epidemic Sound. And a special thank-you to Julio Brenes for the illustrations you see on our website.
Erika Eitland: We’d also like to thank our advisory board: Casey Jones, Angela Miller, Pat Bosch, Yehia Madkour, Kimberly Seigel, and Rachel Rose.
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Perkins&Will Chorus: Uhhhh, People, first and foremost. Places. Power. Design. Change. Now.
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