In February, an alarming report was published as the result of a round table discussion of experts on the effectiveness of chemical flame retardants, and their impact on health. The result of these discussions highlights a concern for harmful chemical pollutants that 'migrate out of the goods they are added to' and rendering the general occupier of these spaces unable to avoid exposure.
What does this mean?
This report brings to light a very real issue that has been haunting the built environment industry for years. Whilst highly manufactured, synthetic building materials may be doing a great job at ticking the boxes for bureaucratic regulation, (in terms of fire safety and thermal comfort for example) these materials are simultaneously generating a very real threat to health. Through toxic particles being released during manufacturing and for years after installation.
This is not to say that we should not be striving to prioritise a high standard of regulation for important issues, such as the spread of flames in our buildings. The question is at what cost? By tunnel visioning on one performance factor of a material, other critical considerations are being missed.
Its not all doom and gloom...
The aim of this article is not to instill a sense of dread. Whilst it is crucially important to underpin the potential risk coming out of the use of synthetic building materials and products, its feels equally important to spotlight natures counterparts.
There are some incredible companies researching and developing highly competent building materials that not only improve air quality but do so in a environmentally sustainable way. Insulation made from sheep's wool or wood fiber and block work made from hemp, acoustic panels made from mycelium and tiles made from orange peels. Here is a list of some of LANDE's favourite sustainable, natural building materials on the market. Showing us that the solution may already exist, it just requires the building industry to get inspired and think a little differently.
Photo: Hemspan Bio Board / hemspan.com
Hemspan has been making some big moves in the building industry with a range of sustainable building materials available. From Bio Flex insulation, to an all rounder the 'Bio Block' that combines insulation with thermal mass properties.
Photographed above is the Hemspan's healthy alternative to plasterboard (when used with lime plaster). The 100% natural fiber interior construction board uses hemp straw and a mineral binding agent to produce water resistant and breathable board that is suitable for dry or damp environments.
Photo: thermafleece cosy wool / thermafleece.com
Thermafleece have been researching and developing their products for over 20 years, but using Sheep's wool as an thermal insulator is nothing new. In fact, like with many sustainable and natural alternatives, going back traditional methods and updating to modern construction is often the path.
When using a natural insulation such as sheep's wool you will often find the thickness of your wall build up increasing beyond what is possible with a synthetic foam insulation. But it is here that we find the matrix between space saving and health benefits, and challenging the thinking on what is expected. If we bring air quality into the equation then sheep's wool (or other natural products) out performs by a long shot.
Photo: Mycelium board / biohm.co.uk
Whilst still a few months away from being available on the market, BIOHM have been making inspirational waves in the industry developing the worlds first insulation boards made from mycelium. There's endless benefits to this material, the waste products it needs to grow, the carbon sequestered during the production process, not to mention its acoustic properties and fire performance.
Photo: Tile by Ottan / ottanstudio.com
How about a textured wall tile made from expired rice and pistachio shells? It might not have the best properties in terms of thermal efficiency or flame retardancy (at present) but the point is, we're making materials out of waste food!? Part of the problem is stepping outside of the box that says "we build cavity walls with brick and cement block and its filled with PIR insulation" there are other ways of doing it.
Photo: Rammed earth wall / https://arquitecturaviva.com/articles/constructing-with-rammed-earth
Finally, we shine a light on what is essentially the epitome of a healthy, sustainable building material. It's not as simple as digging up the back garden and getting to work, testing soil to ensure it has the correct properties to build with is part of the process. But if we look at materials on a spectrum of processing, with synthetic, highly processed foam board on one end and earth that has simply been dug out of the ground at the other, how 'processed' a material is, starts to feel like a good gauge of how harmful it may be to build with.
This list of natural building materials may not save the world, it certainly does not hold all the answers to what is a huge, deeply rooted issue. But whats important is that apathy doesn't prevail in the face of building materials that are at risk of severely impacting the health of occupiers. Whats more, the healthier, more sustainable alternative may even pave way for new research, and if not, at least we are striving for better.
consensus on reconciling fire safety with environmental & health impacts: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412023000557