For Rebecca Best, the building blocks for healthier, more sustainable buildings starts with the materials that make them. Prior to her current position as Vice President of Sustainability at Material Bank, she helped launch two other technology platforms aimed at developing more innovative methods to sourcing building materials, and even continues to volunteer support for the mindful materials initiative to this very day.
“If you had to dissect everything [material data] one data point at a time based on the complexity of information that is out there, it would take forever,” states Best. “That’s why the industry is leaning so heavily on the certification and transparency model. So, if we can start there, give architects and designers the high level knowledge and information they need to assess products considering their project goals, that should spark change throughout the entire design and specification process.”
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk to Best more about her views on the value of transparency and education on the product level when it comes to sustainability, while also exploring her thoughts on the current push for healthier, more sustainable buildings. What follows is an abbreviated version of our conversation, edited to highlight some of the more relevant topics we discussed.
DW: With all this talk going on at the product level, what’s your view on the role product certifications and declarations play?
RB: It’s a little unfortunate that certifications and declarations can be cost prohibitive for smaller manufacturers, but these certifications have mostly been created to support the industry. They empower architects and designers with the information needed to make informed decisions, based on the specific initiatives, goals and limitations of each project.
I believe most architects and designers gravitate toward designing healthier and more sustainable environments, but factors like cost, client preference, etc. can lead to these factors being deprioritized. The information that the certifications and declarations provide helps architects and designers consider their priorities and values at an early stage.
These guidelines also promote transparency and accountability. Without certifications that qualify whether a product meets defined industry standards, it is easier for corporations to promote the sale of less eco-friendly products, while still maintaining a positive, ‘green’ corporate image. By making product specifications public, it will become more and more difficult to sell products that don’t meet expectations and required criteria around climate, human or social health.
DW: So where does this idea of community health and personal health fit into the sustainability story of buildings?
RB: You can’t have one without the other, though I do think there’s been a shift of priorities when it comes to what might get addressed first. Just a couple years ago, climate health was secondary to human health, but now I think it’s been flipped, at least based on my observations. Moving forward, I think it’s going to be important that we don’t lose sight of one over the other.
Really, though, if you’re building in a way that’s good for the environment, ideally, you’re already thinking about what’s good for human and social health. It should all function as a circle. We are only truly building sustainable spaces if we’re protecting our communities and the health of the people within our buildings. Impactful education programs, knowledge-sharing, and peer empowerment all help set the foundation for more accountability and transparency navigating these complex challenges.
I’m just grateful to be working on a team that provides designers and architects with the tools they need to focus on what’s important. They’re the ones with the hardest jobs. They have to think about all of these factors from start to finish, juggling all the priorities and limitations on a project, while still making sure it doesn’t go over budget in the process. Community is a buzzword when it comes to the design of spaces. Material Bank’s Carbon Impact Program hopes to enable the design community to do better, together.
DW: What’s your view on educating around these topics, then?
RB: We are ever increasing our education around this topic on our platform. At a base level, it’s about making the site more actionable with filters tagged to materials that meet relevant criteria around climate, human health and social health. With our Carbon Impact Program it’s also a matter of working with the sustainability leaders of firms that are already using Material Bank to support them with more widespread education.
To help engage peer to peer learning and share best practices, resources and research, we started an education series called “Design Your Impact.” This series tapped into the research of larger firms, who can invest heavily in research and education. Their willingness to share these insights with smaller firms and the industry was huge. It fostered a great sense of community and comradery in our members and their quest to specify more responsibly.
At Material Bank, our mission is to provide the industry with the most efficient tools and resources to search and sample materials sustainably. If a firm is considering sustainability, health, or DEI initiatives, we want to be a resource and support them on their design journey directly within their daily workflow.