Architect’s Corner: Setting the Tone

How to Talk to Clients About Materials Transparency

by Paola Capo, manager, sustainability & communities by design, American Institute of Architects

(Editor’s Note:  Paola Capo is an AIA staff member supporting materials, health, and energy programs.  She focuses on exploring ways to make sustainability accessible to everyone.)

Successful interactions between clients and architects set the tone for a partnership with desirable outcomes.  Including materials health and environmental priorities in early conversations can be a critical step to ensuring a project is not only designed well, but creates long-term benefits for occupants.  Many clients don’t consider the broader outcomes of building material selection and need more information to make materials transparency a design priority.  Here are a few tips for how to talk to clients about selecting better materials.

         Before initiating material discussions with clients, make sure you are prepared to answer questions about materials transparency and optimization, from the basic concepts to practical applications for the project.  There are many product disclosure tools that can give you a better understanding of the materials and chemicals that make up the products used in our buildings.  If you’re not sure where to start, resources like the Healthier Materials Protocol will help guide you.

         Once you feel more comfortable with the topic, start asking about desired outcomes for wellness and wellbeing.  “Our clients are our partners in making positive material choices,” said Lona Rerick, AIA, of ZGF, Portland, Oregon.  “Starting a new project is an opportunity to offer up a variety of meaningful goals and to find the ones that resonate most strongly with the team.”

         When dealing with clients who are indifferent or seem unaware of materials transparency, encourage them to consider disclosure by explaining the positive outcomes the project can have on the users.  If your client is vocal about selecting healthier or more environmentally friendly materials, half the battle is won.  Capitalize on their enthusiasm at the beginning and keep checking in as the project moves forward. 

         Wherever your client stands on materials, it is important to set and record expectations, both in conversation and on paper, to limit your own liability.  For those who already have project goals, help them prioritize.  Are they looking at social responsibility?  Carbon reduction?  Employee attraction and retention?  Demonstrate how material disclosure can help them meet those goals.

         Ralph Bicknese, AIA, of Hellmuth and Bicknese Architects, St. Louis, Missouri, has experience with clients who prioritize employee productivity in the workplace.  “Cognitive studies have shown that the use of interior materials with negligible or very low chemical off-gassing can improve indoor air quality, occupant healthfulness, and productivity,” he explained.  “Small increases in occupant satisfaction and/or productivity can yield big dividends.” 

         While many things can change throughout the design process, make it clear that you will not sacrifice initial project priorities and will seek to enhance them through materials selection.  Selection can be daunting.  Start by identifying materials that will have an impact on your clients’ goals.  If a primary goal is low-embodied carbon, focus on the structural materials.  If your biggest priority is improved occupant health, focus on interior finishes where users have the most contact.

         Even if your client is relatively uninterested in incorporating healthier materials, you can still elevate your practice by using them.  If a chosen product has all the desired characteristics, including high performance, low maintenance, durability, reasonable cost, and discloses or reduces human health concerns, specifying it can improve the project’s documentation and yield benefits for your relationship with the client.  Specifying can also set strong precedents for future projects.

         If your firm doesn’t already have one, consider creating a healthier materials library.  By eliminating hazardous products from your library, you are inherently designing to a higher building standard.  Not every material in a building has disclosure information or optimization certifications, but you can stock your library to offer clients good, better, and best options for high-impact materials such as insulation.  This will get you closer to positive health and environmental outcomes.

         A few healthier material choices can go a long way.  At the end of the project, highlight the impacts of your materials selections, especially the unintended ones.  Demonstrating your expertise and educating clients may just make them advocates for better materials on their next endeavor.

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