• How our Building Materials Make or Break our Green Ideals

    Martha Lewis, the winner of the 2019 Person Prize of Det Bæredygtige Element sustainability award, reflects on how our choice of building materials can define our commitment to sustainable architecture.

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  • Martha Lewis, Head of Materials and DGNB Auditor at Henning Larsen, stands out as an advocate for green change in the Danish building industry.

    That she won the 2019 Person Prize of "Det Bæredygtige Element" (The Sustainable Element) at this week’s Building Green conference in Copenhagen is only the most recent chapter in a career of creating sustainability-focused partnerships in the Danish building industry. Martha was one of three nominees for the 2019 DBE Person Prize, alongside Harpa Birgisdottir of the Danish Building Research Institute, and Pelle Munch-Petersen, also of Henning Larsen.

    We sat down with Martha to learn more about her win, and to hear her perspective on how architects can rethink their material selections to support a sustainable future.

    First of all, congratulations. I understand you pulled your fellow nominees onstage, and are sharing your prize with them. Can you tell us more about this?

    The message here is that the challenges we are facing are so large that we can only solve them if we all work together. All three of us have worked together before, and all our work is focused on materials, and optimizing materials in order to reduce CO2 and hazardous chemical usage. This strong overlap is interesting, and I think InnoBYG is making a bold statement in selecting us as nominees.

    The three of us are responding accordingly. We are recommending that the building industry goes on a “climate diet”, and we are the consulting dieticians – To help guide the industry in cutting down our environmental footprint. To round out the dietary analogy, Pelle Munch-Petersen has developed the consumption guidelines, with a food pyramid for sustainable building materials. Harpa Birgisdottir has the calorie counter – she’s developed LCAbyg, an open-source tool that evaluates building materials’ life cycles. This tool can crunch the numbers and indicate whether a new building is emitting too much CO2, or if it’s environmental footprint is optimized. I am the dietician looking closely at the health aspect, to make sure the building materials we choose don’t contain hazardous toxins.

    The ”climate diet” concept is interesting. Why draw a parallel between personal nutrition and architectural regulations?

    Just as we watch what we eat, we need to watch what we’re putting into our buildings.  We need to consider planetary health as though it was our own and strive to minimize the carbon footprint of our buildings. We need to raise awareness that certain products contain hazardous substances, and substitute the most hazardous products for safer alternatives.

    As it stands right now, Denmark needs more transparency. The industry needs what’s called a “material pass” for products, that includes a detailed list of chemical components, as well as the personal health effects of the chemicals in building products. There’s a legal requirement for safe product handling for workers, which focuses on chemical exposure in the construction process. However, there’s no requirement to have this same level of transparency for physical articles like sheetrock, ceiling panels, lamps, flooring, or carpet. These need declarations because they all can affect a building’s end users.

    Our knowledge of chemical substances and their effects changes over time. When we recycle and reuse materials, we need a better understanding of the products’ properties to be confident that we’re not transplanting problems in the future. The asbestos crisis is a worst-case scenario of the public health issue that arises when we don’t give due attention to our building products.

    How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to sustainability and architecture?

    I am an architect who is dedicated to using the resources we have at hand so that the next generation can also continue to enjoy these resources. People need to recognize the health issues of building products and take this seriously through every phase of a building material’s life cycle. I believe it’s necessary for architects to use more than just their eyes when selecting materials – to focus not just on the aesthetics, but to consider the entirety of material: the emotional sensibilities it coveys, the smell, the price, and also the environmental, health-related and ethical impacts. In choosing this beautiful material, have you made a factory laborer’s life much worse? Are you drastically increasing carbon emissions? Nothing is beautiful if it causes suffering along the line of its production. Architects need a more holistic approach to material selection. 

    This award comes at a high point in terms of global awareness of the climate emergency. What role do you feel architects need to take as we work toward a sustainable future? 

    Today, we are facing two huge crises – the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity crisis. For many years, the construction industry has been part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Architects need to take responsibility, listen to science, and take action. As architects, we need to be much smarter about understanding the CO2 implications of the materials we’re choosing. We need to shift away from materials that generate CO2 toward materials that store CO2, and this means focusing on bio-based materials like timber and straw over mineral products like concrete. It’s possible to make a huge difference in global CO2 emissions by working with bio-based materials, which is essential for us, and for the world, in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. We have 11 years to reduce enough to achieve between 1.5 to 2 degrees’ maximum increase in temperature. The building industry can be a big part of that, and a key factor is our material choices.

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