Keep Safe

Where is safety in architecture and whose safety does design prioritize? Whether to secure or restrict, safety measures condition how we organize spatially and live together, yet the rules and codes devised to protect us in the built environment are premised on changing norms subject to ideological pressures and exclusionary practices. This issue probes the mechanisms we have developed and the narratives we tell to safeguard our experiences in the world through considerations of infrastructure, materiality, memory, and mythmaking.

Keep Safe is edited by Victoria Addona, Claire Lubell, Alexandra Pereira-Edwards, and Anna Tonkin.

Article 4 of 4

Is My House Trying to Kill Me?

Melanija Grozdanoska questions if building codes and standards for common household materials are actually keeping us safe

Building codes and standards promise protection from many hazards—fire prevention, limiting the spread of disease, or even sufficient structural integrity. Codes define the design and materials that may be used for construction. In North America, they are (usually) developed by non-profit organizations with the consultation of interested and affected parties, which are then adopted in each relevant political territory by the pertinent legislative body. Standards ensure that materials, engineering systems, and construction techniques are uniformly produced, measured, and performed. A code can reference multiple product design and testing standards, but unless the standard is adopted and referenced by it specifically, it is strictly “advisory in nature” and cannot be legally enforced.1

Historically, codes and standards reflect and enforce the dominant culture’s social values regarding the safety, health, and welfare of individuals, materialized in the built environment. In North America, fire protection measures were likely first imported by the British colonists, where codes had been developed in direct response to the Great London Fire of 1666.2 Consequently, the first codes dealt primarily with fire safety by restricting flammable roof coverings like thatch, the use of wood chimneys, or height limitations of wood frame construction.3 After the Chicago Fire of 1871, building codes started to address the risks one building posed to adjacent buildings, leading to regulations about the construction of common walls between properties. In Canada, fire razed all the major cities before 1900, so municipalities here started to write and enforce building codes too, while adding sanitation measures to curb waves of urban disease.4

Unsurprisingly, disaster leads to increased safety measures. A memorable example, the structural failure that caused Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which killed twenty-one people and injured another 150, is the source of modern-day permits that require registered professionals to file and sign plans for major building work.5 However, the development of standards and codes was never simply about keeping the public safe using the most up-to-date science. “Rather, their formulation is a highly social and contentious process through which some interests are suppressed and others reinforced.”6 A parallel history reveals that the financial incentive of protecting private property, of more efficient colonization,7 and of standardizing manufacturing for industry gains8 was just as much a factor, if not more, in their development. In the late 1800s, fire protection engineering was invented and made popular by insurance companies looking to make a profit by limiting property loss through good fire protection practices. These practices were then widely adopted in cities because private insurance companies began to refuse coverage unless construction was “fire-resistant,”9 and offered lower rates for those that used fire prevention tools like automatic sprinklers or frequent inspection by qualified individuals. The first National Building Code in the US was created in 1905 by an insurance group protecting its interests. The same group then created Underwriters Laboratories (UL),10 which in the twentieth century became the major North American organization to provide product testing and safety certification services.11 Building material manufacturers pay the non-profit UL to test and ensure products meet safety standards or codes to be able to enter the market, but since 2012 the money from these services has gone to its for-profit subsidiary UL LCC.12

To influence standards and codes, sometimes all it takes is good marketing.13 In the most extreme example, building codes and standards were so maliciously distorted by industry that the only thing they protected were profits, while knowingly harming millions in the process. In the 1960s, an increase in household fires due to cigarettes led to public concern and calls for fire-safe cigarettes. However, instead of investing in a search for alternatives, tobacco companies launched an aggressive campaign to shift the focus to the couches and chairs that were going up in flames, and spent millions to persuade firefighting organizations to adopt the same cause.14 In 1975, among a spike of deaths from house fires, frustrated California legislators—thwarted by efforts to enact any fire-safe requirements on cigarettes themselves—demanded increased fireproofing around the fire-catching culprits with a fire-test-response standard that would become notorious over the following decades.

The tobacco industry finally managed to force legislation that aligned with their interests, one that they falsely promoted as a way to save lives. California’s TB-117 standard requires upholstery foam to be able to withstand a small candle-like flame without catching fire, which furniture manufacturers met by adding chemicals to the foam in sofas and chairs.15 With the introduction of flame retardant chemicals (FRs) in furniture, the interests of chemical manufacturers and tobacco companies aligned: a convenient way to avoid accountability for one and a new market for the other.16

“The chemical industry has manipulated scientific findings…twisted research results, ignored findings that run counter to its aims and passed off biased, industry-funded reports as rigorous science…to promote the widespread use of flame retardants and downplay the health risks.”17 Health concerns linked to FRs emerged immediately, with scientists pointing out their chemical similarity to PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which had been banned in 1977 for being toxic and carcinogenic.18 19 Research since has shown that FRs produce smoke and toxic gasses under combustion, and it is these byproducts that cause most fire-related deaths. Even unlit, the health costs of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers)—one of the earliest FR chemicals—total more than USD 159 billion annually,20 with flame retardants detected in the bodies of nearly all Americans. Beyond cancer—the predominant cause of fatalities among firefighters21—these chemicals are hormone disruptors linked to intellectual disabilities, hyperactivity in children, and decreased fertility. Despite evidence of harm, both industries participated in a “decades-long campaign of deception that has loaded…American homes with pounds of toxic chemicals.”22

Our homes are meant to keep us safe, and we generally think the regulations that govern the products that we then put inside them are there to do just that. But whether well-intentioned or maliciously fraudulent, codes, standards, and tests sometimes do the opposite; they obfuscate the interests and values of these regulatory structures, hiding the impacts of common household materials on human and environmental safety behind bureaucratic compliance.


  1. NCARB and AIA, Codes & Regulations, 2013, https://content.aia.org/sites/default/files/2017-03/EPC_Codes_Regulations_2D.pdf. 

  2. Steven A. Moore, “Building Codes” Encyclopedia.com, accessed April 22, 2024, https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/building-codes. 

  3. “Short History of Codes” Fire Marshals Association of Minnesota, accessed April 22, 2024, https://fmam.org/about-fmam/short-history-of-codes/. 

  4. J.W. Archer, “A Brief History of the National Buildings Code of Canada,” Journal of the Ontario Building Officials Association, (March 2003): 24–25, https://nrc-publications.canada.ca/eng/. 

  5. Ben Kesslen, “The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 Killed 21 after 2 Million Gallon Tank Erupted,” NBC News, January 14, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/great-boston-molasses-flood-1919-killed-21-after-2-million-n958326. 

  6. Moore, “Building Codes.” 

  7. Licensing requirements for engineers can be traced to the desire for neat and tidy water maps in the colonizing land grab in the newly formed state of Wyoming. See Doug McGuirt, “The Magazine for Professional Engineers,” National Society of Professional Engineers, May, 2007. Accessed April 22, 2024. 

  8. Steel industry manufacturers founded the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) in 1921 to ensure a national market, leading to self-regulating measures of size and quality of steel members.  

  9. Archer, “A Brief History of the National Buildings Code of Canada.”  

  10. Arthur Cote, 2003. “Founding Organizations.” In History of Fire Protection Engineering. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. Accessed April 22, 2024. https://local2507.com/about-local-2507/our-history/. 

  11. Initially, UL tested devices meant to stop fire, to resist fire, and that frequently caused fire, however, they now test over 22 billion products annually from home appliances, vehicles, and electronics to conduits, wall panels, and building materials. 

  12. Julia Kagan, “Underwriters Laboratories (UL).” Investopedia. January 30, 2023. Accessed April 3, 2024. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/u/underwriters-laboratories-ul.asp. 

  13. Another example of this if that to combat the restriction on lead pipes in the 1920s, the lead industry’s trade organization led a decades-long marketing campaign that successfully prolonged the use of lead pipes for another half a century. For more see Richard Rabin, “The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes ‘A Modest Campaign.’” American Journal of Public Health 98 (9): 1584–92. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2007.113555. 

  14. A former tobacco executive helped organize The National Association of State Fire Marshals and then spent decades helping steer its agenda, including requiring federal regulation for flame-retardant chemicals in home products, feeding their arguments of why altering furniture was more effective than altering cigarettes, and briefing them on key issues like critiques of standardized tests, which delayed legislation on fire-safe cigarettes. 

  15. Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, and Michael Hawthorne, “Playing with Fire,” edited by Gerould W. Kern, Chicago Tribune, 2012, https://www.pulitzer.org/finalists/patricia-callahan-sam-roe-and-michael-hawthorne. 

  16. The chemical Bromine, added to leaded gasoline to prevent lead-build-up in car engines, was being phased out due to the shift to unleaded gas. It found its new use in the booming industry of flame retardants that both lobbying groups went to extreme lengths to protect. See Jamie Kitman and David Brancaccio, “Examining the toxic history of flame retardants,” August 17, 2018, in Marketplace Morning Report, produced by Nicole Childers, podcast, MP3 audio, 1:12, https://www.marketplace.org/2018/08/17/examining-toxic-history-flame-retardants/. 

  17. Callahan, Roe, and Hawthorne, “Playing with Fire.” 

  18. Kitman, “Examining the toxic history.” 

  19. “ToxFAQs for Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs),” Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, accessed April 22, 2024, https://wwwn.cdc.gov/TSP/ToxFAQs/ToxFAQsDetails.aspx?faqid=140&toxid=26. 

  20. Leonardo Trasande, Roopa Krithivasan, Kevin Park, Vladislav Obsekov, and Michael Belliveau, “Chemicals Used in Plastic Materials: An Estimate of the Attributable Disease Burden and Costs in the United States.” Journal of the Endocrine Society 8, no. 2. (January 2024). https://doi.org/10.1210/jendso/bvad163. 

  21. Larry Thomas, Lens Garis, and Chris Biantoro, “Canadian Firefighter Fatality and Injury Trend Analysis of Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada Fatality and Injury Claims 2006– 2018,” University of the Fraser Valley Centre for Public Safety & Criminal Justice Research. https://cjr.ufv.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Canadian-Firefighter-Injury-and-Fatality-Claims-Analysis.pdf. 

  22. Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe, “Fear Fans Flames for Chemical Makers,” Chicago Tribune. May 6, 2012, https://www.chicagotribune.com/2012/05/06/fear-fans-flames-for-chemical-makers-2/. 

Flame retardants are just one such story of codes and chemicals in building materials perversely promoting harm while claiming to keep people safe. There are others. Vinyl chloride in PVC factories—more than 75% of which is for the building industry for materials like pipes, window frames, carpets, sealants, and paints—was poisoning workers for years before it was revealed that the industry was aware and had tried to cover it up.1 Even today, a global construction conglomerate is being sued over its continued use of asbestos in cement pipes, exposing its workers to a carcinogenic chemical that even the ancient Greeks knew was toxic, and yet is not officially banned in the US.2 Manufacturing plants of neoprene, used as a waterproofing agent in roof membranes,3 can be tied to environmental racism that led to Cancer Alley in Louisiana.4 Formaldehyde is linked to asthma and other respiratory problems, and it’s found in particle board, flooring, cabinets, most glues and adhesives, and even some insulation. We kind of just assume that if it’s in our homes, then someone along the line must have tested it to make sure it’s safe.

Rising awareness of chemical disasters in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US led to public concern about the risks of chemicals to human health and the environment, which led Congress to pass the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976. To appease the chemical industry’s pushback about the “unreasonable” costs of testing, the law grandfathered in sixty-two thousand unevaluated chemicals already in the market at the time. Criticized widely for its inability to do what it was created for, TSCA has only assessed about two hundred chemicals out of roughly eighty-five thousand in its inventory and managed to ban only five, including asbestos in 1989, overturned in 1991 by a court appeal. State legislature attempted to fill the policy void, with eighteen states enacting stricter chemical controls than the national law.5 Due to years of activism and pressure from the scientific community, consumers, and certain manufacturers, a revision of the law passed in 2017 now requires the EPA to reexamine the chemicals previously grandfathered into the old law.6 Criticism of the revision points out that there has been no increase in the EPA’s budget, curtailing their effectiveness in carrying out this additional mandate, and raises concerns that it will create difficulty for states trying to enact their own controls. Even the new revision caters to industry, making the EPA responsible for ensuring a chemical’s safety, unlike the EU’s REACH regulation passed in 2006, where the burden for safety rests on the industry, with manufacturers needing to conduct and submit test data for each new chemical.7

According to John Warner, who co-founded the green chemistry movement as an alternative approach to chemistry that centres human and planetary health, the harm from chemicals is not intentional on the part of companies but a strange byproduct of how the chemistry field of material science evolved. Warner suggests a more banal cause; chemists aren’t typically trained to evaluate risks to human health or nature. Every year there are fifteen thousand undergraduates, three thousand graduates, and three thousand PhDs in chemistry in the US, and yet very few academic programs offer curricula or courses to design safer commercial chemicals8 and none require chemists to take any formal training in toxicology.9 So, when they conduct basic research, turning molecules into materials, or applied research to turn materials into components, they assume that someone else down the line will deal with the questions of health and sustainability. But then components are turned into products (design and development), a lot of them are made (manufacturing), and then architects put them into buildings (specification). None of the professions involved in these stages have had any toxicology training either.

Some hope that more stringent chemical regulations, like the EU’s REACH will have a positive impact on North American industry too, but for a truly healthy outcome, regulations or incentives don’t seem like enough. Of the 90% of existing products needing improvement, only 20–25% can remove harm incrementally through research. Many scientists are looking at the field of green chemistry as a roadmap for the other 65–75% that still need to be invented to have a minimum impact on human health and the environment.10

Architects don’t invent products or materials, but they can have a role in improving public safety by understanding the impact of their material selections. Having personally gone through a professional degree program in the last decade that disproportionately valued form and design over “boring” topics—the material composition of buildings, where those materials come from, or how they affect human health or the environment—I sense a structural problem in architectural education.11 Having sat through multiple universities’ graduate thesis reviews in the last few years, I fear that the situation doesn’t seem to have improved greatly, even if the underlying desire of current students, young professionals, or emerging academics has. Perhaps unwittingly, while our heads were turned towards what architectural prizes, magazines, and biennials told us was important in our field, buildings continued to be built, standards continued to be updated, and materials continued to be invented, tested, and specified without architects fully comprehending the agency they were giving up or not claiming. Today, when it comes to materials, practising architects most often just choose from a menu of bad options without being conscious of the impact or even aware that the menu needs dire improvement.


  1. Burgess Brown and Ava Robinson, “The House of Documents,” July 14, 2021, in Trace Material, produced by Alison Mears, podcast, MP3 audio, https://healthymaterialslab.org/projects/season02-episode03. 

  2. Michael Sainato, “‘They Made a Huge Profit Knowing They’d Kill People’: US Firms Use Tactics to Avoid Paying Asbestos Victims,” The Guardian, October 4, 2023, sec. US news. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/oct/04/asbestos-mesothelioma-victims-compensation-certainteed. 

  3. “Neoprene in Construction,” Designing Buildings Construction Wiki, February 10, 2021. https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/Neoprene_in_construction. 

  4. Lisa Song and Lylla Younes, “EPA Calls out Environmental Racism in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley,” ProPublica. October 19, 2022, https://www.propublica.org/article/cancer-alley-louisiana-epa-environmental-racism. 

  5. Rebecca Trager, “Explainer: Toxic Substances Control Act,” Chemistry World, June 9, 2016. https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/explainer-toxic-substances-control-act/1010187.article. 

  6. Cathy Milbourn, “For the First Time in 40 Years EPA to Put in Place a Process to Evaluate Chemicals That May Pose Risk,” News Releases, United States Environmental Protection Agency, January 13, 2017. https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/newsreleases/first-time-40-years-epa-put-place-process-evaluate-chemicals-may-pose-risk_.html 

  7. Trager, “Explainer: Toxic Substances.” 

  8. Stephen C. DeVito, “The Need for, and the Role of the Toxicological Chemist in the Design of Safer Chemicals,” Toxicological Sciences: An Official Journal of the Society of Toxicology 161, no. 2 (2018): 225, accessed April 22, 2024, https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/kfx197. 

  9. Valerie Brown, “Meet the Green Chemist Who Is out to Make Chemicals Less Toxic for Humans and the Environment,” In These Times, November 13, 2015. https://inthesetimes.com/article/its-not-easy-being-a-green-chemist. 

  10. “Green Chemistry,” lecture available in Healthier Materials and Sustainable Building course, The New School at Parsons, accessed January 21, 2023. 

  11. “Technical drawings make firm distinctions between what is important and what can be ignored, what is the concern of the client, designer, engineer and builder, and what is not. The scale and complexity of many contemporary construction projects, combined with the replicatory and non-site-specific nature of others, means that it is possible to have an extended productive career in architecture without ever coming into contact with the world outside the drawing – the materials and people that drawings command.” See Material Cultures, Material Reform (London: Mack Books, 2022), 12. 

Lee Wright, Windowboxes, Marlborough (2010) CC BY 2.0 Deed | Attribution 2.0 Generic | Creative Commons

Vinyl floor covering, cheap and often specified in affordable housing units, is an example of the one of the options on the bad menu. It contains toxic phthalates which can cause learning and developmental disabilities in children at high levels of exposure. A glazed effect on exterior bricks, a recent trend, requires a second firing and a huge bump in the embodied carbon of this otherwise generally sustainable material. Products made from petrochemicals are the industry go-to for rigid foam insulation panels, water and drainage pipes, window frames, wall paints, and floor coatings, to name just a few. Air pollution in the areas around petrochemical production plants contributes to immediate and long-term effects like asthma, lung cancer, brain and organ damage, and cardiovascular diseases for the people who live or work nearby. Just like chemists, architects need to accept responsibility for our material selections instead of continuing to outsource it to manufacturers, relying on standard specification books that haven’t been updated in a decade, or contractors who don’t want to change some product they’ve always used. What is the green chemistry equivalent in architecture?

People who make buildings can feel trapped under the current conditions, as attempts to build differently are halted by practical and cultural obstacles: habit and risk aversion; standardization and warranties; costing and specification; financing and insurance; gaps in the supply of materials and lack of machinery or skilled workers. Making buildings differently starts by understanding what they are made of—how materials are extracted,1 excavated,2 manufactured,3 transported,4 specified,5 installed,6 removed,7 maintained,8 disposed of,9 or repurposed10—and the impacts of these processes on everything and everyone they come into contact with. This “allows us to engage in a slow, determined practice of reform, finding ways to adjust and reorientate existing infrastructures, economies, and technical knowledge to produce outcomes that start to demonstrate that different ways of creating and maintaining the built environment are not only necessary, but possible.”12

Beyond individual buildings, it is essential to recognize that the standards, norms, and codes that guide the safety of the built environment were written in direct response to specific conditions and reflect the values of their time. Andrew Freenberg proposes that the technical development of codes is a process through which societies modify their fundamental values, and their revisions redefine the cultural values within which economic activity, like construction, takes place.13 Can the redefinition of codes and standards to reflect our current societal values and environmental realities be a new field of action for designers and architects?


  1. Mosaic Landscapes by Material Cultures examines regenerative land management practices in the UK and how different habitats and land uses closely interspersed would foster a transition to more diverse treescapes and a sustainable construction industry supply of low embodied carbon materials. See https://materialcultures.org/mosaic-landscape-2023/. 

  2. BC Materials transforms excavated earth—officially a “waste”—into circular building materials, without having to burn them. See https://bcmaterials.org/concept. 

  3. Blaf’s “Big Brick” format makes it possible to make self-supporting brick façades economically, which can reduce the complexity of construction and insulation to enable more circular and sustainable wall cavities. It optimizes construction sequences and enables the dismountability of different layers, the use of non-rigid renewable insulation materials, and structural wood construction. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHRFVwnk3fM&ab_channel=ConstructiveDisobedience 

  4. Volker Wessels are a Dutch construction company who have set up the Bouwhub where all necessary building materials are transported, monitored, and coordinated. Working with BouwHub has resulted in savings in sustainability, labour, and number of cargo movements. See https://www.volkerwessels.com/en/projects/bouwhub. 

  5. Transparency gathers resources, news, and data to support the disclosure of the make up of building materials, with the aim of encouraging the design and construction of “healthier buildings.” See https://transparency.perkinswill.com/lists/precautionary-list. 

  6. Nexii’s building panels are designed and manufactured to be continuously reused, with assemblies of bolts to reduce the waste created by the fact that the typical life cycles of conventional buildings are much shorter than the potential lifecycle of the materials and the construction themselves. See https://www.nexii.com/innovation-nexii/. 

  7. The Building Deconstruction Institute provides individual and group training about deconstruction, a process of dismantling structures in a way that enables materials to be salvaged and reused elsewhere. See https://reuseconsulting.com/deconstruction-institute-1. 

  8. Spoke Sofa can be fully disassembled and have its parts replaced and recycled. See https://www.dezeen.com/2023/06/06/furniture-company-takt-sofa-designed-for-repair/. 

  9. MEDULLA Regenerative Insulation uses human hair waste from salons and barbershops as a locally produced, renewable, fire-resistant blow-in insulation. See https://www.mindfulinnovations.eco/medulla. 

  10. Superuse Studios designs Villa Welpeloo with the found materials from different urban streams, resulting in new architectural forms and new ways of construction. See https://www.aljazeera.com/program/earthrise/2012/4/13/rubbish-architects. 

  11. The Healthy Affordable Materials Project seeks to improve the lives and health of affordable housing residents by reducing the use of toxic materials in building products. See https://healthymaterialshealthyhomes.org/. 

  12. Material Cultures, Material Reform, 16-17. 

  13. Moore, “Building Codes.” 

Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant Personnel Maintenance Building (2015) CC BY 2.0 Deed | Attribution 2.0 Generic | Creative Commons

Over the last few years, protests in many Western countries have called for government action on climate change. Insulate Britain’s protests in 2021 and Renovate Switzerland’s similar demonstrations in April 2022 both called for national plans to insulate more homes. Higher thermal insulation would indeed reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from heating and cooling buildings, a position that is reflected in energy codes’ recent updates, requiring lower thermal transmittance or increased insulation thickness.2 Yet, codes do not consider the harms of flame retardants that insulation needs to be fire-safety certified,3 the health risks for residents around the petrochemical plants to produce the additional insulation, or the increased energy and embodied carbon used to extract, manufacture, and transport it before it even reaches the building site.

Similarly, increasing health concerns about air quality in the context of the climate crisis have led to recent protests, like those in Québec by Mothers Step In.4 Last summer, Canadian wildfires made global headlines with the front pages of newspapers5 reminiscent of post-apocalyptic movie scenes, as air with hazardous levels of pollution affected millions, covering New York City and the entire eastern seaboard, extending into the Midwest as far as Indiana and into the South as far as North Carolina.6 Suddenly, air quality was the topic on everyone’s lips.

Yet every day, people live inside sealed buildings that use plastic, a cheap petroleum by-product, for materials like synthetic carpets, glues, pressed wood products, and vinyl, among others. The chemicals inside these products quietly and constantly emit toxic compounds from simple everyday activities: like friction from walking, abrasion from cleaning, or breakdown from the passing of time. Buildings held together with solvents, adhesives, particle board, and drywall release chemicals as airborne contaminants, polluting the quality of indoor air and endangering health. “In the early 1980s, the World Health Organization coined the term “sick building syndrome”7 to describe the constellation of symptoms caused by the invisible byproducts of modern construction.8

As of 2023, the EPA still doesn’t regulate indoor air in the US9 and there is no federal standard that sets performance benchmarks about indoor air quality.10 Without a holistic minimum for owners and builders to aim for or a way for inhabitants to know what is in the air they’re breathing, the burden of responsibility again falls to consumers, who are left with buying different sensors to detect carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or particulate matter without actually understanding what it means for their health. No simple metric defines the safety of a building’s air in an easily comprehensible manner; no unambiguous and definitive reporting requirement exists to promote accountability.11

Standards, norms, or codes that are meant to keep us safe are often driven by parallel interests or motivations that are in direct conflict with their projected primary function. These small or big hypocrisies should make us question compliance and norms. Cataloguing flame retardants, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and formaldehyde as well as where they are found in the home, the chemicals inside them, and their potential health effects questions safety assumptions about common household materials and reveals their damaging impacts on people all along the production, use, and elimination lifecycle: factory workers, installers, users, as well as communities around landfills or manufacturing plants.

We have to accept that our houses are slowly killing us. To imagine a radically different future for construction requires an understanding of the conditions that brought us to this version of normal and a recognition of who benefits from the systems and structures that created these regulations and keep them in place despite the harm they cause. Working towards a healthier industry can start with everyday changes within the scope of our current capacities, like learning about the harms of common building materials,12 healthier alternatives,13 or which products are safe to specify.14 But bigger impacts require prioritizing collective efforts and reminding ourselves that “architects have 196 times more power to cut carbon through work than [personal] lifestyle.”15 Working in construction is to have the power to intervene, just maybe not in expected ways. If you don’t like the menu of bad options, expand it.


  1. “Canada’s National Energy Code,” Government of Canada, March 6, 2018. https://natural-resources.canada.ca/energy-efficiency/buildings/new-buildings/canadas-national-energy-code/20675. 

  2. International Code Council, What’s New in the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), 2021, https://www.iccsafe.org/wp-content/uploads/IECC_Whats_New_FLR.pdf. 

  3. Insulation is required to pass a flammability and smoke release test (ASTM E84) and have a minimum rating of 25/50 to be allowed to go to market as a code-compliant building material. For insulation around pipes and ducts, closed-cell elastomeric foam can meet the 25/50 benchmark in the US up to 2” (50mm), but non-halogen formulas–which do not release toxic gases when on fire–usually can’t pass without additional flame retardants. From “Demystifying ASTM E84 25/50, UL 723 and NFPA 255.” Aeroflex USA. October 20, 2020. https://aeroflexusa.com/demystifying-astm-e84-25-50-ul-723-and-nfpa255/. 

  4. Canadian Press Staff, “Quebec Protesters Stage ‘Die-In’ to Draw Attention to Air Quality near Smelting Plant,” CTV News Montreal. September 7, 2023. https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/quebec-protesters-stage-die-in-to-draw-attention-to-air-quality-near-smelting-plant-1.6551598. 

  5. Orla Dwyer, Josh Gabbattis, Molly Lempriere, and Giuliana Viglione, “Media Reaction: Canada’s Wildfires in 2023 and the Role of Climate Change,” Carbon Brief, June 9, 2023. https://www.carbonbrief.org/media-reaction-canadas-wildfires-in-2023-and-the-role-of-climate-change/. 

  6. Jennifer Peltz and Rob Gillies, “Quebec Orders More Evacuations as Dozens of Wildfires in Canada Remain out of Control,” AP NEWS, June 7, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/wildfires-canada-quebec-3291016eaa4905177c90feae02a139c5. 

  7. Mohammad Javad Jafari, Ali Asghar Khajevandi, Seyed Ali Mousavi Najarkola, Mir Saeed Yekaninejad, Mohammad Amin Pourhoseingholi, Leila Omidi, and Saba Kalantary, “Association of Sick Building Syndrome with Indoor Air Parameters,” Tanaffos 14 (2015): 55–62. 

  8. Keren Landman, “Our Buildings Are Making Us Sick,” Vox, October 17, 2022. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/23377638/buildings-indoor-air-quality-pollution-toxic-sick. 

  9. US EPA, “Regulatory and Guidance Information by Topic: Air,” Environmental Protection Agency, February 22, 2013. https://www.epa.gov/regulatory-information-topic/regulatory-and-guidance-information-topic-air#indoorair. 

  10. “Indoor Air Quality - Overview.” Occupational Safety and Health Administration. https://www.osha.gov/indoor-air-quality. 

  11. Landman, “Our Buildings.” 

  12. The Miller Hull Red List v3.0 provides data to help their staff educate clients, peers, and partners on the scientifically-based rationale behind chemicals of concern. See chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://millerhull.com/wp-content/uploads/Miller-Hull-Red-List-v3.0.pdf. 

  13. The Healthy Materials Lab, a design research lab at Parsons School of Design is dedicated to a world in which people’s and environmental health is placed at the centre of all design decisions. See https://healthymaterialslab.org/. 

  14. The Perkins & Will Precautionary List is a user-friendly digital database that compiles the most ubiquitous and problematic substances that people encounter every day in the built environment. See https://transparency.perkinswill.com/lists/precautionary-list.  

  15. Anna Highfield, “Architects Have ‘196 Times’ More Power to Cut Carbon through Work than Lifestyles,” The Architects’ Journal, March 12, 2024. https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/architects-have-196-times-more-power-to-cut-carbon-through-work-than-lifestyles. 

1
1

Sign up to get news from us

Email address
First name
Last name
By signing up you agree to receive our newsletter and communications about CCA activities. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, consult our privacy policy or contact us.

Thank you for signing up. You'll begin to receive emails from us shortly.

We’re not able to update your preferences at the moment. Please try again later.

You’ve already subscribed with this email address. If you’d like to subscribe with another, please try again.

This email was permanently deleted from our database. If you’d like to resubscribe with this email, please contact us

Please complete the form below to buy:
[Title of the book, authors]
ISBN: [ISBN of the book]
Price [Price of book]

First name
Last name
Address (line 1)
Address (line 2) (optional)
Postal code
City
Country
Province/state
Email address
Phone (day) (optional)
Notes

Thank you for placing an order. We will contact you shortly.

We’re not able to process your request at the moment. Please try again later.

Folder ()

Your folder is empty.

Email:
Subject:
Notes:
Please complete this form to make a request for consultation. A copy of this list will also be forwarded to you.

Your contact information
First name:
Last name:
Email:
Phone number:
Notes (optional):
We will contact you to set up an appointment. Please keep in mind that your consultation date will be based on the type of material you wish to study. To prepare your visit, we'll need:
  • — At least 2 weeks for primary sources (prints and drawings, photographs, archival documents, etc.)
  • — At least 48 hours for secondary sources (books, periodicals, vertical files, etc.)
...