Eda Akaltun

This year, the AIA identified health, energy, resilience, and materials as research areas to develop resources for architects to bolster their practices and analyze important factors that affect upstream design decisions.

A key element in the AIA’s plan to position its efforts on materials is the Materials Matter Survey (aia.org/materials/survey). Directed at AIA members, this survey explores how materials are considered, and material choices are made, in the architectural community. Completion of the survey will help AIA leadership determine how to best reach architects to guide them on materials choices and consequences.

“We hope to produce more information and education regarding materials, but first we have to assess where our membership is and what they need to know,” says Melissa Morancy, Assoc. AIA, an AIA Knowledge Communities manager. “We have heard from people who are interested, but we want to reach the general population, not just sustainability enthusiasts.”

In the last decade, architects have shifted their focus from the impact of material choices on a single building toward the global importance of materials on the environment and regional ecologies. Rating systems like the USGBC’s LEED certification encourage and recognize environmentally preferable material options, and life-cycle assessments estimate greenhouse gas emissions, raw material consumption, and water use of each product.

Now, the AIA hopes to place the focus on three key elements when it comes to materials: their impact on human and ecosystem health, on the environment, and on carbon levels.

“Our first step is to raise awareness,” says Paula McEvoy, AIA, co-director of Perkins+Will’s Sustainable Design Initiative and co-chair of the AIA Materials Knowledge Working Group. “A lot of designers, especially in small practices, don’t have the resources to be doing this research. They have to turn to bigger firms, and organizations like the AIA, to tell them what to be looking out for.”

Members of the Materials Knowledge Working Group plan to evaluate how familiar AIA members are on subjects such as assessment tools and sustainable materials selection while also providing educational value on an area that is of growing interest to the architecture community, its suppliers, and the general public. Their objective is to drive conversations about material choices in a positive way.

“A shorter-term goal, but an important one because of the power of the architect in selecting materials, is influencing the manufacturer world,” says Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, resident fellow on sustainability at the AIA. “When we start asking the right questions, it forces manufacturers to research their own products. They may not know that there’s a potential carcinogen in one of their items, but by asking they might go back and look at reformulating and refreshing their approach.

“The immediate hope, and we’re seeing it already,” she adds, “is the industry doing a better job of policing itself and providing more alternatives.”

For more on materials choices, visit www.aia.org/materials. To join in the conversation on Twitter, use the hashtag #MaterialsMatter, and to participate in the Materials Matter Survey, visit www.aia.org/materials/survey.