Simon Corbey from the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) shares some thoughts on what makes a healthy building product.
Interview with Simon Corbey
Simon Corbey became a chartered surveyor in the nineties, but later decided he wanted to do something more meaningful and so volunteered at Construction Resources, London's first eco builders' merchant. During his five years there he worked his way up to being a specialist in natural paints. It was whilst in this role that he came into contact with people who had developed health issues using conventional materials and who were looking for better options.
Not all materials affect people in the same way
As we are all different, we all react to products in different ways.
Simon comments: “What will affect one person, because they’re chemically sensitive for example, just won’t affect another person. So, unfortunately, it gets quite complicated, quite quickly.”
If in doubt about a product, perhaps avoid it
The precautionary principle is a good rule of thumb.
If you don’t really know what’s in a product and you can't get hold of a full statement of the contents, and if there’s a slight doubt in your mind, it's probably better not to use it.
Instead, find a product that you can trust, where there is a full declaration of contents.
A healthy building should address a number of disciplines
A healthy building is a complex matrix and includes disciplines such as acoustics, daylighting and ventilation.
Source control – controlling the amount of chemicals that come into a house in the first place – and effective ventilation are fundamental to creating a healthy indoor environment.
Natural products are not always healthy
It could be argued that all products are ‘natural' because they're made from materials that naturally occur on our planet.
Increasingly natural materials are processed and then joined up with other products to make a system. At this point, it becomes harder to classify that system in regards to its health and wellbeing benefits.
Simon says: “There are plenty of products, natural paints for example, that have quite high levels of VOCs within them, whether it be dryers, whether it be the oils themselves.”
Healthy products often have additional benefits
Simon uses wood fibre insulation as an example of a product that has benefits beyond its main purpose. For example, it's a waste product that's binded with steam and has no additional glues. This makes it a great product to handle and cut.
As its dense, it is good is alleviating the effects of overheating.
Good architects will develop a pallet of ‘tried and tested' materials
Through years of experience leading architects will test different products and reuse those which they believe are the most beneficial.
Simon points to Architype as an example of a company that has refined its pallet of materials over time. So now they’ll only use a limited range of paints, insulations and material systems.
“They’ve been doing quite a lot of measurement and monitoring to understand how this process is working or not working. They are then informing themselves and their practice and refining their pallet of products as they go along.”
Natureplus products have been thoroughly researched
When asked if there are any good ways for self-builders to understand if a product is sustainable, Simon suggests checking out an eco label called natureplus.
Originating from Germany, the idea of a natureplus product is that the product will only be granted a certificate if it’s from a truly abundant source.
Natureplus has a detailed lifecycle analysis so you can look at the embodied carbon of a product. But also, all the products are third party independently tested in a laboratory for chemicals and off-gassing.
Simon continues: “The natureplus criteria commission sets very hard standards to reach and in some cases, no products are natureplus certified. The idea of natureplus is that it’s on the top of the triangle. It’s trying to pull the market up and so it represents really only the best products.”
Manufacturing costs of healthy products will come down
Currently healthy products are more niche and will probably cost more, but if they were produced in greater quantities the economies of scale would kick in and costs would come down.
Simon says that France has invested heavily in the production of wood fibre insulation. With at least seven or eight new factories opening in the last couple of years, the prices are already coming down.
Careful specification and installation are important steps
Quite often the ‘right' product can be put in the wrong place or installed incorrectly.
This might lead to moisture build up, for example.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can perform a function within materials
Simon explains: “There is a tension between using low VOC products and quality. It’s a tension that I don’t think will ever go away. But there are issues where, for example, some external paints which are low VOCs have been proved to be rubbish and blistered and need repainting within a year or two.”
Ongoing investigation is crucial
Simon has been looking at formaldehyde recently to try and understand more about what it is, how it occurs and how to specify for low formaldehyde products.
“Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous gas. It’s all around us. It’s in my breath, it’s in your blood. Low levels of it is absolutely fine and I think we even need it. But high levels of it are a no-no and it’s a known carcinogen.”
After testing a school where formaldehyde levels were 10 times the World Health Organisation's recommended levels, Simon explains how difficult it is to isolate the source. “It could well have come from flooring, carpets, furniture – all of these are common sources of formaldehyde. Certainly, if you’re importing particleboard from China, for example, you may find that formaldehyde limits are off the scale.”
He does go on to say that it's not too difficult to specify low formaldehyde products if you do the appropriate checks.
Think beyond performance and cost when specifying
PVC windows have always been a bit of a bugbear for Simon.
“They are made from fossil fuels and chlorine is used. Chlorine is a highly energy intensive product to make and the process in this country still relies, in certain cases, on mercury filters. There are still a number of companies in the UK that have a licence to off-gas mercury into the environment.”
So when choosing a product, consider:
- How it forms
- Where it comes from
- What it’s made from
- Whether it's really restorative and environmentally friendly
Find out more
Visit the website of the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP)