First, do no harm
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 6/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Robin Guenther is on a mission to transform medical facilities into truly healthy places. "People don't necessarily connect sustainable design with hospitals—which is fairly astounding, considering what those buildings are meant to do," says the founder of Guenther 5 Architects. "It would be nice to build cancer centers without materials that are known or suspected carcinogens."
Traditionally, designers have specified materials based on durability and hygiene, without regard to the environmental negatives associated with manufacture, maintenance, disposal, and impact on indoor air quality. Vinyl has been the low-cost workhorse in health-care interiors, but the medical industry is becoming more conscious of certain drawbacks. For example, the frequent stripping and waxing of vinyl floors may expose patients and staff to toxic chemicals.
Bamboo, concrete, linoleum, rubber, and area rugs show up frequently on the floors of Guenther's projects. Those alternatives might cost more to install, but they don't involve the issues of off-gassing, toxic adhesives, heavy maintenance, and renewable resources that some petrochemical products do. Acknowledging that petrochemicals' danger is still "hotly contested," she's nevertheless convinced that the weight of the evidence merits extra caution.
As a member of the AIA national committee for health-care construction guidelines, she's been successful in persuading medical executives that green design isn't just a fad. And she's quick to explain that being leery of PVC doesn't make her anti-plastic. It helps that in 1996 the American Public Health Association called for health-care practitioners to reduce the amount of PVC-based products used and incinerated, because burning PVC releases dioxins.
Then there's the political angle. "Whether it's scientifically real or not, many people who get cancer attribute it to an environmental cause," Guenther says. "As cancer treatment improves and more people live longer, that group will have tremendous power to transform our industry."