Expert Interview: Mandy Miller

ABOUT OUR EXPERT:

Mandy is a Denverite residing in New England. She has a lengthy knowledge of products and ingredients; thus, a self-proclaimed product label reading snob! She has been in the A&D industry for almost two decades in various sectors and roles. She is the Materials Specialist / Librarian for Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston.  Her approach to design: quality of life in spaces is not simply the aesthetic and function of the space – it’s the quality of mindfulness taken on those specifications that create the aesthetic and functions resulting in healthier built environments. For Mandy, being a materials guru means always learning and researching about the materials that produce a product. She revels in raising her material health cheerleading pom-poms whenever given the opportunity to educate and increase the members of the sustainable design pusher’s tribe!

THE INTERVIEW:

SM: What is your role and how long have you worked in it?

MM: I’ve been in the A&D industry for nearly two-decades holding a variety of roles. For the past 5 years I’ve been a Materials Librarian and Material Health Champion – the point person to industry vendors who want to show products to the company. I drive the “Velvet Hammer” by following a material health protocol, in other words, a vendor that wishes to have their product samples in the library needs to have a form of transparency declaration, be found on Mindful Materials or Sustainable Minds.

 

SM: Why do healthier materials matter to you?

MM: Three variables personal to me: 18 years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimotos Hypothyroid. The endocrinologist couldn’t tell me why I had this disorder. Reading everything possible, I learned that PBA, toxins, flame retardants, pesticides, phthalates could all be contributing to autoimmune disorders. I had a long stint in retail, thus endless linear feet of PBA coated receipts passed through my hands. Two other reasons, my vegetarian-naturalist grandmother and an amazing esthetician in 2016 told me to bring all of my skincare products and she would educate me on what to keep using and what to toss. She gave me a flier that referenced Aubrey Hampton’s “Organic Consumers: 10 Synthetic Ingredients to Avoid” such as parabens, propylene glycol, fragrances, colors, etc. and then the flier at the bottom had listed cosmeticdatabase.com which is what Environmental Working Group is today. Within the past 5 years, I’ve realized the plausible contributors to thyroid disorders.

 

SM: Describe your approach to materials, your process and any tools you use to inform yourself.

MM: 

“I always like to say, if it’s so “green” you could eat it but it’s not performing, then that isn’t a sustainable product. Knowing a product’s performance and track record is important in the commercial built environment.”

One of the approaches is to suggest materials that are manufactured in our neck of the woods. Some of the tools I use are Mindful Materials, Sustainable Minds, and Ecomedes. A really cool tool is the Healthy Building Network Red to Green ranking system. Parsons Material Health Lab has a plethora of resources in their Material Health section. I’m a fan of manufacturer websites that have environmental certification filters. For a designer who does not have a lot of time, the filter helps to drown out the noise and narrow down the options. Also suggest Helloraye.com. Which launched in early 2020- it’s a platform that is for the professional community to streamline connections to furniture brands and they offer that filter for certifications too.

SM: What are some strategies or facts you use to advocate for healthier, more sustainable materials in your projects?

MM:Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Harvard Sustainability, “Harvard Approved,” Practice Green Health (HHI), and Google Sustainability. 

“All of these entities are shouting the same message, avoiding the top toxic chemicals such as VOCs, flame retardants, antimicrobials, and stain treatments.”

I apply the precautionary approach and reference Perkins&Will Precautionary List – a list of 56 chemicals, and substances of concern. In May of this year, Healthy Product Declarations included the Precautionary List in the additional listings section to indicate compliance with other key restricted substances list such as Red List. These provide a supplemental perspective for interpreting hazards screening, supporting decision making for manufacturers as they develop new products.

SM: What certifications do you look for when selecting materials?

MM: Declare and HPD because those are both referred to as a “nutrition label” listing ingredients – to a certain degree. I also use Cradle to Cradle and LEVEL because they are both multi-attribute certifications. EPD’s are great for environmental factors. A good reminder is that just because a product has these formally announced declarations it doesn’t make it any better than an alternative, it just means that they are being transparent.

 

SM: Can you share some of your favorite healthy material manufacturers which we could share with our community?

MM: Hightower, Hayworth, MillerKnoll, Maharam, Shaw, Mohawk, Tarkett, Interface, Nora.…there’s a lot out there and manufacturers are constantly improving their products for the greater good. A good reference from the CEH, is a document called “Healthier Furniture” that lists 40 manufacturers that are trying to avoid the top 5 toxic and hazardous chemicals.

 

SM: Do you have any advice for those who are currently working in the healthy building movement?

MM: I think it’s important to keep in mind that everything is a chemical- some are good and some are bad. There are good chemicals like baking soda and then there are cancer causing chemicals. Strive to have spec materials with certifications that manufacturers have paid big bucks for. 

“We have challenged manufacturers to give us transparency and the manufacturers come back and say they have done this so they want their product specified. I would prefer to specify a product that has a transparency certification over a product that doesn’t. Start with your largest finishes-ceilings, floors, walls, because they make the biggest impact.”

The future of sustainability and material health isn’t going to be “What is the greenest product?”, it is going to be about incorporating AIA’s material pledge focusing on: human, social, health, equity, ecosystem, climate health and circular economy – contributing to each of these buckets are a variety of certifications. I like the quote by Dr. Claudia Miller, an allergist and immunologist:

“Architects and Designers have a greater ability to improve public health than medical professionals.”