Expert Interview: Rachelle Ain, AIA, CPHC, WELL AP

ABOUT OUR EXPERT:

Rachelle joined Utile in 2020 as an Architect & Project Manager, bringing with her a decade of experience in a variety of project types and scales. She currently oversees a range of projects focusing on affordable, sustainable, multifamily housing for mission-driven organizations.

 

Rachelle previously worked at several Boston-based architecture firms encompassing civic, institutional, residential, and educational projects. Her project experience also includes adaptive reuse and renovation projects, planning, programming, and feasibility studies.

 

Rachelle holds an M.Arch from Harvard GSD, and is a lifelong advocate for sustainable design and healthier buildings, both of which she ties to social justice and equity. She is a certified practitioner for the Passive House Institute US and the International Well Building Institute. She currently co-chairs the Boston Chapter of the Carbon Leadership Forum and the BSA’s Women in Design ABX sub-committee.

 

Rachelle lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two children.

 

THE INTERVIEW:

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

RA: I’ve worked in the field for 12 years and have been a registered architect for 8 years. I have been focused on mission-driven work. I’ve worked on educational and institutional projects for a big portion of my career. I joined Utile at the end of 2020 and am currently working on affordable housing projects which is important work that’s needed to be done really well and a place where healthy materials are very important.

 

SM: Why do healthier materials matter to you?

RA: I became aware of the healthy materials issue around 2013/2014. I was working on a University in the Boston area when the issue of flame retardants emerged.

 

“I was really surprised and shocked that the regulations around are such that you have to prove harm. When it comes to matters of public health, materials, and toxins in the environment, it takes a very long time to demonstrate the link between the chemical and the harm. Think about how long it took for lead to be regulated, for example, or asbestos.”

 

At the time there was some pushback about the TB133 standard which Boston used and that standard meant that a lot of halogenated flame retardants needed to be pumped into furniture. The victory that came a few years later was the adoption of TB117-2013. We could comply using a different test and that allowed us to skirt the flame retardants. It was a really great demonstration of advocacy and the leverage that designers have.

 

At the same time, I was becoming a mom and it was eye opening to learn about how much potential harm and exposure exists not only in the the building industry, but also consumer products industry. I want to protect my kids from the toxins and that desire translates from my personal life to professional. I don’t want any kids, pets, or people to be exposed in their work and daily lives. We should do our best to protect those who occupy our buildings.

 

It’s also concerning to know that there is great conflicting and confusing information that’s put out there for the population at large. I remember having a conversation with someone not in the building industry. The message she was receiving from the news was that you need flame retardants to protect your couch from bursting. It made me wonder how can we be effective in communicating the risk of daily exposures to toxins – which is a public health issue that affects everyone.

 

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

RA: We’ve got an active group of designers across the practice. They come together and work on the specifications and the library, not only promoting healthy materials but also products with low embodied carbon and other sustainability metrics.

 

“We’re talking to each other and that’s a really great way to raise awareness in the firm and advocate for certain categories of materials or products. We have round table discussions and solicit guest speakers. The goals is to create a virtuous cycle of improving our base line.”

 

We collaborate with our library consultant and a spec consultant as well. We also find opportunities to talk to clients. 

 

SM: What do you think is the most important language or standard to include in your spec for healthier buildings?

RA: Because of the variety of materials and complexity of our buildings, each spec section requires a thoughtful approach towards healthier materials language. I’m currently involved in an effort to create a standard spec for our housing practice. We have a sustainable design section at the beginning of our specs along with performance metrics throughout the spec as well.

 

“If a product or project is not being certified, we at least include language such as “low-emitting” or use CDPH (California Department of Health) standards and try to identify the base line. Some standards also come from WELL or ILFI.”

 

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

RA: Declare, Cradle to Cradle, BIFMA, Green Squared, NAUF, FSC and also HPD’s, or at the very least asking for material ingredient reports. As a starting place, we find it helpful to refer to the Healthy Hospitals Initiative as a base line.

 

SM: Have you worked on any projects that prioritized healthy materials? What worked well and what challenges did you run into? What are some of your biggest lessons learned?

RA: A couple years ago I worked on a Living Building Challenge project – primarily university dorms. Because it was a Living Building Challenge, we needed to meet the materials petal and the Red-list free requirements. You had to demonstrate that the proposed products are on Declare or are Red-List free. If you couldn’t, you needed to demonstrate that no alternate exists and complete an exercise of advocating to the industry. It was a pretty steep learning curve. There’s just so much that goes into buildings: chemicals, products, components, pieces. It was daunting, but there are now databases and awareness to help make it possible.

 

What I thought was interesting and challenging was how deep into the weeds the conversations go into, especially with your MEP consultants, lighting consultants, and structural consultants. Because you needed to initiate these conversations, you had to ask a lot of questions and dig in into the areas you were not very familiar with. Those are also fields in which alternatives are still being built and were not readily available so these conversations were really challenging.

 

Learning from this experience, I feel it has elevated my starting point when tackling all of my projects moving forward.

 

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

RA: I was recently excited to find the following LVT alternative: Wineo PURline. It is C2C certified and also has a Declare label. Having a healthier alternative for flooring that would go into hundreds of units makes a big impact.

 

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

 

“Get involved in advocacy for change. We have so much leverage as specifiers and material selectors and can use our voice, join forces with each other and create a community. It really does have an impact.”

 

Talk to your reps and manufacturers. There’s so many manufacturers that want to do better and want to improve and are responsive. Even if you can’t solve the problem immediately, raising awareness and having these conversations really help to push the dial bit by bit. Join your local community. Stay informed because it’s a little bit like whack-a-mole, for every product or category you may have solved in one project, you may next have a new project with a different standard specifications. Stay on top of it, stay in the loop, and keep working on it!