Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears | Audio

S11E3: The Healthy Materials Lab says Everyone Deserves a Healthier Home

In 2015, interior designer Jonsara Ruth and architect Alison Mears received a grant to study the use of building materials in affordable housing. This grant led to the creation of the Healthy Materials Lab, now a booming design-led research lab based at the Parsons School of Design that raises awareness about toxins in building materials and draws attention to healthier alternatives. At the heart of their work is justice: for poorer families who typically live in homes made with cheap toxic materials, and the communities near the plants that produce them.

Almost a decade later, the Healthy Materials Lab has taught thousands of designers how to integrate healthier materials into their design and construction processes.

Alison and Jonsara are also challenging a basic tenet of capitalism in their design approach, and asking big questions about whether making things fast and cheap is the right solution. What if we could make building materials a little more slowly with an eye toward health and sustainability? And what if these materials were accessible to  everyone? What would that mean to the health of the world?

In this episode of DB|BD, Healthy Material Lab co-founders Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears explain why they focus on affordable housing, what harmful materials are lurking in our homes and how healthy alternatives can be made accessible and affordable at scale. 

“That kind of fundamental understanding of the inequities that are part of the society within which we  live are clearer than they've ever been before,” Mears says. “And I think, as we address the work we're doing, we're able to say these are the communities we need to start with. We need to be able to transform what's happening in terms of building affordable housing in those communities, to make better housing, to make healthy housing for everyone, to help and, level the playing field a little bit so that at least people have safe places to live.”

This season of DB|BD is powered by Deloitte. 

To learn more about the Healthy Materials Lab, visit their website.

Material Health: Design Frontiers, a book by the Healthy Materials Lab

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Episodes are produced by Design Observer’s editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the episodes.


Alison Mears
That kind of fundamental understanding of the inequities that are part of the society within which we live. Very clear, you know, clearer than they'd ever been before. And I think as as we address the work we're doing, we're able to say these are the communities we need to start with. We need to be able to transform what's happening in terms of building affordable housing in those communities, to make better housing, to make healthy housing for everyone, to help and, level the playing field a little bit so that at least people have safe places to live

Ellen McGirt Welcome to The Design of Business,

Jessica Helfand The Business of Design.

Ellen McGirt Where we introduce you to people from all over the world, from different industries and disciplines.

Jessica Helfand Who are here to talk about design, business, civility and the values that govern how we work and live together.

Ellen McGirt This season, we are observing equity.

Jessica Helfand I'm Jessica Helfand.

Ellen McGirt And I'm Ellen McGirt. This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is powered by Deloitte's DEI Institute. Deloitte believes that bold actions can help drive equitable outcomes. And conversations like this can fuel the change needed to continue to build a more equitable society. Visit Deloitte's DEI Institute site at Deloitte dot com slash U.S. slash DEI Institute for more of their research and perspectives on equity. Later on, we'll hear from Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's Chief purpose and DEI officer.

Ellen McGirt Jessica. This week we have not one but two redesigners on the podcast.

Jessica Helfand Okay, let me guess. I think this is co-founders' week.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand I think you're talking about Jonsara Ruth and Allison Mears of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons.

Ellen McGirt We are, correct. Ten points for you.

Jessica Helfand /Laughs.

Ellen McGirt Today's guests are furniture and interior designer Jonsara Ruth and architect Allison Mears. In 2015, the two received a grant to study the use of building materials in affordable housing. This grant led to the creation of the Healthy Materials Lab. It's a design led research lab that raises awareness about toxins in building materials and draws attention to healthy alternatives. Jessica, as you mentioned, the Healthy Materials Lab is based out of Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Jessica Helfand And speaking of raising awareness, Ellen, one thing I want to flag about the healthy materials idea is that education is a cornerstone of this lab's sort of raison d'etre. Okay, so Jonsara and Allison teach at Parsons, but there's also an online certificate program that designers from all over the world can log into to learn about healthier material options and how to integrate them into their design work and process at the time of our taping, I think February of 2024, 20,000 people have earned a badge on the Healthy Materials platform. Amazing.

Ellen McGirt That is so cool. They also maintain a healthy materials library on the Parsons campus, where designers, students, and materials suppliers can actually touch and manipulate their collection of healthy materials options to see how they might play out in their designs. And they published a book in February of 2023 called Material Health: Design Frontiers, that offers the lab's perspectives on the state of healthy building materials to an even wider audience.

Jessica Helfand And Ellen, this is actually the second time you've interviewed Jonsara and Allison, is that right?

Ellen McGirt That's exactly right. I stumbled upon them, as lucky reporters often do when I was researching the Design Observer 20 list last year, it was the redesigners. I was looking for, design professionals who were focused in meaningful ways on the wellbeing of people who don't have any real power— poor, underserved, working class communities. And they fit the brief perfectly. So I wanted to make sure our audience got to hear from them, too.

Jessica Helfand It's so admirable that almost a decade in the labs focus is still on affordable housing and affordability. They spoke to us about their ongoing collaboration with, among other things, New York City's public housing authority to replace toxic paint. And I want to add one thing here that I don't think that people realize this is not sexy stuff, right? But it's important, right?

Ellen McGirt Right.

Jessica Helfand It's invisible stuff. What they're doing,

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand And they are indefatigable. They are calling our attention to all of these things, uncovering all of these important considerations that we, in our normal day to day lives as consumers of design, as practitioners of design, as adjudicators of design, should be thinking about more.

Ellen McGirt It's exactly right. You hit it with the affordability piece. You you hit it with the invisible piece. This is the place where people can cut corners.

Jessica Helfand Right?

Ellen McGirt Right. Literally. Allison and Jonsara are taking on a basic tenet of capitalism in their design thinking, which is to make things fast and on the cheap at the expense of quality. They are drawing our attention to where that expensive quality is impacting the world. So they're asking us, what if we could make building materials a little more slowly with an eye towards health and sustainability? And what if these materials were accessible by everyone? What would that mean to the health of the world?

Jessica Helfand So let's hear how these two powerhouse women are tackling these enormous questions with such considerable impact for all of us. Here's Ellen and my conversation with Jonsara Ruth and Allison Mears of Parsons Healthy Materials Lab.

Ellen McGirt But I did want to start with my funny observation that the minute I saw you two beautiful faces here on the on the podcast, on the Riverside recording, I felt like, oh, I'm wearing the wrong shirt. I'm wearing a shirt that has synthetics in it, I'm wearing a shirt with with forever chemicals in it and I should have wore cotton and wool. Does that happen to you? Or people — do people become-because of your work and be working with you become so hyper aware of all the objects in their lives that they get very worried about them.

Jonsara Ruth Yes, unfortunately, our presence is a little bit like the material police, which you know, isn't always the greatest hat to wear. You know, we we really believe in one step at a time. And just the fact that you thought of that, just the fact that you acknowledged it and thought of that is a great step forward.

Ellen McGirt I feel very comfortable and that just having done the reporting for the story and then and editing the list and working on the list together, it was so delightful to find you. But that moment where you stop and think and observe what is around me, who made the decisions to to put these objects, to use these materials in the places where I live and work and travel to? It's it's sort of an eye opening exercise.

Jessica Helfand It reminds me, too, in reading about both of you and your work with the material health world and the health materials as a lab that, well, two things. One, that it's so it's such a collective,  right. So the opportunity that the idea that you're thinking about clothing and they're thinking about furniture and someone else is thinking about wallpaper or building materials is, I think, kind of the point. So could you talk a little bit as we get started here with, with the idea for this, the dream, the origin story?

Alison Mears Absolutely. I mean, it was really, I think, as you have had this experience yourselves personally, it was being exposed to the fact that we're, you know, a lot of what we're surrounded by, not just in building but in consumer products, is- contains toxic chemicals that we're not aware of. Like this is a surprise. It was certainly a surprise for me in 2014, as we started to conceive of of this work and started to write a grant that would explore what toxic chemicals exist in building materials and why they're there, and how we could let it happen as an architect. It was profoundly disturbing to me that that that this was a, this was a problem that I wasn't aware of. And so it began at that point, that point of, discovery for us, but also an opportunity that arose around a grant that we were writing for a big foundation and the opportunity to work with, with, three other experts in this field. So it was circumstances that arose within Parsons School of Design, where Jonsara and I, old comrades, old partners in crime, where we'd worked together before, came together and started to confront this issue and, and really look to, the challenges of the issue. Huge issue, complex issue, unknown issue for a lot of architects and designers and the two of us because we like to do that, I speak for myself in particular, we love a challenge. We love those kinds of opportunities that are presented to us and the fact that we could start to confront them.

Jonsara Ruth Yeah. You know, I mean, my path to this or my, learning about this issue started in my career as a designer, and I was designing mass produced products. So it's, you know, so it was vey exciting. And I'll tell you just a little bit about that. But it was very exciting when we had this, had this opportunity to apply that same kind of thinking to architecture and interior design and design in general, because my experience designing mass produced products and I was designing furniture for very large in distribution, and worked very closely— and this was like 2000, 2002, 2003 till about 2006, designing furniture for mass production, mostly in Asia, some in Central America — and I worked very closely with manufacturers and the suppliers to those manufacturers and, and visited factories. I spent a lot of time designing and a lot of time in the factory, executing the design and witnessing the exposure to toxics in the factory. And then, you know, living in hotels near the factory, I realized all those communities who are living near the factories, like next to my hotel, were also affected. Like I went out running one day early in the morning and I couldn't, I couldn't the air was too polluted to actually take a run and I and the sun was coming up, the sky was kind of green and I thought, oh my goodness. It was kind of a wake up call to me like: Oh my goodness. The furniture I'm designing is contributing to the air we're all breathing. And these people live here all the time, and that's not fair. And I don't want to be part of it. And that was kind of a wake up call to me as a young designer. And, you know, I was conscious of the kinds of wood that we were we were sourcing. I was conscious of some of the environmental issues, you know, not to not to use endangered or rare species. And there was a lot of that that I had learned in school, you know, you know, a decade before. But what I didn't know about was the toxic piece. And so I it was a it was kind of a existential moment for me as a designer. And I left, and that was what was really kind of interesting about this opportunity, because that understanding of how manufacturing and-and product development happens, directly relates to the products we buy for buildings and for interiors.

Ellen McGirt As I was listening to you, it occurred to me that you're really taking on a basic tenet of capitalism. That faster, cheaper, you know, big at scale, making everything happen much more quickly, much more cheaply is really the enemy of clean, healthy design. And the other part of it, which I find so moving, we've been talking about this this morning, is that your theory of change are the most vulnerable people in the world. You know, these people who live in these fenceline communities, these people who are, have low income and few options, people who listen to Fast Car — we just had the Grammys — listen to Fast Car and that tells their story. So you got your grant, you found each other. You're both personally ignited by this issue. What were those early days at the materials lab like?

Alison Mears You know, I think my background is coming from architecture. And so- and Jonsara's is from from art, design, architecture as well. So, you know, I think there are some foundational beliefs that we draw from, right, as we approach any kind of project. So we come with a kind of baggage, I would say. There is experience, there's an understanding of issues, but there's also an education and professional baggage that we kind of need to redress and address as we approach this issue, to your point about capitalism, right. That's the system we typically work within is where money drives everything. And so how do we use some of the, some of the experience that we have as designers and architects to help us in the pursuit of this really gnarly, difficult problem? How do we start to address that problem using, using those skills and experience? But how do we also confront them? So we don't buy into, well, there is a lot of toxic chemicals in building products how can, necessarily the economy help us? Because it's, I think more a change of understanding, a change of perception, a change of approach, defining the problem in a new kind of way. And that's, I think, what what we bring to this, this is where we started. We said, well, you know, what are the problems and how do we feel about this? And, you know, basically we live in an unjust society, you know, and the people most at risk are the people who who are least able to confront these issues. I think this is a quality that we bring as a personal quality. I also think, and I think we both believe that, that because we are women, we have a very different approach to this work than we would as some of our male colleagues. We we work within male dominated professions who have brought us to this point in time. So how does we as women confront this and really say, well, how is this equitable? How is this fair? How are we doing right by the children, by children in society? How are we doing right by other women who may not be in the kind of circumstances that we are? So there was this kind of, I think, this evolution of the principles of how the lab would conduct it's work that really was based on kind of equity and justice and fairness that came from kind of a personal beliefs and understandings that Jonsara and I kind of brought to our work so that we would center people in our work. People want a problem, you know, as they often are in architecture. If only we didn't have people in buildings, everything would be fine. But they were they're central — they were the way that we really conceived of the work, what would be best for them? What would their experience be like? How could it be healthy? How could it be affordable?

Jessica Helfand Jonsara before you weigh in on this, really excellent question. I want to add one other detail, which is I noted that you said that you started this in 2014. So we're talking about a decade of work. And I wonder, as you think about those early days and the decision to form this collective, this important research, spot at, at, here in New York. Who else was having these conversations? Were people having these conversations? Was anybody looking at the things the two of you were looking at so rigorously and with a plan to build? So, collectively and importantly for this, your community there?

Jonsara Ruth Yes, there were people having the conversations and there were people having the conversations a decade or decade and a half before, you know, in the late 90s, there were people having the conversations, but the folks having the conversations were in toxicology or they were in chemical research or they were in, you know, scientific studies, and it remained and, you know, the the thing about that is that it remained a conversation between them, you know, in those fields of study. In the chemist- oh this interesting — people don't learn toxicology in school when they're learning chemistry. Oh, isn't this interesting — if the baby pajamas that are treated with flame retardants are getting into people's blood? Let's write a scientific paper about this. So it and so it was being reported as actually as early, early, even in the 70s when a lot of this work was happening. But it was never funneled into the education or into the ethos of architecture and design. I shouldn't say never, because of course there were people doing it, but it remained in this kind of minority group of people. And it had a kind of, you know, that, well, I grew up in families like this, you know, that had this hippie stigma. And, so the mainstream design and architectural world wasn't quite paying the same amount of attention to it. And we, you know, the thing that Alison and I often said to each other in those early days was, it doesn't have to look like you have long hair and you're wearing Birkenstocks and eating crunchy granola. Like it doesn't have to look like that. There's all kinds of opportunity for design. It's just the the origin of that material can be different.


Alison Mears Yeah, but-but-but kind of changing their minds was was one thing. So that's a kind of whole emphasis on communications and, and design as being a critical component of that, right. If you don't make it look beautiful, you're not going to capture anybody's attention. Architects and designers are going to go — Oh, yeah, don't have to care about that, doesn't look like I think it should look. But the other component of that was that there was this huge educational gap. We never wanted to do educational programing. We started kind of the lab and thought: Oh, we're in an academic institution, but education isn't something that we really want to pursue. And then we're like: Oh, nobody knows about. These issues fundamentally have no grounding, no foundational knowledge. They're not able to make the kind of decisions that they need to make to make change in their practice without this foundational knowledge. So we're like, okay, fine. So now we have to go into education. Now we have to create all this coursework. So that our peers can actually kind of get up to speed and start to make the kinds of changes that they need to in their thinking and with enough knowledge so they feel empowered to make change in their practice. And tha-that for us, I remember the day we said education really, we never wrote about education. And now this is this is important to the work we do.

Ellen McGirt So nearly a decade later, how many designers have gone through your curriculum and how do you how are you measuring the impact, the ripple effect?


Jonsara Ruth We're always asking ourselves that same question.

Alison Mears I think we're up to 20,000 with our- with our own in-house New School, educational programing. But we have multiple platforms that we offer education on, yeah.

Jonsara Ruth And, you know, we have traditional education, which is courses, and, you know, you earn a certificate. And then we have kind of untraditional education, which is sharing knowledge through social media and sharing knowledge through public events and guest speakers. And we and, you know, we've we've had the privilege of having funding so that we can offer a lot of this information for free so that we can make this exponential change. But yeah, we've had weirdly like raised a lot of awareness using media platforms because we thought, where do people go to get their information when they're not at work? You know, and you know, we all know about scrolling and what catches your eye. And because we have great designers here at Parsons or, you know, and we're interested in design, we we can we can hire designers and get them up to speed about these issues so that we can make great kind of media.

Jessica Helfand I want you to talk a little bit, if you would, about the the library, the hands on library. So this idea that you have a lab in addition to a community is that people can actually experiment and ask questions and get their hands dirty, t-truly get their hands dirty. At the same time the frame around this, it seems to me and Alison, you've written about this and talked about this, I had very much the sense when I was reading about the two of you that you are treating design as a public health initiative, right? And so not science and the sequestered nature of what you you, Jonsara where describing, but the idea that we all have a vested interest in the air that we all breathe and, I think that, you made this comment, one of you, I think, Jonsara you made the comment that, if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be building with it,

Jonsara Ruth Yeah.

Jessica Helfand Which is, of course, reminded me of Michael Pollan saying that if you can't, if you don't recognize this material. And I think that, again, becomes it speaks to this idea of public health consumption, the idea that materials are consumed, we touch them, they enter the bloodstream. And it's this sort of silent idea that that design, I always struggle with the idea that design exists in a vacuum. You've clearly both of you have proved that-that is not the case, particularly because your students can come and avail themselves of these materials. So, so at what point in the building of this program did you realize that this hands on library was going to be a major feature?

Jonsara Ruth I think it was at the very beginning, actually.

Alison Mears Yeah, yeah, because it was actually for for purely financial reasons, it looked like it would be potentially threatened. There wasn't funding for the materials library. And so Jonsara and I, you know, identified physical materials like access to physical materials as being critical to an understanding of how we practice as architects and designers. You want to see what that thing looks like — how much does it weigh? What color is it? You know, how does it perform? And so early on, we just snuck the funding for the materials library into the grant. It also gave us a public forum to interact with people, with architects and designers in the city and from elsewhere who could come visit somewhere and look at materials within, kind of library kind of context that's also educational. So both for Parsons students and faculty, we could demonstrate the things that we were talking about through the installation of, exhibitions within that space, but also the curation of of products within that space as well. So the haptic, the quality of actually touching something also became critically important for us as a, as a teaching tool.

Jonsara Ruth Yeah so it's become this kind of center that we, we use as a conference room almost, you know, for having hosting a meeting with people. We do it there because it is a teaching library, it's a borrowing library for our students and faculty. But it's a teaching library. We have a wall where you can see the raw ingredients of materials. You could see like what raw, or of like what's the raw component of aluminum, for example, and- and when you see that it's these small balls of bauxite and then you see a sheet of aluminum. You imagine the amount of energy it takes to get this mineral into being a sheet of aluminum. It, you know, it sends kind of, you know, haptic or kind of very tangible knowledge pathways to understanding, like the life cycle of material, for example. So it's a it's an exciting place. And now manufacturers are like asking us to be, you know, asking if we'll show their material in our library. Of course, we have a pretty strict, vetting criteria, but it's become known enough here that, people want to be part of it, which is exciting.


Ellen McGirt I'm here with Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte's Chief Purpose and DEI Officer and good friend and sponsor of today's episode. Good to see you, Kwasi. Thank you for joining us.

Kwasi Mitchell It's good to be here, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt I want to ask a question. That was one of the first questions I ever asked — we ever discussed years ago, when we first started talking about these issues, which is the value of DEI in the workplace, in organizations. Can you share what you believe to be the key benefits of implementing DEI practices into any organization, particularly now?

Kwasi Mitchell I think that there's a multitude of things, as we've talked about over the course of several years, Ellen, on the importance of DEI and the practices within the workforce. I do think the business case and DEI being good for business, in that it creates a more diverse and inclusive organization that is a more effective one. It creates diversity of thought. It creates diversity of action. It also allows for organizations to be more nimble and innovative. So that's a core piece of why it is important. The other piece of why DEI is important is that for people who are truly focused on it, and they're dismantling all of the inequitable practices that have accumulated within core aspects of the way that businesses operate historically, it really it really is a situation that benefits all employees. So for me, the critical aspect of DEI is that doing it well benefits all, and it helps us to navigate beyond the tribalism or some of the zero sum thinking that can in fact surface in organizations and is a reflection of what's taking place in society more broadly, that we really need to make sure that people understand and use DEI as an enabler to rise all tides.

Ellen McGirt Always, it's great to hear concrete ways we can move forward. I appreciate you, Kwasi.

Kwasi Mitchell Same, and it's always a pleasure talking to you, Ellen.

Ellen McGirt For anybody who's not an industrial designer or an architect and just aren't familiar with these materials, what is happening in our home that we need to be aware of?

Alison Mears When we talk about science and chemistry, the abstract toxicology, these things are very abstract for us. We can't see those chemicals that are embedded within the products around us. That's what we struggled with at the very beginning of the lab is like, how do you actually visualize this? Right, it's very difficult to understand that a acrylic paint may be shedding plastic from its surface over time because of the air and and potentially the sun hitting it, becoming bound with the dust and then being ingested by the residents of a room, for example. That as a, as — conceptually that's very difficult to understand. But if you look at something and you start to explore it and say, well, this is a plastic, imagine that this is happening to the surface of this, of this product that you are interacting with, and that those particles then become part of your biology. There's something about the physicality of something I think, that we can then associate. It creates a memory for us, which is persistent and long lasting. And so when you think about this issue, that memory remains with you and triggers these kinds of response. It's hugely helpful for us, I think, in this kind of work.

Jonsara Ruth I would say, like, you know, every product that we have around us, in almost every product that we have around us, in our closets, in our clothing, as you mentioned, but also in our spaces, in our interiors are typically not just one thing. They're made up of many ingredients like food, like many food products, there's many ingredients, and they're listed on food products. That's a regulation. It's not a regulation for building products. So any particular product that you might have a haptic relationship with, if you were to cut it in a cross section and look at it, it probably has many different ingredients, some that are visible and some that are completely un-visible. And so one of the things that we do in our teaching and what we do, what we try to help others do, is to to kind of make a habit of asking the question: What's it made of  —as a very first question? And then you can look at, you know, like we talked about, there are these categories of toxicants, some that that affect our immune systems, some that affect our neurology, some that affect — they're called asthmagens — they affect our respiratory bodies, some that are reproductive toxicants and then some that are maybe in the news a lot, which are endocrine disrupting chemicals, you know. And so these are kind of again, they're probably jargon, you know, these are kind of bigger words. And but we try to say, you know, like if are we going to really compromise our reproductive health of the human species. And if we do and if we are which we are, there's research behind this, then you know, how we-how we survive as a human species is being threatened not only by climate change, but also by the toxicants in our environment and by the lowering of sperm count— is a, Dr. Shanna Swan revealed this research report was 20 years of watching people and watching the steady decline of lowering sperm count because of the plethora of plastics in our in our lives and our exposure to them. And if we continue at that rate, she says, we have like 25 years before it's really dire in terms of our ability to reproduce as a human species.

Ellen McGirt So that sounds like an emergency. And I but I want to go back to your poignant observation that we have everything that we need on the planet already, you know, the circular economy up-, you know, upcycling all of those kinds of things. That brings us right back into, direct contradiction with the capitalist impulses we mentioned earlier. Where are you finding resistance or where are you finding unusual or surprising allies in this? Because, you know, these are big products manufacturing, construction with long lead time, and it is expensive and hard to make a change, even if you're swapping out just one ingredient.

Alison Mears Yeah, but I think, you know, the most forward looking manufacturers are thinking about what's next. And particularly as we look to Europe, for example, we can see what the landscape in the US might look like in five years, where regulation and policy is changing. We're looking at really responses to the climate crisis. So a lot of people are thinking about embodied carbon content, how much energy it creates to make something, and trying to reduce that amount of energy because it's destructive in terms of its CO2 emissions, you know, it's typically using fossil fuels to create that product. So what can we do to transform the carbon footprint of the products that we're working with? So sometimes policy and regulation changes that and forces a manufacturer to rethink what they're making and to reduce that fossil fuel content in terms of the chemical content in the way they make it. So that's an opportunity for a manufacturer to say: I'm going to get a bit of, a bump on what's happening in the next five years. I'm going to put the money into transforming the product that I have, either because I have to or I see that there will be a market for it shortly. And so there's a lot of innovation happening in spaces in different kinds of building product categories. The challenge is that it involves capital to retool or change industry. It- the harder thing, I think, is not really the innovation in product development is really the transformation of practice in design and architectural practice. Knowing that you could specify something else, but also thinking about how that product would perform in buildings. Buildings are hugely expensive, right. If you make a mistake, if you suddenly say, let's use this new paint and the paint falls off the walls, then people are like, never going to be using that green paint again. Why did you specify that? What a disaster. So that, you know, helping the industry transform — the design and architectural industry — transform from the kind of inside out is the challenge. And confronting that, I get almost necessary conservatism is the kind of work that we do with architects and designers.

Jonsara Ruth I heard another really good story on that front recently, which was a big manufacturer, and actually it's not just one, but a big manufacturer — like Alison said, it's it's hard to it's hard to find the investment to retool or to even change a recipe that's been very successful for many, many years, that's a very hard business decision — but what I've we've learned and we have to sign NDAs, but we've we learned that some of these large companies, in order to achieve their, their targets, their ESG goals, they're purchasing some of these smaller companies that are doing the innovation and saying, you know what? We- do it under our umbrella. And that's really an interesting collaborative financial model that seems very promising. You know, to get a product to scale, not have to retool a whole other line, but instead offer the financial backing to develop a much healthier product, you know, from the ground up.

Ellen McGirt Interesting.

Jessica Helfand This conversation we're having, primarily Ellen's question about sort of the business model, and the business world and your question and your comments, both of you, about the design profession specifically, make me wonder about the larger narrative here. And I have a two part question that I think speaks to how we can serve you in getting the word out about this amazing work you're both doing and have been doing, and in all likelihood, will continue to do for many years to come. One is the degree to which the-a worldwide health pandemic raised awareness among people outside of design and outside of science, and outside of building professions about what toxicity is and how vulnerable we all are, masking a proximity to each other, how certainly work has changed in terms of buildings and being in rooms with each other. And the second is, if you could talk a little bit about the book that you've published and how that helps to actually advance the important work and understanding of an awareness of the work we all have to do?

Alison Mears I think with, you know, that that was one of the benefits of Covid, I would say, when we, you know, as we developed and evolved presentations through, the pandemic was really to say, you know what, people know what public health is now. This is amazing. You know, this is a radical transformation because prior to Covid, you know, the idea of what public health was was really I mean, nobody talked about public health. So even just that awareness that, you know, we are all connected, we're all connected — either it's because we can be exposed to something as virulent and dangerous as, a virus or because, you know, we're suddenly together a lot more than we used to be, and that there is something that we share. We share the air. We share, share the water, we share our vulnerabilities. And, you know, if we're poor, we're even more vulnerable than others. And so that kind of awareness that there were communities that really suffered much more during Covid than other communities.

Jonsara Ruth Yeah, I was thinking the same. This this idea that has become part of language that everybody understands now, like what is a historically marginalized community that suffered disproportionately during, you know, of the Covid illness than anybody? And you know, that we hear we heard so repetitively heartbreaking, devastating news during those years. But that awareness is now understood. It's more understood. And so in our work to say, people who are living in public housing do not have the choice of what kind of floor or paint or, you know, materials go into their kitchen cabinetry. That's somebody who's building up their own house might have. They don't- that choice is not theirs to make. And so that's where the change needs to happen first. That's a much more understood line of thinking, I think, than it was previously. Of course it's devastating. But, that did become much more heard and seen.

Alison Mears That kind of fundamental understanding of the inequities that are part of the society within which we live, very clear. You know, clearer than they'd ever been before. And I think, as as we address the work we're doing, we're able to say these are the communities we need to start with. We need to be able to transform what's happening in terms of building affordable housing in those communities, to make better housing, to make healthy housing for everyone, to help and, level the playing field a little bit so that at least people have safe places to live, right. Absolutely critical. As critical as access to to health care.

Jonsara Ruth Yeah, exactly. Because if someone's living in a house that has toxicity and their family, their children and the families living there, they're going to be more apt to contract a disease, period, because they're exposed all the time. So this is, yeah, the basis for our argument for bringing, bringing healthy materials to affordability soon and radically. But but the other question, part of the question that you asked was about the book, which what we hope to do is I think a lot of these stories are kind of they're hard. They're hard and not- they're-they're devastating stories about health and this exposure. But we tried to do in the book is bring a much more positive, positive idea to this and elevate and amplify the innovators in this area, people who are approaching design and architecture from that perspective of what is a fully circular house look like that is nontoxic, or how do we make a school that's made of all natural materials and run on solar energy entirely? Actually, it's like a carbon sequester instead of, you know, a carbon emitter. Like, what are these good stories out there that are happening? And and that's what we tried to do in this, in our book, you know, to choose examples of designers and architects and even, you know, health professionals who are really championing this, championing this issue from a very positive perspective in making strides in innovative strides, both in materials, in buildings and in policy. Yeah.

Alison Mears Yeah, it's to provide both information, knowledge and inspiration for people to make change.

Jonsara Ruth Yeah, because it's possible. That's the thing.

Ellen McGirt That's a it's a completely inspiring message and a really brilliant, entry point. I mean, starting almost ten years ago with the idea that, studying the materials in affordable housing can be the gateway to understanding and unlocking this big issue. Have you found that your work is being used by communities and advocates and anybody who an anybody who's in policy to also make change from their point of view?

Alison Mears Yeah, we have had influence. I mean, to to call out NYCHA, you know, New York City Housing Authority in New York City, we helped them transform the typical paint specification, for example. And that's important because NYCHA manages 170,000 units of housing, impacting potentially 5-600,000 people. So a simple change, like changing a paint that used to be more full of toxic chemicals to paints that were actually much more benign in terms of, the chemical content is a huge win. So that's a policy change in a city like New York City, where it's quite difficult to make change. That for us has been a kind of gateway material. It's like if you can do one thing, affordable housing developer, let's just look at the paint. Paint needs to be installed at the beginning of a project. You need to keep maintaining the paint. So if you can make that transformation and change your specifications, that's a huge win.

Jonsara Ruth At some point, I think five years ago, or maybe even a little longer, we realized, you know, what we can also do besides supply resources and education, we can do demonstration projects. We can work with other people who are in the development industry. They're developing affordable housing, or they're designers or architects of affordable housing. And we can act as basically material consultants, free consultants, to help them think through their design propositions to make them healthier. And so we offer that to several people who we knew were focused specifically on affordable housing. We continue to do that, and help them change these specifications in their design proposals and have them built. And, you know, one of those people were-is Kia Weatherspoon and her her company, Sequoyah too, at Determined by Design — maybe you know them. They're a fabulous group of women, mostly women, not all women, who are dedicated to elevate people's lives through design, make affordable housing feel like a high end hotel. Bring in, you know, make thriving lives through design. And so we approached them and said, you know what? That's amazing. And could you do that with healthier materials? And they said, healthy what? They basically were like, what am I doing wrong? Tell me what I'm doing wrong. We need to change it. And we started telling them, you know, instead of using luxury vinyl tile, which is we've all heard of the horrors of vinyl and East Palestine, Ohio — but, instead of using LVT use linoleum, for example. And the first response was, but that is ugly. And so we, anyway, that's started a two and a half year, relationship where we worked with them on their typical specifications to offer suggestions for healthier products. And they're using them, and they're beginning to use them for public housing, for even a private developments of affordable housing. And, and then we make connections to manufacturers. So we're constantly in touch with them. So that those are, you know, we're proud of those. There's kind of, you know, we just accompany the great people who are doing this work to say, here's how you can do it even a little better.

Alison Mears I just—  just in that area, because a lot of the transformations in the way that we've been thinking about our work most recently have been in the category that we call healthier. We can make healthier decisions today with the market, of the products that are in the marketplace. Is healthier enough? No, obviously not it's enough, so  it's not enough. So how do we actually move the ball forward and create truly healthy places for people to live? And that requires a transformation of building, of architecture, of design, of a total transformation in the products we use to use, not fossil fuel petrochemical based ingredients, but really to look at plants and materials as a foundational ingredients for the products that we make going forward. And in that space, that's the space that we've been doing demonstration, projects and prototyping new kinds of buildings. And that's kind of work that we've been conducting in the last 4 or 5 years, in particular around the industrial hemp plant, which has many beneficial qualities, but testing it in construction and actually going through a renovation project, looking at designing new, ground up construction with materials that they're based in and hemp and lime and testing them. And seeing, in fact, is, is this, a possible, viable alternative in construction today? Can we start to use new materials that are plant based right away and make truly healthy construction?

Jonsara Ruth And that project, actually that Alison's mentioning, which is called the PA Hemp Home in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, we were invited to be collaborators on this project, which was really great. Everybody in the collaboration has kind of arrived at this combination of hemp and lime as being healthy, regenerative, circular, material that can regenerate also production systems and economies and all kinds of things. So we're invited to do that. That house has now been used as an example for the international residential building code to say hemp lime is a viable insulation material as of this year, 2024, which is incredible.

Ellen McGirt I love it, there's an innovation engine and all this innovation energy around serving the poor and the vulnerable and the excluded. I mean, people are one of my big things in business is like, how how are you going to compete for a customer with no money? You're going to put them to the side and you're going to go for luxury, big materials. And you're, you know, it's a different kind of vibe. This this energy just feels so hopeful.

Jessica Helfand I wonder if, I think anyone listening to this conversation today who teaches and we have a lot of listeners who teach in various aspects of the design professions, I would say there are many will be inspired by the things that you two are sharing with us. And I wonder if you have been doing this long enough to have seen evidence of an uptick or a needle moving in terms of the work your students now previous students are doing to share this wealth of knowledge in this approach in their own places of work.

Jonsara Ruth Absolutely.

Alison Mears Absolutely. They're the advocates. They're the execute as they're the transformers in, in architecture and design of-offices across the country and also in other forums and in affordable housing developers in government. Anyone who has taken our courses, you know, at Parsons or worked with us, are incredibly influential and passionate about this kind of work and, and don't, you know, take no for an answer that like, of course we can make change. Why wouldn't we make change? We're young. This is our world, you know, let's let's make change together right now.

Jonsara Ruth And we have to I mean, I think that's the, you know, and I think it's our students, but it's also we have student researchers that we hire in the Healthy Materials Lab that work with us. And some of them work with us for several years before they leave the Parsons campus. Some of them even stay with us after graduation. And those particular students who get a very, you know, they're working on real projects with us. They-they in particular go out and they're hired by large organizations as leaders because these larger design firms or manufacturers are like, like policy, they don't actually have the information. They know they need to make change, but they're not sure what change they need to make. And so some of our graduates have gone to work for the city of San Francisco or the city of New York, or the largest interior design firms in the world. And they've put on the sustainability crew, and they're leading change, which is just remarkable. It's it is remarkable. And so one of the things that we're doing now is, through that exposure, companies are coming to us to say: Oh, could you help us move shift our company? And so that's a that's the new frontier for us because, you know, if we can help major global companies understand these issues and change the way they're building hotels, for example, or change the way that they're making a product or change the way that they're developing affordable housing, then that's the monumental change we want to make.

Jessica Helfand It's so wonderful it's, you know, it's it's the idea that that's the teaching and students are part of this. They're really an essential part of the circular economy in terms of this educational, you know, they're the gift that keeps on giving because it is all about the kids.

Ellen McGirt Yes, yes. Prepared students, more sperm. I get it.

[ALL] /Laughs

Ellen McGirt I met Alison laugh! As I was listening to you. This this past hour, the amount of the numbers of nos that you hear from powerful people over the years has been profound. It's ugly. It's too expensive. I don't want to do that. I don't want to look like a hippie. You know, whatever it is, and you seem to be, you have a lightness about the way that you do this. You're driven by purpose. You've got a really clear sense of why you're doing what you're doing. And that's that's essential to maintaining energy in a, in a difficult job, especially one that requires this much, this much influence that requires this much persuasion. So I think there's I think it's — Jessica, you're right. I think there's something very special about the two of you. The way you've designed this work that keeps your energy going, right? That keeps the keeps that keeps you moving forward. Because you can you can see the yes behind the scenes of no. And I was wondering then how how do you infuse that in others? I think it's sort of a self-selecting mechanism. People who believe stick around, people who get it. You have a little bit of progress. You keep moving. But you you must be encouraging people to be resilient as they do this, right? Like there must be a component to that, I'm convinced.


Alison Mears I think it's inviting people into the conversation. And I want to just say that I think what's critical about our work is our humbleness, actually, and that we're quite humble in what we do. And that's a, I think, a really good quality. It asks us to question everything that is confronted, is presented to us. What does this mean? Why is it like this? Why can't we change it? You know, what are the opportunities here? Is it possible to change things? Let's try it and see. I mean, inviting people into that conversation to look at a problem, to address a problem and not make assumptions like I'm an architect. Architects are really arrogant people. A lot of the time it's like, we can fix this problem. You're like: Oh, really? I think it's more kind of turning that on its head and really saying, you know what is possible? We need the team. We need everybody on our team to be with us on this journey, confronting these issues and saying, how about how about if we did this at this moment in time? You're like, fabulous idea, what a great idea. And how would we build on that and how would we develop that? And where would this take us?

Jonsara Ruth I think the thing, you know, it's that old thing that people say, like what attracts people to academic institutions? And it's well, I think for some of us it's because we want to learn. I mean, we might be professors, which we are, but we're professors because we-we're here because we get the privilege of learning. And that's, and we're, we're we're we that's our biggest consumption is learning and new knowledge. And, and I think, you know, having one step outside of practice allows us also to see the bigger picture and see the hope and see the positive possibilities and, see that, you know, identify somewhere in the world this is happening. And that means it can happen for everybody. And that's I think that's what keeps us hopeful.

Ellen McGirt Well ingredient change is possible. We've learned that here today. And I really like thinking about ten, 15, 20, 25 years from now. The kid who didn't get asthma, you know, the mom who didn't get sick because there were some healthy ingredients, change in the environment around them and the kinds of, excellence that's going to come out of these communities. You know, the Grammy winners, the Nobel Prize winners, the Pulitzer Prize winners, the lawyers, the doctors, the artists, the ballet dancers, you know, all of that are going to the kinds that these healthy material design changes gave communities that nobody really thinks about a different future. I love thinking about that.

Jonsara Ruth That gave me goosebumps. Ellen.

Jessica Helfand She's good at that. She's good at that. Thank you so much for talking to us today. The humility really shows and also the diversity of approach and of discipline and, and the endurance that you've kept it going on in a, in a difficult decade, a decade that saw a lot of political change, a lot of turmoil, social, civic, health, emergency health, public health. And you're just you keep on going. It's really it's inspiring for us and our listeners, I'm sure, will be thrilled to listen to this and know more about your work. Thank you so much for your time today.

Jonsara Ruth Thank you.

Alison Mears Thank you.

Jessica Helfand So, Ellen, as we reflect on this conversation, I have a question for you. I'm an on a mission to eliminate plastic not only from my house, but from the house of every house I visit. Which makes me kind of annoying, but I'm kind of into it. I'm kind of into it now. Like there's so many things you can do to. Why would any of us have plastic? Plastic is the enemy. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. The Dustin Hoffman movie of many years ago, The Graduate. But, yeah, it's really the enemy. I just got an electric car. I have a lot to say about this, but in the house. Ellen, did this conversation change the way you look at the materials in your own home? Did you immediately run after the taping and start throwing things away? /Laughs. It's okay if you didn't.

Ellen McGirt I was already mid process, but I did slow down and think about paint right?

Jessica Helfand Did you?

Ellen McGirt Like I really started to think about the kinds of things that I would not ordinarily put my hands on. Teflon gone. Plastic storage, food storage — gone. My daughter Rachel is, gotten us on the train for repurposing clothes. We really are thrifters now, but I don't know what's under the paint. I don't know what's between the joists here. And I really am thinking about that. And kind of an interesting new way. And trying not to freak out about it at three in the morning.

Jessica Helfand I think one of the things that happens in a conversation like this, one of the things that awakened my mind to was, how easy it is to have to make assumptions. How easy it is to let the hubris of your impatience getting through your day leads you to just cut corners, as you rightly said earlier. I mean, the degree to which it's not just the materials themselves, but what binds them together or how they're how they're sorted or, you know, I mean, I remember when Michael Pollan was the first person in the sort of food world, I think he was the first person to suggest that you not by food where you couldn't pronounce one of the ingredients, right?

Ellen McGirt Right.

Jessica Helfand So it's this has a there's a kind of simplification and clarification in the process that makes you really kind of question your own speed with which you get through the day.

Ellen McGirt And it questions your choices as a consumer and as a voter. You know, I as we travel through the world, we- I pass communities. I know you do too, all the time where people don't have a lot of choices. It changes the way I think about food deserts filled with food, with with ingredients that nobody can pronounce in homes that were put up cheaply and affordably, but actually are, are are in danger of hurting the residents inside and the communities inside. And I think, well, what information do I need or do I need to share? So everybody who's part of a voting community can think about those vulnerable people too.

Jessica Helfand Makes you think when you're asking deeply penetrating questions about things that are invisible. I wish those kinds of I wish that kind of inquiry would become viral.

Ellen McGirt Yeah.

Jessica Helfand In other words, rather than doomscrolling on your phone. Why not let the questioning of a Healthy Materials Lab get you to start questioning all your choices? Who has who has access to those choices? To your point, Ellen. Who doesn't? How does food insecurity or materials insecurity or building insecurity, you know, how is that represented in terms of cost cutting and, speed racing through the kinds of decisions that that we should be making with more care for each other and for the future.

Ellen McGirt You know, that's the funny thing about capitalism to come full circle is that you don't get paid by asking questions. You get paid by coming up with answers and solutions, right? And, I think I think the world would be better if we had more people who just didn't know and thought about it a little bit.


Jessica Helfand You know what that music means, Ellen? Dun-dah-dah-dah.

Ellen McGirt /Laughs.

Jessica Helfand Yeah.

Ellen McGirt It's big swing, small wins time.


Jessica Helfand So what's our big swing for this week, my dear?


Ellen McGirt You know, there's so many to choose from, but I'm only going to choose one. I'm choosing the queen this time.

Beyoncé (Music) This ain't Texas (woo), ain't no hold 'em (hey) So lay your cards down, down, down, down

Ellen McGirt By the time everyone has listened to this podcast, you'll have listened to thousands of times, Act II Cowboy Carter album, Beyoncé's eighth album, her follow up to the Renaissance. It's so powerful, Jessica. Real rich, references meaningful collaborations. It does a better job celebrating the country form of music than most country albums do, and here's what I love about it. For us, she included people who were shut out of the music establishment years ago. My favorite is Linda Martell, who I wrote about recently.

Linda Martell (archival) Thank you so very much.

Ellen McGirt The first commercially successful black female artist who was gone from the industry by the 1970s, but also a lot of really young, promising Black artists who had been banging on the door of the country music industry who are now on board. And may I just be hashtag petty for just a second here?

Jessica Helfand I was waiting. I've been holding my breath.

Ellen McGirt We love this.

Jessica Helfand Please.

Ellen McGirt Beyoncé said she felt unwelcome in the country world five years ago. We know what she was referring to and from. For five years she's been learning and studying and plotting and rehearsing and meeting and collaborating and negotiating. And this is what she came up with. It is gorgeous. For anybody who has felt unwelcome and secretly plotted their, their are great return, their great retribution, their great revenge. I mean, this is just food for the soul.

Beyoncé Come take it to the floor now (woo)

Ellen McGirt That's all for today. We'll see you back here in two weeks with another designer who is observing equity while transforming their community, their field, and our world.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | the Business of Design is a podcast from Design Observer.

Jessica Helfand Our show is written and produced by Alexis Haut. Our theme music is by Warner Meadows. Justin De Wright of Seaplane Armada mixed and mastered this episode. Special thanks to Adina Karp, to Focus Forward podcast studio in Providence. And Ellen, who else you got to thank?

Ellen McGirt Let's thank Daniel Paese, our new video editor, for our amazing trailers.

Jessica Helfand Yes! Wonderful idea.

Ellen McGirt Thanks.

Jessica Helfand Who says podcast can't have video trailers? Thanks to Daniel, they can.

Ellen McGirt They can. And for more longform content about the people redesigning our world, please head to Design Observer dot com and consider subscribing to our newsletters, equity Observer and The Observatory.

Ellen McGirt The Design of Business | The Business of Design is produced by Design Observers editorial team. The views and opinions expressed by podcasts, speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse any individuals or entities featured on the podcast.

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