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Architect Criticises Attack

Brian Murphy, architect, university tutor, environmental campaigner and specification consultant, criticises the article by Richard Harris in CFJ (September 2014):

I AM often asked to reduce sustainability to one sentence, to help the eco reluctant to engage at some level. But we cannot rely on 10, 20, 30 or even 40 year old ‘college knowledge’ with ‘a sprinkling of green’.
We need to question everything, change the way we do things, not carry on with ‘business as usual’ just because we have always done it that way. My best short offering to the sustainability virgins is make buildings using materials and methods that are healthy, environmental, resourceful, appropriate, competent, effective and use this as a yardstick to judge your outputs.
We desperately need step-changes and really good guidance during the ‘sustainability revolution’ a potentially chaotic time, we need to learn rapidly and avoid duplicating mistakes, but we must make progress.
I realise that building is really complex. Green and healthy building is even more so. There are too many options and alternatives, full of financially tempting compromises. If it’s your own home or building, green building is a major investment opportunity that can lead to bill-free healthy living and working if you get it right. If you don’t it can be a financial burden and a cause of ill-health and handicap.
Choosing between methods of construction, materials, products, accessories and systems is a mind blowing, complex affair that is difficult to get right, especially if you are trying to be green and healthy.
We are all surrounded by advisory or promotional associations, and particularly with manufacturers promoting their products, all trying to get our attention. These products are often surrounded by technical claims, or a collection of technical certificates, health or green labels. This are often couched in confusing jargon or dubious marketing and greenwashing.
Often, the salesmen employed by these manufacturers are driven by a need to get their percentage of sales, so they put their own spin on the products they are selling, adding to the total confusion among those considering making a purchase of their products.
Even in the presence of good information there is often a lack of understanding combined with misinterpretation and little joined up thinking. Trying to find some sense among many conflicting requirements and messages is a challenge for architects, design professionals and constructors; let alone self-builders and DIYers and first time clients.
In this context I applaud Alan Best’s monthly column in the CFJ. It has been a great drip feed over the past two years, containing information translating the scientific, chemical and REACH jargon into nuggets of information that we can all relate to and start to address in our individual activities.
In contrast to all the above, I was appalled to read the attempt at humour by Richard Harris of F Ball in the ‘and now for something completely different’ article (CFJ September 2014) written in response to Alan Best’s ‘VOCs in buildings can kill you!’ (I assume it was the editor’s attention grabbing title?)
His knee jerk reaction in response to Alan Best reminded me of the Ministry of Silly Walks and is as farcical and unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition. The content is also reminiscent of the tobacco industry propaganda and more recently the climate change deniers in the fossil fuel and fracking industries.
But more revealing is the assumption by Mr Harris that Alan’s article is aimed exclusively at the flooring adhesives sector, or even that Alan wrote his piece directly targeting F Ball, which he obviously wasn’t.
Sadly, Richard Harris appears to come across as a python-esque buffoon, and paranoid to boot, responding as if his and his own company’s integrity was being called into question.
In today’s economic climate and under ever present fiduciary obligations and rising costs for dwindling or scarce resources, manufacturer’s strive for cheaper recipes resorting to more concoctions of chemicals, that do not need their health and environmental credentials to be assessed before putting them into the market place, quite unlike medicines.
There are many different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) all about us. One which causes serious concern is Toluene, a significant ingredient of solvent-based adhesives. Whilst Toluene is not listed in Alan’s article it is a significant contributor to ill health and one of the many reasons for legislation like CHIP, CDM, COSHH, RoHS, REACH coming into effect.
The conventional manufacturer’s response to such legislation is often to tweak or refine their recipe to enable them to remain on the market; or in my recent experience, and I hope only in exceptional circumstances, are dishonest about their ingredients, not something that I am in any way suggesting that F Ball would ever do.
But you only have to read any typical manufacturer’s Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or the back of the can to discover the declared offending ingredients. On site installers are expected to wear impractical PPE or breathing apparatus after 30 minutes. But would it not be better to rewrite their standard specifications and substitute the offending ingredients with healthier alternatives.
We are in the midst of the ‘Sustainability Revolution’ and yet, from what I see, a major part of the majority of construction industry is doing its best to ignore it, using legislative minimum as default maximums, aiming for low cost and greater profit margin.
For many it is business as usual, with value engineering (posh for cost cutting) and surreptitious substitution of cheap unregulated imported materials to maintain the status quo.
In contrast the self-build market is investing in better buildings. Passivhaus is growing in popularity across all sectors.
It is a design principle for low energy buildings in which the occupants, television, fridge, TV, sun, etc. provide all the heat that is needed to heat the house without a dedicated heating system. In order for that to be possible the building is well insulated, made thermal-bridge free and wind and air-tight, measures that are all way above building regulation levels.
The consequence of all this is that Passivhaus requires mechanical ventilation (MV) to manage humidity, carbon dioxide and VOC levels and heat recovery (HR) to avoid wasting all that heat generated by our activity and kit.
Without competent construction and MV+HR humidity levels there would be condensation at thermal bridges, mould leading to asthma and potentially to toxic mould (common in USA) and potentially death.
Because conventional building materials are full of ingredients described in Alan’s articles, ventilation is also required to remove the VOCs to prevent their build up to unhealthy levels. This replaces stale air with fresh air and oxygen to keep our bodies alive and minds working.
However, there is a different approach adopted by enlightened people who shy away from chemicals and choose natural healthy alternatives in the form of buildings that breath, vapour-open air-tight buildings where VOC’s are never introduced in their building materials or finishes and cleaning methods.
These buildings do not need mechanical systems, forever consuming energy to keep the building healthy and liveable.
There is no space to go into detail here, but NGS Green Building Encyclopaedia has begun creating a resource where these approaches are being described in detail. CFJ
NGS National Green Specification website:

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at