Despite the many certifications steering designers and architects toward materials that seem safer and eco-friendly, professionals still need tools to locate the best options available.

Part of the challenge is understanding that a certification doesn’t always mean there’s no health risk. Not all programs, for example, subject manufacturers to the same rigor or transparency requirements. And even when a disclosure label appears to spell out what was used to make a product, every potentially harmful chemical may not be listed.

To fill in the blanks, Perkins and Will has been cataloging harmful substances used in building materials since 2008. Dubbed the Precautionary List, that index has evolved into a free, online database anyone can search by visiting

Mary Dickinson is one of two directors leading the firm’s Material Performance Lab, which generates the data that fuels the index. She shared her insights with products editor Kelly Beamon.

Your firm’s precautionary list continues to evolve, but manufacturers are more transparent than they were 11 years ago, taking such steps as providing health product declarations. Aren’t such disclosures sufficient? 

The way the ingredients are listed, exactly which part of a product contains a high-risk chemical, can still be unclear. We need to know what’s in each component.

Also, it’s best to take a preventative approach. That means looking for alternative products that significantly reduce exposure to health risks, not settling for materials that likely pose some risk.

Do you really track every harmful substance across applications and product categories? That sounds like a tall order.

We catalog substances that show up most readily in the built environment.

And there are two directors. Max Richter is my counterpart based in Vancouver. I’ve also been working with Monica Kumar, an interior designer in our New York office, on the collating of data.

The index is something a lot of firms would like to emulate. But are there immediate steps they can take to vet safer products? 

Yes. Focusing first on materials that cover large surface areas—such as floors and walls—is a reasonable place to start. The AIA’s Healthier Materials Protocol offers several additional frameworks and case studies illustrating ways to achieve material health goals. Any specifier can try these, regardless of the firm’s or the project’s size.

This story was featured in Material World, Architectural Record’s products-focused newsletter. Subscribe today!