Our buildings can make us sick. In Google, the movement for healthy architecture may have gotten its most powerful ally yet
The Mississippi River’s 85-mile course between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, snakes past 150 chemical plants and refineries. In the shadow of towering industrial infrastructure and beneath emission plumes are neighborhoods that are mostly poor, black, and sick. The area’s residents were diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses at such a high rate that the region earned the nickname “Cancer Alley.” In the 1990s, Greenpeace stationed Lawrence Kilroy, then an environmental justice activist, in the region.
“The communities along ‘Cancer Alley’ see higher rates of asthma and developmental toxins, particularly in children,” Kilroy says. “The common ingredient there is the pollution. When you travel to these areas, you experience big-factory smokestacks with all kinds of stuff coming out of it and a disenfranchised, impoverished community. This has an impact on you. You say, ‘What difference can I make in the world?’”
Seeing the environmental degradation wrought by the chemical industry in southern Louisiana—which produces over a quarter of the country’s petrochemicals, which are used in everything from flooring to footballs—as well as the devastating health impacts on people who live nearby eventually inspired Kilroy to join the Healthy Building Network (HBN), a nonprofit founded in 2000 with the mission to reduce the hazardous chemical content in building materials. His argument for fighting environmental injustice through the lens of architecture and construction? It impacts all of our health, but disproportionately affects marginalized communities from two angles. Manufacturing building materials often involves the use of hazardous chemicals, which harms communities adjacent to factories. Additionally, the materials people put into low-income housing are often the most hazardous. “We see the full circle there,” he says.
Kilroy has been working at HBN for over a decade, but now he’s poised to make one of his most substantial contributions to the fight for healthier buildings and environmental justice. HBN partnered with Google to develop Portico, a green materials database and decision-making tool that, in Kilroy’s mind, has the potential to transform how the entire building industry thinks by leveraging big data. […]