How Material Importance Can Guide Quarterfield Elementary Towards Net Impact

How Material Importance Can Guide Quarterfield Elementary Towards Net Impact.


Climbing out of the all-terrain Toyota Highlander, I was met by a shock of sweltering stagnant air as my feet landed on the cracking earth. A humid breeze would blow here and there, giving the people of Mali a moment when the vibrant sun’s heat didn’t feel so oppressive. This is real Africa, which finds no visitors. There are no safari parks or other tourist areas where the world congregates to caper about and spend money. Standing behind their mothers, curious children stare and point at me. “Tubabou!” they shout in their native tongue. “White man!”

I had just arrived in the small village of Kenieroba for the third time. Before me stood my father’s malaria clinic, an open concrete structure filled with quiet children under a corrugated metal roof. At the entrance, a tattered bike drooped forlornly in its corner. Even with its crooked wheel, missing pedal and lack of brakes, this contraption had taken me far in previous years. After packing my bag, I biked along the dirt path through the village. My first stop?  The woodcutter’s shack.

The previous year I photographed the people of Kenieroba, promising to return with prints for each individual in them. Nearly falling off the bike while coming to a stop, I was greeted by my friends, a couple of men sawing huge chunks of lumber. Dozens of children surrounded me as I sat down in the shade of a baobab tree with my pictures and bags of sweets. From my bulging pockets I passed out “les bonbons américains” to the eager, empty hands. Feeling the world slow down, I glanced around in a paused state of happiness and smiled. The children hugged me from all sides and thanked me in what little French they knew.

While passing out the photos, my fingers soon held a picture of seven men laughing with me. Their sweat dripped from their faces onto ripped clothes and their sun-baked arms wrapped around me. On my first visit to Kenieroba, these men took me through the village and into the fields. Although few words were spoken, silent friendships emerged that day. Recovering from these thoughts, I looked past the crowd of children expecting to see all of them standing there, but some were missing. So I held up the picture, pointing to the missing men.

There is a spellbinding feeling as one quietly stares out the plane’s window, leaving the arid landscape of Mali. It comes from giving candy to crying children being treated for malaria, working with a group of women to harvest food for their families, and eating succulent mangos in a baobab tree. But mostly it comes from holding the extra photos of me and my laughing friends, three of whom passed since my last visit. As in every other Malian village, life goes on in Kenieroba.

The world is a resplendent place and has more than its fair share of troubles. We are slowly creating an environment where soon people, far removed from our modern society, in their cultural bubble, will not only be forced to endure their original problems but, also the problems that arise from the environmental choices we make today and made 50 years ago. Buildings contain a tremendous supply of natural resources and building materials. Currently our choice of materials and our material economy is toxic. Throughout a building's life cycle, materials used are responsible for many adverse environmental and human health problem, including personal illness, habitat and species loss, pollution, and resource depletion. We must understand that our impacts are no longer local and everyday we stretch more to a global scale. It is of utmost importance that we understand the influence architecture has on creating a world that reflects well-being, productivity and overall happiness. Life should not just “have to go on,” it should be filled with opportunities to both sustain and thrive. The time to make an impactful change was yesterday.



This semester I am taking a seminar/project based learning class, ARCH418A, looking at Zero Energy and Zero Impact Building Design in relation to Quarterfield Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Over 50 years old, Quarterfield Elementary School is next in line for a public school renovation. Currently, the school has many problems in regard to energy use. The building's enclosure system is poorly insulated with single paned glass, the lack of efficient cavity walls with thin walls and roof, and all around low "R" value materials for both the walls and the roof. Due to the poor insulation, the indoor environment is in need of improvement with measurements for indoor air, temperature and lighting fluctuating and not consistent. With information from high performance building design, simulations and life cycle analysis, we as a class are tasked with the opportunity to submit a proposal determining the approach for re-evaluation of the site and produce a set of design strategies, recommendations and methodologies to move forwards with.

A Net Zero Quarterfinal Elementary starts with proper Insulation. A tightly insulated building has the potential to passively lower a building's energy needs to make Net Zero Energy possible. My research has been to offer a set of material design recommendations that looks to provide recyclable, biodegradable and "Red List" free alternatives for major insulation areas of our building, the roof, walls and windows. So, why is material sustainability important? 


Most of our global trends are bound inherently by the exponential equation. Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, 1981 Robert A. Millikan Award Winner, once said that “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” It's easy to look past this quote but, fully understanding its meaning imposes a revelation of extreme magnitude and concern. A 6.5-7.5% growth yearly may seem like a low rate of change, but mathematics has the ability to surprise. A quantity growing at 7% yearly has a doubling time of a decade.

n = (ln2)/[1+(r/100)]

where “n” is equal to the doubling time (years) and “r” is the growth rate (percent per year)

The equation can be approximated by

n = 70/r

Unfortunately our building industry's material needs average out to that 7% growth per year. This means the amount of used materials and raw resources each decade is greater than the total amount of all the preceding decades, combined. Many of these materials have been put into a category called the "Red List", a list of highly toxic and degenerative materials.


The red list contains the worst prevalent building industry materials. These materials not only pollute the environment but they are known to bio-accumulate up food chains until they reach toxic concentrations. When handling and living around these materials, construction and factory workers and end users are at extreme risk of developing various health problems. The top materials on the list are...

  • Asbestos
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfonated polyethlene
  • Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)
  • Chloroprene (neoprene)
  • Formaldehyde (added)
  • Halogenated flame retardants
  • Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)
  • Lead (added)
  • Mercury
  • Petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides
  • Phthalates
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Wood treatments containing creosote, arsenic or pentachlorophenol

With children and teachers responsible for our future, they will be spending a large portion of their day in the school. Why would we want to subject them to materials that have a negative impact on human health? If we cannot devise new ways creating resources and cutting down on Red List materials, we soon are going to face extreme human health issues compounded by a crippling environment. We simply, won’t be able to sustain our ways of life. With our built environment growing at such a rapid pace, Architects have been gifted with the ability to bring trans-formative change in terms of material acquisition and use. With US Building Stock increasing by 3 billion square feet annually, it is imperative that sustainability and material importance becomes mainstream. So where are we now?


The highest sustainability rank that a building can achieve is Net Zero. This means that the building or structure relies completely on exceptional energy conservation, on-site renewable generation and material efficiency to meet all of its heating, cooling and electricity needs. The term Net Zero is broken into two major categories, Net Zero Impact and Net Zero Energy; where the former refers to a holistically embodied site and the latter where the building's yearly assessed energy production is in equilibrium with its energy intake. With very few of these structures in existence, building a Net Zero building is by no means an easy task. Currently, there are many challenges to overcome when designing a hyper efficient building from lack of efficient technology to political restrictions. On the positive note, much of these obstacles are relatively easily to overcome given the drive to make the change. So what is the problem? 

The current problem is that it is extremely difficult to build Net Impact architecture because the lack of material transparency. While there are an abundance of “green” products for sale, there is a surprising shortage of good, publicly available data that provides the material composition facts to backs up manufacturer claims. Transparency is vital; and the goal is to have a globally accessible database providing the "nutrition facts" on materials and products.

We are entering a world of peak oil, peak water, peak phosphorus; a world that is "globally interconnected yet ecologically impoverished". A world with seven billion people and counting. A world where every single major ecological system is in decline and declining exponentially. A world where global temperature increase means shifting rainfall distributions, acidified oceans, and potentially catastrophic sea-level rise. We must remake our cities, towns, neighborhoods, homes, offices and all of the infrastructure spaces in between. This part of the reinvention of our relationship with the world is imperative to preserving it. The future of Architecture will rest in our ability to not create from scratch but, to refine and re-polish the existing built environment. There is still much value in existing structures and by not demolishing these buildings to just start over, we are able to use the funds and resources to enhance the experience. Creating structures that have impact both environmentally and psychologically is the next step. As the world becomes more urbanized and people are spending a majority of their day in buildings, we will need to rebuild the older infrastructure to take care of us.

We are struggling to create architecture that is cable of sustaining us yet there is one organization, The Living Building Challenge, that aims to push us one step even further in creating a built environment that thrives, paving the way towards a vibrant future with a Net Positive infrastructure. Going way beyond a green building, there is a holistic approach in Net Positive design where the materials and structure are tracked for their entire lifetimes all while putting people first in the design process. These are important concepts to think about when determining the future of Quarterfield Elementary.


LEED is a point system where based on building performance and other metrics, a total amount of acquired points can be determined to get a LEED “score.”  While there are many benefits of using the LEED system and they have created a dedicated community passionate about creating an interconnected, resilient world, there are many loopholes than can be exploited. LEED is and has been an incredibly powerful force in the market, and has done a tremendous amount to move the design and construction community to an awareness of buildings’ impact on the environment. However, striving for LEED is not enough. If every new building in the world were constructed to be LEED Platinum, it would not be enough to stop our current trends of carbon emissions, toxic pollution, and water depletion.

This is where the Living Building Challenge comes in. The LBC is a holistic approach to building that requires all project stakeholders to consider the real life cycle impact of design, construction, and operation.  If all future buildings were constructed to meet the requirements of all LBC petals, growth in emissions from the building sector would cease, and efforts to improve existing stock could yield real reductions in global carbon emissions. The Living Building Challenge was created by the Living Future Institute. This program sets goals for a designer or architect to re-imagine a world of living and interconnected structures. The Living Future Institute imagines a world where by building a diverse environment with quality placemaking, we will be able to create spaces that people value and respect. As with prized possessions, communities would be more likely to be proud of their environment leading to an increase in their overall health, productivity and happiness. The challenge mandates that design professionals, contractors and building owners must strive to create a foundation for a sustainable future. Politician and government officials are urged to remove barriers to systemic change and realign incentives and marketing signals to protect the health, safety and welfare of people and all beings. Everyone needs to reconcile the built environment with the natural world to create greater biodiversity, resilience and opportunities for life with every adaptation and development.

There is no way to “game” the Living Building Challenge which is a complaint occasionally heard with regard to LEED. The LBC standard sets twenty imperatives, grouped into seven petals (Place, Water, Energy, Health, Materials, Equity and Beauty) which all must be met to be LBC certified. Similarly, LEED has five main categories (Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality) and within these categories, there are a variety of points that can be awarded. The LEED prerequisites are relatively minimal, and it is possible to achieve LEED certification by selectivly picking the cheapest and easiest credits, resulting in a low performance LEED certified building. In contrast, there are no optional credits in the Living Building Challenge. Therefore, the design team must carefully consider the impact of every design choice. If a building is LBC certified, it will truly perform at exceptional levels.

To simplify, the major difference between LEED and the Living Building Challenge is project emphasis. LEED focuses on building efficiently and energy with relatively little regard to Human Health. LBC focuses more on the end product and life cycle, prioritizing human health assuming the energy needs have already been met. There is a surprising difference on how each system views project materiality.

LEED allows the use of any sort of material in the construction of a building. The newest version of LEED V4 contains an expansion highlighting the red list materials and discussing the manufacturing, distribution and methods of evaluation for these materials. However, there are enforcement of these concepts and a building can achieve a rating ignoring material properties. LBC requires that buildings do not use any materials from a Red List of materials. No Exceptions except for a small component clause. The “small component” clause allows red list chemicals to be present in only in trace amounts and when no alternative can be found. 

While it will be hard to meet all of the imperatives provided by the Living Building Challenge, I believe that for Quarterfield Elementary, we should make it a priority to find Red List alternative materials for insulation to make sure that we are endorsing products that are safe for all occupants of the school throughout its lifetime. We need to control/limit our red list usage and access the impacts it has on our embodied carbon footprint. With a responsible industry and enforcing these concepts in our Quarterfield redesign, we have a chance for net zero impact from a materials standpoint. This will allow for recycling or redistribution of these materials 50 years down the road when the school will be retrofitted again. With children spending a good portion of their day in the school, safe and natural materials is a must.

Quaterfield Elementary School Insulation Material Alternatives

Quarterfield Elementary School and the overall building enclosure system needs proper insulation in three key areas…

  • The Roof
  • The Walls
  • The Windows

Achieving a high level of insulation in these areas will result in a building that can be close to Net Zero Energy. Providing insulation materials that are Living Building Challenge compliant and Red List Free will result in a building that can be close to Net Zero Impact. Assuming that during our retrofit, we will be able to tightly insulate the school with, the Net Impact material design strategy would be to ban the use of adding any materials containing the Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Hydrogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs), Formaldehyde and Choroprene, all commonly found in insulation products. 

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is a widely used plastic often found in piping, electrical wire sheaths, and window frames and walls. It contains phthalates, which are also components of flexible vinyl products, sealants, and finishes. The manufacturing, incineration and use of PVC creates and releases dioxins, which cause a wide range of health effects including cancer, birth defects, diabetes, learning and developmental delays, endometriosis, and immune system abnormalities. 

Hydrogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs) are widely used in foam furniture cushions, carpets, textiles, and foam insulation. Resembling another toxic compound PCB, this cound has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development. While many types of HFRs have been banned from clothing and children's toys, they are still surprisingly allowed in the building industry as an insulation material.

Formaldehyde is commonly found in a wide variety of products acting as a sealant or laminate/glue for wood and fiberglass products. Formaldehyde is a respiratory irritant that causes chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and nose, throat irritation, various cancers and poses an increased risk of asthma and allergies in kids.

Choroprene is a syntetic general-purpose rubber often found as an insulation material because of its physical and chemical properties. Chloroprene is water and flame and offers great flexiblity with rubber to metal bonds around aluminum window frames. Inhaling or having contact with this substance can cause chronic nausea, coughing, dizziness, and headaches and chest pain.

Roof and Ceiling Insulation Material Options

When re-doing insulation for the roof and the ceiling, here are two Living Building Challenge and red list free material alternatives.

Wienerberger .jpg
  • Porotherm R25 Th+ is a clay construction material with a primary consideration in thermal mass. The material is red list free containing none of the substances above. The material is self-insulating and doesn't need additional insulation. Because of its natural material content, it ensures indoor air quality is 100% natural and healthy.








  • Cirrus® & Cirrus® High NRC Ceiling Panels are a ceiling tile board material. These boards are red list free containing none of the substances above. The Cirrus panels offer HumiGuard+ no-sag performance, and are resistant to surface growth of mold and mildew, and can be recycled at the end of their usable life. This ensures that occupants are subjected to a clean and fresh environment.







Wall and Cavity Insulation Material Options

When re-doing insulation for walls and cavities, here are some Living Building Challenge and red list free material alternatives.

  • Super Structural R-value Modular Construction Block (SSR Block) is a sustainable/modular high performance brick for wall construction. This structural element can be a replacement for standard CMU and is red list free containing none of the substances above. With a high compressive strength, thermal insulation value and noise reduction valuesWall assemblies built with this block do not require a vapour barrier and is resistant to mold, insects and dew.

  • Havelock Wool Insulation is an insulation material made from 100% sheep wool. Due to its 100% natural properties, the material contains no red list substances above. “There is no synthetic mix in the fiber and no bonding agents in our manufacturing. Products are available in loose-fill and batt form.”








  • MycoFoam and MycoBoard are forms of rigid board insulation materials. Both are red list free containing none of the substances above and both are certified sustainable. Both are ultra rapidly renewable materials that are grown to shape. These chemical free materials can be composted at the end of life and in addition, offer acoustic and fire resisting properties.





Windows and Sealing Insulation Material Options

When re-doing insulation for for windows and looking at different sealing options, here are some Living Building Challenge and red list free material alternatives.

  • Fiberglass Windows are a type of glass window that not only is red list compliant but, offers a high thermal insulation value. Fiberglass windows would work well with INTELLO Plus, a smart vapor retarder that provides a first class air barrrier for thermal insulation in roofs, walls and floors. "More importantly it gives structural systems a previously unachievable degree of protection from structural damage (from condensation), even under extreme climatic conditions."

  • R-Guard Joint & Seam Filler is a air and water resistive window sealant for use on open joints, seams, and cracks.


Overall, this post specifically concentrates on the Living Building Challenge (LBC) and how it strives to create a "socially just, culturally rich, ecologically restorative" environment for us to inhabit. As part of a class working on a proposal deciding the future of Quaterfield Elementary School and how to increase the building's energy efficiency, It is important that we look toward the Living Building Challenge for guidance when thinking holistically about the site both from the perspective of Net Zero Energy and the harder, Net Zero Impact. While there are many limitations that hold such designs back, there is still hope that someday, the importance of not just sustainability but resilience is noted. For this project, instead of having the mentality of what is "less bad' we need to think about what "good" looks like. For this project, by not demolishing the school, the resources and budget we save can be invested into the students health and education. For this project, we are not only architects, we are embodying the elements of being a parent, redesigning a school to inspire the next generation of students to never settle for anything but the absolute best. Therefore material choice for insulation becomes a huge factor when thinking about human health. The biggest problem that Quaterfield has is with insulation and we will probably be re-insulating the entire building. The materials we choose will have a tremendous footprint not only enviornmentally but from a human health standpoint. Teachers and young students will be occupying the school year round and it is important that we stress the value of health and restoritive materials. Sustainability is global, and our redesign of Quarterfield Elementary School will be one step closer to a vibrant environment. From the students who will eventually step foot into the new Quarterfield Elementary School to the children in Mali where life just goes on, everyone deserves a clean and resilient world. I am overjoyed to be apart of this class working on a real project with a lifetime impact.