61. Robin Guenther

Principal of Perkins + Will, How To Design A Healthier Building

Medical facilities aren't pretty, says Robin Guenther, an architect and advocate who designed the country's second LEED-certified health-care structure. "You see white, plastic, badly lit spaces." But sustainability often sounds like "no," so she simplified the message into 12 maxims that she displays in posters around her work spaces. Here are three that played a key role in the building of the new Discovery Health Center in New York:

If they won't tell you what's in it, you probably don't want what's in it.

Why: "There are no nutrition labels at Home Depot. You have to be tenacious about asking what's in the materials." Her team created a list of 25 "precautionary materials"; they were researched and not used if they contained hazardous ingredients.

Consult your nose—if it stinks, don't use it.

Why: "I heard that Google CEO Larry Page walks onto construction sites, picks up materials, and smells them. It's such an intuitive idea." Guenther prioritized materials that emit few fumes; some paints, varnishes, and other products could trigger asthma.

Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.

Why: "If you imagine a floor in its raw state, what is it? If it's vinyl flooring, it's petrochemicals." Guenther embraced flooring and cabinets made from wood, linoleum, and sunflower board. The pressed sunflower seeds and straw are visible in the cabinets.

Timeline

  • 1977

    Attends graduate school at the Architectural Association, London

  • 1983

    A design magazine editor tours one of Guenther's projects for the first time

  • 1991

    Quits steady job to start her own practice with architecture classmate John Petrarca

  • 2001

    Attends screening of Blue Vinyl at Tribeca Film Center; recognizes people actually care about toxic building materials

  • 2003

    The Green Guide for Health Care is published, catalyzing an industry to care about buildings and health

  • 2004

    Discovery is the first clinic in the U.S. to achieve LEED certification as a green building

  • 2005

    First architect to win Changemaker Award from the Center for Health Design

  • 2008

    Publishes her book, Sustainable Healthcare Architecture

  • 2009

    Gives first keynote talk to an audience of more than 1,000

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