Materials & Toxicity

Breathe Easier: Architects cut harmful chemicals in designing environments for children.
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Architectural Record
By Katharine Logan

A child-centered approach to materials health also informed the design of Vivvi, an employer-subsidized childcare facility in Lower Manhattan. Located on the ground floor of an existing multiuse building, where 20-foot ceilings and tall windows create an airy, daylit volume, Vivvi accommodates up to 90 children aged 6 weeks to 4 years. The 7,200- square-foot facility, opened in 2019, includes four classrooms, four nurseries, open areas for movement and play, social centers for babies and toddlers, age-appropriate bathrooms, and a privacy room for nursing mothers.

“Babies and small children learn through sensory interaction and stimulation,” says Carol Gretter, principal at New York–based Eleven of Eleven Architecture, the project’s designer. Little ones touch, taste, smell, and feel everything, and “these intimate interactions require materials that are strong, safe, and cleanable,” says Gretter. “We design inspirational learning spaces by balancing these physical qualities with visual harmony.”

To meet these requirements, the architect prioritized natural materials, such as wood floors, inherently flame-resistant wool carpets, felt seating spots, and cork- and linseed-based tackboards. More complex materials, such as backers and adhesives, are VOC-free and, in the case of adhesives, water based. Easy-to-clean synthetics, such as the covers on wall padding and a set of letter-shaped cushions that serve as jumbo play forms, are PVC free.

Once the preferred materials were selected, the architect held a show-and-tell for the client and parent group. “We’re putting things in our mouths, smelling them, and talking about what they’re made out of,” says Gretter. “We’re choosing products that don’t have any kind of toxins in them in any way.” Overall, the material palette for Vivvi is not complicated. It relies on thoughtful planning to keep the number of products—and the time that goes into vetting them—to a minimum. Wherever possible, the materials are simple and neutral, so that the rooms become a canvas for the color and action the kids bring to the space.

The design pays particular attention to the first 3 feet above floor level, as this is the zone young children occupy. As well as selecting options for improved health factors, the project deploys materials in ways that are intended to engage their young users. Wood pull-up bars support babies learning to stand, wall-mounted mirrors intrigue them, 12-inch wood steps covering radiators serve as seating or infant-height countertops, cubbies offer toxin-free props for play and independent exploration, and, in several rooms, marker boards, complete with cork strips, allow for drawing, painting, and display.


At Vivvi (above and top), a childcare facility in Lower Manhattan, Eleven of Eleven Architecture prioritized natural materials, including wood floors. Easy to clean PVC-free synthetics cover letter-shaped cushions that serve as jumbo play forms. Cubbies offer props for independent exploration.

High above this active zone, the design continues to provide for the kids’ well-being with an acoustic ceiling spray that is GREENGUARD Gold–certified, natural-fiber-based, and free of potential respiratory irritants such as glass or mineral fibers or silica dust. Acoustics is a materials issue that is “definitely part of a healthy environment,” says Gretter, especially given the volume at which 90 babies and young children can express themselves.

In addition to relying on certifications to guide them, the architects reached out to industry connections. “This is our bailiwick,” Gretter says, “so we’re very familiar with materials for this age group. We have relationships with the manufacturers, and are able to talk with them about their specifications.” For example, the architect requested a substitute for a changing station’s standard top of plastic laminate on a wood composite. The replacement is a low-VOC, acrylic-based seamless solid surface, making it better for air quality and more hygienic. Gretter also credits an educated and committed client for prioritizing materials health from start to finish.

Keeping building materials simple and few as a means to a toxin-free palette also proved effective for the Ecology School at River Bend Farm, an organization that brings students from across New England for overnights and programs focused on environmental stewardship. The project, now under construction on a 105-acre site along Maine’s Saco River, is committed to LBC-certified buildings and to making its entire campus Living Community Challenge compliant.


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