Published September 30, 2021

Building for the Future

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By Halee Miller
Staff Writer

Back to school usually means the changing of leaves, constant running to sports practices, and hours shopping for that one particular bookbag with your child’s favorite cartoon character on the back. In the last almost two years however, back to school has looked differently for everyone. 

Earlier this month, Forum by Mortarr’s Editor-in-Chief, Jen Levisen, facilitated a conversation between leaders in the education sector from design, product manufacturing, and building health and data science. All of these areas rely on one another to create safe education environments.



Meet the Panel

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GMi Companies, 3M, SafeTraces, Inc., and CannonDesign gathered together to discuss what designing for sustainability and safe spaces in the education sector means.  

GMi Companies is the parent brand of Ghent, Waddell, and VividBoard — all brands in visual communication and display products. GMi’s Director of Marketing, Susan Claus, recognized the company’s commitment to sustainability, being manufactured in the USA, and their seriousness about their environmental responsibility. 



3M is more than just Scotch tape and Post-it notes — they take pride in their sustainable cleaning solutions in the education sector. Segment Marketing Manager, Ben Oberle, said that 3M cares about more than just producing a product, they focus on keeping students and their families safe through their work in the education sector. 

SafeTraces, Inc., is a DNA-powered safety technology company that has a focus in indoor air quality, ventilation, and filtration assessment. CEO, Erik Malmstrom, said their products aid schools to more accurately target their safety efforts and spend their money more wisely. 

Rounding out the panel, Eric Corey Freed, the Senior Vice President of Sustainability at CannonDesign, brought an architect’s perspective to sustainability in education spaces. CannonDesign is a top 10 architecture firm that brings an outcome-based approach to the architecture industry —  designing for just what the client needs.



Why does it matter?

What do architecture and design have to do with our future’s education? Well, according to Freed, quite a bit. 

“If we do our job properly, for an educational space, we can boost student test scores, we can boost cognitive performance, we can make them feel at ease, we can have stress reduction, we can improve staff retention rates,” said Freed.

All of the possible outcomes Freed mentioned are measurable and quantifiable outcomes that can be designed for. This is the outcome-based approach that CannonDesign takes in all of their projects. They ask their clients what outcomes mean most to them, and design for those particular goals. 

Not only is design important for learning and retention efforts, but also sustainability. 

“About half of our carbon emissions come from the design, operation, and construction of buildings, so if we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we have to change how we design and build our buildings,” said Freed.



Certifications — do they matter?

Project certifications like LEED and WELL, and product certifications like LEVEL, are sought-after sustainable achievements in the commercial construction + design industry. What matters most, however, is not just the title of the certification, but the why behind it.  

LEVEL by BIFMA is a commercial furniture certification that is only awarded to products that are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. As noted by Claus, filling a space with LEVEL-certified products contributes to notable sustainable building ratings, including LEED and WELL certifications. GMi’s products are LEVEL 2 certified, proof of their efforts toward a more sustainable world.



Keep the space clean.

3M plays an important role in the safety of students in the midst of a global pandemic. As a manufacturer of cleaning products, they were asked to do more than just produce, but also educate on how to clean correctly and sustainably. 

“How do we, as a manufacturer, help them?” Oberle said when discussing the recent pandemic’s long-lasting effects on schools and their staff. 

Health and safety goes a lot farther than just cleaning surfaces. Ensuring clean air for the students and faculty to breathe in each day is just as important, if not more.

“Indoor environments that we live and work in, and go to school in, are responsible for helping spread viruses,” said Malmstrom. 

SafeTraces has a tool to help people make better design decisions with a focus on health and safety by providing real world data. Health and safety goes even further by having a huge impact on the building’s sustainability, said Malmstrom. Carbon footprint, energy penalties, and cost penalties all need to be balanced with the level of safety efforts needed at the time. Knowing your space’s data helps the built environment make informed decisions about their ventilation system and the price tag that comes with it.



What's changed?

Throughout the pandemic, Corey Freed said that the architecture of the education sector hasn’t changed, but the mechanical systems have. 

“It’s been much more about cleaning protocols, operations, and ventilation more than anything,” said Corey Freed, “and those things are really all you need.”



It's all about the end user.

From the product side, Oberle and Claus said that keeping sustainability at the forefront of their company is all about conversation with end users and what they need most. 

Claus asked her husband, who’s a high school teacher, what sustainability means to him in his classroom. He replied with needing warranties and wanting something that’s going to last.

“When looking for something that is sustainable, you don’t want to have to continually replace something,” said Claus, “if you have to replace it in a year or two, what are we really doing here?” 

Oberle said that facility directors play a huge role in the building and its health and safety. 3M encourages those facility directors that clean the building to be involved in the conversation of the building size, space, and materials used. 

“Be at that table with your experience of previous buildings, know what you’re getting into, know what those decisions are,” said Oberle. 

Besides masking and vaccinations, Malmstrom said that air quality and ventilation is just as important, if not more, than those things. 

“Using data to have targeted interventions in the building that are actually going to help make it healthier and safer and do that in a sustainable and cost efficient way, and then in an environmentally sustainable way, too,” said Malmstrom. 



Looking to the future.

Claus said that GMi is about getting in front of their end users, dealers, architects, and designers to have conversations about what GMi as a manufacturer can do with their products in the future. Hearing from the end users helps guide them in what they need most.

When talking to customers, Oberle said 3M is concerned about what is coming next, like preparing for the cold and flu season. 

“Where are you going and how can you do it quicker and more effectively than what you’re doing today?” said Oberle about 3M’s approach to evolving with each new challenge. 

From the air quality, to material transparency, to cleaning products, and the building structure itself, it takes an entire industry to make schools safe and healthy spaces.


Continue the conversation by reaching out to all of the participants.

EiC, Forum by Mortarr

Director of Marketing, GMi Companies

Segment Marketing Manager, 3M

Senior Vice President of Sustainability, CannonDesign

CEO, Safe Traces