How Buildings Can Improve Our Health

Posted On: 
May 24, 2017
How Buildings Can Improve Our Health

The built environment provides the setting for our lives. It plays a huge role in our natural environment, our economy, and our culture. The built environment provides a context for addressing the world’s greatest contemporary challenges including pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction. Green buildings can reduce that environmental damage. In many cases, green buildings can enhance the health of the environment and the people who use them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. However, what we breathe indoors is on average two to five times more toxic than what is typically found outside, because of flawed ventilation and off-gassing of toxic chemicals from a host of building products.

In a recent article by National Geographic, Harvard researcher Joseph Allen states “people know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role.” Building materials are increasingly identified as a considerable source of chemical exposures to building occupants, as well as people who come into contact with these building materials or their raw ingredients through manufacturing, construction, installation, and recycling, and disposal. Some chemical contents of building materials can be linked to increased incidence of chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Building products release their fundamental chemicals into workplaces, houses, hospitals, ecosystems, water sources, and the food chain. Occupants are exposed to chemicals in building materials via air, food, water, and skin contact.

Several studies have documented “healthy building” impacts such as reduced sickness and absenteeism among workers, higher worker productivity rates, higher test scores among students, and greater worker satisfaction. Green building rating systems such as LEED v4 and WELL have outlined requirements and strategies to create “healthy buildings.” Researcher Allen identified five key components of the healthy building movement.

Clean Air

Many of our workspaces suffer from under-ventilation. Architects in many cases have designed to the minimum standard and not for the optimal ventilation rates. Scientists have concluded that high humidity and rising carbon dioxide concentrations can cause occupants to feel stuffy and tired. Clean air in buildings has vastly improved over the past few decades. Asbestos is probably one of the most well-known culprits in buildings. Although the dangers of asbestos have been recognized for more than a century and dozens of countries have banned its use, the United States lacks a comprehensive federal law or regulation addressing asbestos. Rather, Clean Air Act regulations specify work practices for asbestos during demolitions and renovations, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act sets standards for worker exposures to asbestos. Today, asbestos is restricted from many commercial products but not from building materials such as pipe insulation, vinyl-asbestos flooring, roofing felt, and asbestos-cement pipe.

The LEED v4 New Construction Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ) category rewards decisions made by project teams about indoor air quality. The LEED EQ category combines traditional approaches, which include ventilation and thermal control, with emerging design strategies, such as a holistic, emissions-based approach (Low-Emitting Materials credit), source control and monitoring for user-determined contaminants (Enhanced Indoor Air Quality Strategies credit), requirements for lighting quality (Interior Lighting credit), and advanced lighting metrics (Daylight credit).

LEED v4 also offers designers the opportunity to specify building products that are healthier for the indoor occupants. LEED MR Credit: Building product disclosure and optimization - material ingredients “encourages the use of products and materials for which life-cycle information is available and that have environmentally, economically, and socially preferable life-cycle impacts. To reward project teams for selecting products for which the chemical ingredients in the product are inventoried using an accepted methodology and for selecting products verified to minimize the use and generation of harmful substances. To reward raw material manufacturers who produce products verified to have improved life-cycle impacts.”

The Health Product Declaration (HPD) can be used to meet the requirements of this new LEED credit. HPDs provide a standardized way of reporting the material contents of building products and the health effects associated with these materials. The HPD is developed according to the directions set forth by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative (HPDC). Many prominent design firms in the U.S. have already begun requesting HPDs from building product manufacturers. Perkins+Will, HKS, and ZGF have encouraged building product manufacturers to provide HPDs to be considered for product specification.

Natural Light

In recent years, designers have utilized more natural lighting and techniques such as task lighting, dimmers, and timers. Access to sufficient daylight has been shown to increase recovery times for patients in hospitals, improve students’ performance in schools, and increase worker productivity. A properly designed daylit building also is more energy efficient, conserves resources, and reduces air pollution. LEED v4 promotes natural light strategies with the IEQ Daylight credit which aims to “to connect building occupants with the outdoors, reinforce circadian rhythms, and reduce the use of electrical lighting by introducing daylight into the space.”

Active Design

According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third (36.5%) of U.S. adults have obesity. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer. The estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 U.S. dollars; the medical costs for people who are obese were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight.

Design strategies to encourage mobility help make a building’s occupants healthier. According to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “most Americans between eighteen and sixty-five spend a substantial portion of their days in the workplace or connected to it.” Open attractive stairways can help encourage healthy default behavior. Walking paths and signage marking distances that encourage physical activity are suggested for workplaces. Urban planners are encouraged to create streetscapes that lend themselves to walking, cycling, and access to public transportation.

Bringing The Outdoors In

Biologist, researcher, and theorist Edward O. Wilson has popularized biophilia, the hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Biomimicry design examples include: cooling systems that imitate the natural air flow in termite mounds, high-efficiency fans based on the shape of whale flippers, and dirt-resistant paints and coatings modeled after lotus leaves. Biomimicry draws inspiration from natural systems to inform the design of building materials. Biomimetic approaches attempt to emulate nature’s efficient solutions and apply them to many challenges, such as harnessing energy. Mounting evidence shows that biophilic design can have a positive impact on building occupants, from reducing stress, to increasing levels of self-reported wellbeing.

Resilient Design

According to the Resilient Design Institute, “Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption. Relative to climate change, resilience involves adaptation to the wide range of regional and localized impacts that are expected with a warming planet: more intense storms, greater precipitation, coastal and valley flooding, longer and more severe droughts in some areas, wildfires, melting permafrost, warmer temperatures, and power outages.” Design strategies might include moving key functions and critical systems off the first floor of a building, ensuring that buildings stay safe for occupants even if they lose power, and installing manually operated windows that can provide ventilation in the event of a power outage.

Realizing this vision for the future will require the combined efforts of all stakeholders—from building product manufacturers, architects, engineers, and construction workers
to building owners, facility managers, and even the occupants themselves. We encourage everyone to take on a greater role in the ongoing efforts to improve the human health and environmental aspects of our shared built environment. What strategies does your firm use to create “healthy buildings?” If you are a building product manufacturer, what transparency documents does your team use to get products specified?

Green building is fundamentally a process of continual improvement. It is a process by which today’s “best practices” become tomorrow’s standard practices, a rising foundation for ever-higher levels of performance. Green building can help us create more vital communities, more healthful indoor and outdoor spaces,
and stronger connections to nature. The green building movement strives to effect a permanent shift in prevailing design, planning, construction, and operations practices, resulting in lower-impact, more sustainable, and ultimately regenerative built environments.


For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please call Brad Blank at 360-727-3528.