By Heather Breslin, Steven Winter Associates
Close to 90% of our lives are spent indoors. This statistic should mitigate any questions about the extent to which the places that we live, work, and play affect our health. These indoor environments are directly linked to our physical and mental well-being; in turn affecting almost every facet of our lives.
There is already a correlation between buildings that are designed and constructed to elevated standards of energy efficiency and better indoor air quality (IAQ). Often in pursuit of green building certification, buildings use low-emitting materials and employ better ventilation methods such as energy recovery ventilation (ERV) and compartmentalization of spaces. IAQ is a great start but does not address the full spectrum of health-related issues arising from the high percentage of our lives spent indoors.
The top human health risks in buildings, as defined by the EPA, include: environmental tobacco smoke, biological contaminants (e.g., mold, pet dander, etc.), combustion byproducts, household products and practices, toxic materials, radon, safety and security, and diet and exercise. Tackling all of these issues is not easy, particularly since we cannot entirely control the behaviors of people.. The most effective strategy is two-fold: first addressing health factors during design and construction, and then through applying adherence (and accountability) to operational policies and procedures.
Green building programs have made significant strides over the past few years to incorporate measures that congruously address sustainability and health. One of the newest programs, the WELL Building Standard®, is entirely devoted to improving human health and well-being. The system created by Delos incorporates ratings for traditional green building categories such as air and water, but also includes categories for light, mind, and comfort; topics unparalleled in any existing industry programs. The Mayo Clinic recently entered into a partnership with Delos to quantify the effects of design on human health. The research will be conducted at a new 7,500-sf laboratory constructed at the Mayo Clinic’s Rochester, Minnesota campus. Clearly a substantial symbolic and financial undertaking, the results of this study hope to arm the industry with unprecedented data to justify the need to reevaluate priorities within building design and construction.
Now, let’s jump from the newest to the oldest standard for addressing health: the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS™ program. Although this standard itself is not a household name, it is a companion to the ENERGY STAR® Homes certification. Unfortunately labeling for Indoor airPlus is currently only available for low-rise residential developments. However, at Steven Winter Associates (SWA) we strive to have all of our projects meet their requirements. The measures are practical and can be implemented relatively quickly; their guidelines include clear measures and checklists entirely geared toward builders. For those seeking a less intensive avenue to adopt some high-impact, lower-cost ways to improve indoor environments, the Indoor airPLUS program is an excellent place to start.
Midway between the two aforementioned programs, both LEED® version 4 and Enterprise Green Communities (EGC) address a gamut of health-related issues. Many of the measures linked to health, however, are embedded into optional credit areas like the inclusion of Active Design concepts. These credits focus on design that encourages healthful habits in everyday life such as using stairs versus elevators and traffic-calming strategies to increase safety.
While the design and construction of buildings that prioritize healthy indoor environments is a huge step in the right direction, the efficacy of these designs and overall impact they have is largely contingent on the enforcement of practices after units or buildings are occupied.. Ensuring the continued use of formaldehyde-free and low-VOC materials, proper maintenance of ventilation systems, utilizing integrated pest management (IPC), and strict enforcement of non-smoking policies are just some of the operational responsibilities essential for maintaining healthy indoor environments.
Educating building operators, management, occupants, etc., is also vital to the success of healthy practices. A good example of this is The Melody, an affordable housing complex in Bronx, NY, which our team at SWA was heavily involved with a few years ago. Built by Blue Sea Development, it was the first multifamily building in the nation to earn a LEED Innovation credit for Active Design and achieved LEED for Homes Platinum. Each resident is provided with a one-hour educational walkthrough detailing the green and healthy features of their apartment and the building as a whole, along with a manual outlining all green practices. The Melody was one of the sites that participated in a Mt. Sinai Hospital study evaluating the health impact of green buildings on asthma sufferers in the South Bronx. The study is ongoing but initial findings show significant improvement of asthma symptoms, a decrease in doctor visits, and an increase in resident awareness of respiratory health.
Excepting readers who work for the forest service, operate a farm, or live in an open-air yurt, it is likely that the 90% statistic we mentioned at the beginning applies to you. Whether achieved through a green building program or not, making improvements to our indoor environment has the potential to substantially impact our overall health and well-being.