Happy, Healthy, and Green: The Green Building Movement

Over the past decade, the awareness and commitment for building greener buildings increased dramatically with 27% of respondents as of 2018 describing their current projects as green according to a report by the World Green Building Council. Moreover, of the over 2000 architects, contractors, engineers, and owners surveyed globally, 47% expect to be completing the majority of their projects greenly by 2021. The upward trend towards greener building practices is certainly encouraging, especially as concerns about sustainable living conditions and occupant health and well-being continue to dominate the discussion and innovation of green buildings.

People spend over 90% of their time indoors, and as such poor indoor environment quality (IEQ) can cause or worsen conditions like asthma, headaches, bodily irritations, sinus congestion, and fatigue. Some pollutants are also linked as potential contributors to fatal diseases, including various cancers. A 2018 review conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health identified the nine most important factors affecting human health according to over 40 years of research on IEQ:

  1. Indoor Air Quality – IAQ is effected by building and consumer products, animal and human activity, outdoor pollutants, and building systems like ventilation.
  2. Ventilation – Proper ventilation plays a key role in mitigating exposure to indoor pollutants, as well as providing optimal oxygen levels for increased cognitive function.
  3. Thermal Health – Temperature effects both occupant health in terms of bodily irritation, transmission of disease, and sleeplessness, as well as the building structure’s risk of mold or fungal growth in warm, humid environments.
  4. Water Quality – As uncovered in the ongoing Flint, Michigan water crisis, water quality remains a challenge in both the developing and developed world. Green building focuses on improving water access and water quality efficiently.
  5. Moisture – Mold, mildew, or water damage was found in 36% of homes and 85% of office buildings in Europe, Canada, and the US. Mold is particularly harmful for occupants with asthma or other respiratory conditions.
  6. Safety and Security – Emergency preparedness has become a mandatory feature for many modern buildings, including fire and power outage contingencies.
  7. Lighting and Views – Comfortable lighting reduces visual strain, eye irritation, and blurred vision. Moreover, this study also found that occupants with access to nature views reported better performance and less stress and fatigue.
  8. Noise – Nocturnal noise increases wakefulness and limits deep sleep for urban area occupants, which in turn effects their long-term health.
  9. Dust and Pests – Occupants are typically exposed to dust through inhalation, skin absorption, or ingestion from hand-to-mouth movements. This worsens asthma and other respiratory conditions, and particularly effects young, elderly, and low-income occupants. The use of insecticides or disinfectants in the household also exposes occupants to many harmful chemicals.

Looking forward, the green building movement is focusing more on improving healthy living for occupants according to these nine principals in addition to the overall building efficiency and sustainability.

For example, Assistant Professor Joe Allen at Harvard University pushed architects and construction planners to reconsider their roles as akin to health care workers. This is part of a greater movement on the university campus to improve the IEQ health and safety for all occupants. Allen proposed increasing transparency in building practices and excluding unnecessary chemicals, especially considering that only 15% of the over 80, 000 commercially used chemicals in the US have accessible data about their health risks. Allen and his colleagues produced recent research on the harmful effects of flame retardant chemicals, which is linked to a higher risk of thyroid disease amongst women. As a result, Harvard has committed to renovate graduate student apartments using chemical flame retardant-free furniture and window treatments.

An architectural firm called Touloukian Touloukian Inc. is also leading the way for green buildings that prioritize sustainability and human health. Their new office construction on 6 Industrial Way in Salem, New Hampshire uses an open floor plan with expansive views of nature to improve employee mental health and stress management. The 16-acre site also includes an outdoor eating area and a walking trail to promote activity and increase worker productivity. In addition to the health benefits for the office occupants, the space aims to be Net Zero for energy and water usage by including solar PV carport canopies, passive design strategies, rain gardens and retention ponds for water management, and electric car charging stations. The project is currently expected to register as LEED Platinum for its sustainability.

Another Harvard University project aims to improve thermal health and ventilation with the newly constructed Science and Engineering Complex (SEC). The unique metal façade mitigates solar heat in the summer, captures warmth in the winter, and promotes natural light and easy ventilation throughout the building. As SEC will includes many labs, proper ventilation is key for maintaining health standards for the building occupants and the building design will ensure energy efficiency.

As more green buildings enter the public sphere in 2019, the focus on building construction for energy sustainability is continuing to expand to also consider the experience of its human occupants. The importance of indoor environment quality on human health is significant both in terms of short term irritation and the development of chronic conditions. The green building movement certainly isn’t abating any time soon, and its growth will only benefit occupant health.