In recent years, there has been a surge in awareness of the built environment’s role in public health, and individual health and well-being. The interest was growing prior to the pandemic of novel virus Sars-CoV-2, but there were still some who questioned the value of investing in designing and operating specifically towards optimal occupant well-being.
In a Post-COVID-19 world – unfortunately we aren’t a post-COVID world at the time of this writing – as President and soon CEO of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), Rachel Gutter, puts it, “people are no longer questioning if a building has an impact on an occupant’s health.” Before the pandemic, those interested in or advocating for healthy buildings were focused on optimizing productivity and improving talent retention through healthy buildings, while detractors were debating the return on investment. Now, the ROI is clear. John Macomber, Harvard professor at the Lee Kennedy Business School and co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity summed it up by saying, “Before the pandemic, sick days could be a few days of time off and the sniffles. Now it could mean months off, a ventilator, or worse. The value and importance of healthy buildings is clear.”
On that note, it’s important to distinguish between strategies intended to address the acute emergency of responding to COVID-19, and the holistic measures intended to address chronic disease and long-term well-being. Although adapting our spaces and practices to deal with COVID-19 is critical, we must not overlook, nor forget, the building’s role in mitigating or alleviating issues and behaviors that lead to chronic health issues - which are themselves causes for increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Following the healthy building principals and concepts evidenced by the Harvard T. Chan. School of Public Health’s 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, and the IWBI’s WELL Building Standard, here we include a brief collection of some resources and tools, specific to building design, that may help make your next building project a healthier one.
Ventilation and Air Quality
In other words, clean fresh air, a basic human physiological need. The EPA provides a straightforward yet comprehensive overview of the impacts of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) on occupants and the primary causes of poor IAQ. Also, a study in collaboration with the Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment makes the case for increased fresh air, finding that lower levels of CO2 and VOCs yielded higher cognitive function scores.
In areas of poor outdoor air quality, or in spaces with mechanical ventilation recirculating air, it’s important to provide air filtration. Particle filters are used to capture particulates in the air at varying efficiencies for particle sizes. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) filters indicate effectiveness at different particulate sizes, with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters being the most effective at reducing infectious particles. If gaseous elements like VOCs or odors are polluting the indoor air, carbon filters can be employed to capture these. There are combination MERV and carbon filters available for mechanical systems that may not have the space for two filters.
Healthy Building rating systems like the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) WELL Building Standard reference US EPA regulations for drinking water quality and the CDC’s guide to drinking water treatment technologies. Water quality delivered to the project should be checked early to ensure these standards are being met, and if not, include in project plans appropriate water filtration and treatment systems.
The lighting in the indoor environments we occupy – not just daylight - has a large impact on our mental health, physical health, and performance. By designing buildings for optimal daylighting, projects can provide a space perceived (and proven) to be healthier. The following resources include a study demonstrating the benefits of daylight in schools on student test scores and moods, an introduction and guide to daylighting design and technologies, and a guide to planning for daylighting in the project design phases from the Daylighting Handbook.
Pest problems can be overlooked in non-hygienic focused building projects, in the sense that facility operations will address potential issues via third party vendors for integrated pest management. Robert Corrigan, Ph.D., Urban Rodentologist, President, Corrigan Consulting, and John Stellberger, Founder of Environmental Health Services posit that typical Integrated Pest Management services are insufficient to prevent the invasion of pest-borne pathogens – they are merely reactionary measures. The following links provide building design and site landscaping design guides from San Francisco’s Department of Environment for pest prevention and exclusion from buildings.
Beyond the focus on noise and its potential for hearing loss, acoustical discomfort can have many negative health associations. It can increase stress levels and cause sleep disorders, it can affect blood pressure, and it has been linked to cardiovascular health. The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building suggests - and IWBI’s WELL Building Standard requires - projects to “map out” noise zones based on programmed activities to aid in appropriate acoustical design. The following links provide an overview on acoustics and its impact on humans, as well as the General Service Administration’s guide to acoustical comfort design.
Often referred to as thermal comfort, in Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, Dr. Joe Allen and John Macomber write: “We hate the use of the word ‘comfort’ and prefer the term ‘thermal health’ for two reasons. (1) Using ‘comfort’ places the onus on the individual and suggests the issue is about ‘complainy’ types rather than the building, and (2) it fails to acknowledge that this is a health issue, not merely a ‘being uncomfortable’ issue.” Thermal conditions in indoor environments are proven to impact occupant health and productivity. Low relative humidity can increase the risk of infections by drying out the mucous lining of the respiratory tract, while high relative humidity can allow for mold growth conditions. The following links include a high level summary of thermal health from IWBI, a guide to using ASHRAE Standard 55 to achieve thermal comfort, a psychometric chart tool from UC Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, and a winter comfort tool for glazing from Payette.
Connection with Nature
On an evolutionary timeline, humans have gone from a majority outdoor species for a vast amount of time, to a majority indoor species at the very last moment – our current modern history. For the most part, we currently spend approximately 90% of our time indoors. However our connection to nature is hardwired and the health benefits of connecting with natural environments are widely recognized. Biophilic design looks to incorporate a connection with nature to our indoor environments, whether it be with undisguised indoor plantings and views to natural elements outdoors, or with nuanced natural patterns and materials in occupied spaces. The following links include a study on the benefits of natural environments on mental health by David Pearson and Tony Craig, a breakdown of biophilic design patterns and their benefits on occupants by Terrapin Bright Green, LLC, and a guide to design principals and concepts for providing pollinator habitats.
The choices and selections of building materials can have profound impacts on occupants. It is important to understand the relationship between building materials and human health over the life cycle of a material. However, the sheer volume of choices and potential hazards can be dizzying to a design team. The following links include AIA’s Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol to guide teams during the process on how to identify goals and achieve them, and a purchasable resource from Building Green on what typical building materials to avoid and possible alternatives entitled Spec This, Not That. Also linked are some helpful material selection databases which list transparency documents like Declare Labels, Cradle-to-Cradle Material Health certified products, and Health Product Declarations.
Transparency and Monitoring
We are living in the Information Age, and building occupants are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts building environments have on their health and well-being. Sensor technology has advanced to the point that real-time monitoring of indoor air quality can inform occupants and building operators of potential concerns, whether with activities or mechanical system performance. Water quality is still taken for granted in many parts of the U.S., but some suffer from corroding pipes and toxic lead levels in drinking water or hazardous chemicals leaching into potable sources. An important part of a healthy building is to regularly monitor and collect the data on these critical elements – the air we breathe and the water we drink – and make it available, transparently, to occupants. Building operators and owners should not shy away from communicating this information with occupants, and furthermore should actively pursue feedback from occupants: doing so could identify potential issues before becoming pervasive.
There are many IAQ monitoring systems and technologies available; the RESET certification details a standard methodology for IAQ monitoring to ensure a better understanding of a building’s indoor environment. We are not aware of proven real-time water quality monitoring technology at this time, so consider following IWBI’s WELL approach to test water quality annually, or even quarterly, and making the results available to occupants. For the last link, communication and feedback from occupants is critical: ignorance is not bliss to a building operator. There are many occupant surveys available out there – one widely recognized is by the Center for the Built Environment (CBE) of UC Berkeley.
Safety & Security
Not typically considered in the same conversation as other healthy building design topics, human safety and sense of security is obviously critical to human health. While healthy building certifications like IWBI’s WELL rating system, its Health-Safety rating, as well as the Center for Active Design’s Fitwel and Viral Response Module ratings focus on emergency response plans and preparedness, the following resources provide design guides to incorporate to provide a safer space. The links include FEMA’s building design and safety planning guidance, and the free resilience-focused pilot rating system through the USGBC, RELi.
Third Party Building Standards and Certifications
Finally, third party certifications can help projects maintain their goals. At their best, they serve as a ‘seat at the table’ during the flurry of meetings, work, and deliverables for a given building design and construction project. Without formal pursuit of a third party-verified certification, it’s easy for initial goals - deemed important by the client and project team – to be carried out indifferently, or to fall to the wayside altogether. Also, the third party review provides accountability in achieving said goals – without which one would be ‘grading your own test.’ Following are some popular third party rating systems used here in the U.S., some referenced in this article, which address occupant health and well-being in indoor environments.
As a closing remark, it is the position of the team here at The Green Engineer that there is no individual occupant health and well-being without planetary environmental health. Projects should take an integrated approach to align sustainability goals and measures for both the environment and for the people directly – and indirectly - affected. Please reach out if you think The Green Engineer can help you achieve this.