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5 Surprising Ways Buildings Can Improve Our Health

The latest trends in green design go far beyond energy and water efficiency to improve our daily lives.

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Natural light infuses Virginia’s Manassas Park Elementary, described as a suburban school in the woods. A study showed that students in classrooms with more natural light scored 25 percent higher on standardized tests than other students in the same school district.

Before he became a public health researcher at Harvard, Joseph Allen investigated hundreds of “sick buildings” as a consultant for owners who complained about illness in workers or residents from mold, dampness, and other unhealthy conditions.

Sometimes the fixes were easy—increase ventilation—and sometimes they were harder—poor construction—but over time, Allen began to realize that considerable money and pain could be saved if buildings were optimized for human health at the outset.

“People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.”

That influence stems from a startling stat: Americans spend an average of nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet what we breathe indoors is on average two to five times more toxic than what is typically outside, the agency warns, because of poor ventilation and off-gassing of toxic chemicals from a host of products, from carpeting to furniture.

The green building movement—which has been growing over the past few decades—has gradually expanded from a focus on reducing water and energy usage to a holistic approach that incorporates how buildings affect the people in them.

“In building, wellness is the new sustainability,” says Jonathan Penndorf, an architect with the Washington, D.C., firm Perkins+Will who specializes in green design and serves as a sustainability advisor for the American Institute of Architects. “The goal is to make our built environment more physically healthy for people.”

The wide-ranging efforts include improving indoor air quality and even increasing activity levels of building occupants. Allen and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have defined nine foundations for healthier buildings, such as better water quality, reducing noise, regulating temperature, and maximizing light.

The benefits are worth the effort, Penndorf says, with numerous studies documenting “healthy building” impacts such as reduced illness and absenteeism among workers, higher worker productivity, higher test scores among students, and greater workplace satisfaction.

Although property managers haven’t historically considered health and safety a measurable budget item, that’s starting to change, says Allen. Underpinned by the growing body of scientific research, the healthy building movement is increasingly being embraced by real estate professionals and the marketplace. Relatively small upfront costs to facilitate changes are routinely recouped through higher rental rates.

Best practices are getting incorporated into third-party certification programs, from the popular LEED standards to Fitwel and RELi.

In fact, Allen’s group has even coined a new term for this work: buildingomics. The idea is derived from genomics—in the same way that a person is more than individual genes, a building is more than the sum of its parts.

We’re trying to change how people think about buildings,” he says.

Here are the key drivers of the healthy building movement.

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Flooded with natural light and facing a living wall of plants, a stairwell at the Washington, D.C., law office of Nixon Peabody invites staff to use it—and illustrates a new trend in design that could provide both a mental and physical boost.

The Air We Breathe

One of the responses to the energy crisis of the 1970s was to seal up our buildings in order to reduce heating and cooling loads. But an unintended consequence was stagnant air.

As a result, “we’re chronically under-ventilating our indoor environments, despite years of evidence suggesting we should do the contrary,” says Allen.

Part of the problem is that building designers aim for the minimum acceptable standard, and not for optimal rates of ventilation, he says.

Starting in 2015, Allen and colleagues began a series of double-blind studies on the impacts of ventilation on office workers. (Those studies were funded by United Technologies, which also supports the Urban Expeditions article series.)

Researchers recruited workers in Syracuse, New York, to move temporarily to a controlled building. While the recruits carried out their regular daily jobs, Allen asked building managers to subtly change ventilation levels, without telling those operations folks (or the recruited workers) what the tests were for. At the end of each day, Allen’s team gave the workers standardized tests for cognitive function.

The researchers found that doubling the ventilation capacity also doubled cognitive function test scores. Extending the value of that increased productivity through a full year led to an average of $6,500 for each worker, the team estimated. That figure doesn’t include the value of fewer sick days, which increase the savings.

And yet the cost of doubling the ventilation capacity averages only $14 to $40 per occupant per year.

Exactly how ventilation improves health is an area of active research, but scientists know that high humidity and rising carbon dioxide concentrations cause people to feel stuffy and tired. The impacts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from off-gassing materials are also not well understood, but that’s also another area of study at Harvard.

Allen’s team further found that cognitive scores improved by 5.4 percent when buildings were kept within the range of optimal temperature and humidity. And in a related review of buildings that were certified to green and healthier standards, Allen’s team found 30 percent fewer complaints from occupants about problems with air quality, temperature, and other issues—suggesting that design standards are having an impact.

People know that a physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role.

More Natural Light

Historically, one of the biggest complaint areas from building occupants has centered around lighting. It’s dark as a tomb, some say. Others are blasted by harsh fluorescents. Designers now utilize more natural lighting and techniques such as task lighting, dimmers, and timers. This not only helps save energy, it makes for happier, more productive occupants.

Emerging areas of research are focusing on lighting design that links to the daily cycles of the body in response to outdoor light, known as circadian rhythms. For example, blue-enriched light during daytime more naturally mimics daylight and has been shown to result in better sleep at night. This can be accomplished with skylights and with better bulb design.

Active Design

In the Victorian Era, staircases were grand structures that showed off craftsmanship and wealth. Eventually architects began tucking them away in corners, often so hidden that occupants couldn’t find them. Fire safety codes have tended to reinforce this practice of making stairwells closed off.

But staircases are making a comeback. For a client in Washington, D.C., Perkins+Will designed a staircase (pictured) facing a wall of windows. Instead of dark and industrial, the staircase feels bright and inviting. The result? Building occupants are getting more steps in every day.

A renewed focus on stair use may be linked to a rise in pedometers, but it’s also a centerpiece of the Active Design Guidelines, developed in 2010 as part of a New York City interagency collaboration to address obesity and related diseases. They’ve proven influential in architecture and urban planning well beyond the city.

Other techniques to encourage mobility—and interaction among colleagues—include clustering printers and water coolers and creating communal trash and recycling bins. Outside buildings, the guidelines also address how to create streetscapes that encourage walking, cycling, and access to public transportation.

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Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for New York (pictured) and other cities to plan and build for what’s known as climate resilience—fortifying buildings and infrastructure against rising sea levels, flooding, and more intense storms. A green roof can help mitigate stormwater runoff.

Bringing the Outdoors In

That same Washington, D.C., stairway is also adjacent to a “living wall” of plants. “Plants clean the air and provide a natural, inviting view as occupants go up and down the stairs,” Penndorf says.

Incorporating natural elements is called biophilia. Other techniques include opening up views to natural landscapes and placing planters at workstations.

“Studies show the benefits of nature to mental health are significant,” Penndorf says.

Another way to integrate nature is to copy the way living things have solved common problems, a discipline called biomimicry. Some recent examples include cooling systems that mimic 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.

But when it comes to green design, “it is not high-tech gadgetry,” adds Penndorf. “A lot of it is good design logic being applied in new ways.”

Building for Resilience

With the health and safety of occupants in mind, building designers are increasingly planning to cope with natural disasters and threats posed by a changing climate—from rising seas to higher temperatures.

Strategies include moving key functions and critical systems off the first floor—and out of flood zones. Such work has taken a new immediacy after parts of the East Coast were paralyzed by the destruction of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Another aspect is ensuring that buildings stay safe for occupants even if they lose power. Penndorf’s firm recently worked with Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to install windows that could be manually opened in an emergency—a lesson from Hurricane Katrina after staff in New Orleans hospitals had to use furniture to break them open for ventilation.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.