Did you know we spend on average 90% of our time indoors? This number comes from the US but India can’t be far off. These are staggering figures that – apart from reminding us to leave the house more often – underline how important the internal conditions in buildings are for our health, comfort and wellbeing.
Are you familiar with the serious health hazards in buildings? And how does the internal air quality influence, for example, people’s productivity and ability to concentrate at work?
This article will showcase more clarity on how the internal building environment affects people’s health, comfort and wellbeing. You will also be presented with some practical strategies for enhancing, among other things, thermal, acoustic and visual comfort for occupants.
Buildings affect our health!
In recent decades, as our lifestyle has become more and more based on indoor activities, the scientific community has started to correlate some major diseases and minor health complaints to the internal conditions in buildings. New fields of research are being explored while we learn more and more about the importance of clean indoor air, sufficient lighting and more.
What are the major health risks?
Before diving into the softer issues of making buildings more comfortable and beautiful places to live, work and thrive, let’s have a look to the more serious health risks that need to be considered in the design and operation of buildings from an environmental point of view.
Sick Building Syndrome relates to building occupants experiencing acute health and comfort long term/recurrent issues such as: headache, eye/nose/throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness and nausea, difficulty in concentrating, fatigue. Although clear causes are not identified with sufficient evidence, it seems very likely that the quality of indoor air has a significant role to play.
Asbestos is a natural silicate mineral that has been widely used in construction since the 1800s before being discovered as a serious cancerogenic material and cause of other inflammatory diseases of the lungs. Its use has been phased out and banned starting in the 1980s-1990s, and the material still needs to be safely disposed of by specialised professionals in many existing buildings.
Radon is a naturally occurring odourless and colourless gas formed by the radioactive decay of small amounts of uranium that occur naturally in all rocks and soils. Radon is a carcinogen. It is found everywhere in small quantities, however there are areas where higher concentration could potentially affect human health and remediation strategies should be undertaken.
Moisture and mould have recently become a hot topic in the health and wellbeing sector. Recent studies have connected levels of moisture (both too low and too high) with health risks.
What are the key elements that effect wellbeing?
Now that we have got major health risks out of the way, we can move to elements within a building that have significant effects on general wellbeing.
In a work environment, it has been demonstrated that workers’ performance is impacted by the internal conditions. Elements such as air quality, sufficient level of oxygen, thermal comfort, acoustic comfort and daylighting are major contributors to happiness of staff, cognitive function and therefore productivity.
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is becoming a major focus in the field of sustainability and health in buildings. According to the US EPA, our indoor environment is 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air, with consequences of various degrees of discomfort.
Thermal, acoustic and visual comfort; according to a World GBC report, some benefits/impacts of healthy buildings - in this case offices - can be measured as follows:
Good access to natural daylight results in 46 minutes more sleep per night;
Good thermal comfort can improve productivity by 3%;
Views out of a window or to natural planting gives a 7-12% increase in productivity;
Distracting noise could result in up to 66% fall in staff performance.
Is there business value in healthy buildings?
As one can see, apart from the clear benefits for people, the business case for healthy buildings writes itself!
The benefits of the indoor work environment have certainly been studied in greater depth, as the economic returns of having healthy and productive staff in the office are very significant. More and more efforts are now going into healthy homes and how costs to the national healthcare system could be reduced greatly by implementing strategies for warmer, mould free homes.
Research more particular areas of interest, what can you take away to apply to your own home or office environment?
You could also have a look at WGBC reports (Health, Wellbeing & productivity in Offices 2014, Retail 2016; Homes 2016) the image to the left is from the offices report showing the operating costs for businesses.
Lets dive into some of the main strategies for the design and upgrade of healthy buildings.
What are the health and wellbeing design strategies?
Internationally recognised sustainability assessment systems are a great source of information, as they contain “health & wellbeing” sections with performance indicators and strategies concerning thermal, visual and acoustic comfort.
Very recently developed and already highly regarded is the new WELL standard, which is entirely dedicated to assessing and implementing strategies for health and wellbeing in buildings.
We will now present some key strategies aiming to deliver healthy buildings, and just a glimpse of the numerous measures that can be undertaken:
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
Appropriate levels of ventilation and fresh air, making sure that the levels of oxygen are sufficient and CO2 levels are not too high;
Select low toxin building materials (VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds) e.g. VOC-free paint, no-added-formaldehyde timber products and furniture.
Mould control through safe moisture levels indoors and remediation when mould is present;
Monitor major IAQ indicators such as PM2.5 (particulate matter), VOCs, CO2 and humidity.
Design out risks for Legionella bacteria and other contaminants within the building’s water systems;
Provide adequate drinking water.
Provide appropriate temperature comfort, options for temperature regulation by the occupiers and good levels of relative humidity;
Provide zoning for heating/cooling systems and give occupants control over temperature and ventilation speed;
Post occupancy surveys, such as the BUS methodology to check comfort levels of occupants.
Provide adequate access to daylight, and where artificial light is needed, provide high frequency lighting (white coloured lighting, which is closest to natural light); daylight is very important in the regulation of circadian rhythms.
Provide a view out where possible, with enough depth for occupants to rest their eyes (at least 6m of depth);
Biophilia: Incorporate use of natural plants to improve general wellbeing but also increased air quality.
Design for good internal acoustics, reduce noise and background noise (e.g. from mechanical systems) to increase comfort and concentration.
The more we learn about the different parameters that define a sustainable building, the more it is clear that they are interconnected, across the three pillars of environment, society and economy. Sustainable buildings are designed to lower environmental impact, increase health and wellbeing, with proven benefit for businesses and government pockets.