Healthy Buildings: What are they & how are they part of sustainable development?
A healthy building is optimised for the occupant’s health and is supported by sustainable design. Optimising the health of a building is achieved by measuring and integrating nine areas which influence the quality of the work environment. It includes ventilation, air quality, water quality, thermal health, dust and pests, lighting and views, noise, moisture and safety and security. Additionally, creating a workplace that encourages employees to move around (active design) is also a contributing factor to a healthy building. The nine areas mentioned above contribute to sustainable development by increasing the wellbeing and productivity of employees.
What contributes to a healthy building?
Thermal health (also called thermal comfort) is more than the temperature of a room or a building. Thermal health is linked to ventilation (CO2) and humidity levels, light and views and consequently influences building design. Indoor air quality (IAQ) and ventilation are inseparable. Poor indoor air quality (high CO2 levels) is the result of pollutants generated indoors, human activity, outdoor pollutants that permeate the indoor environment and the building systems (ventilation) and conditions that improve or reduce the IAQ (e.g., moisture.)
Poor IAQ has been linked to reduced cognitive performance and a prevalence of absenteeism. Improving ventilation means meeting or exceeding local outdoor air ventilation rate guidelines and using an outdoor air supply that is above street level. One part of the IAQ includes allergens which may be present in dust. Consequently, office supplies, furniture and building materials need to be chosen based on low chemical emissions. The result of improving indoor air quality and ventilation is a reduction in illness and absenteeism and helping employees to stay healthier and more productive.
The presence of moisture or humidity is also part of thermal health and affects the comfort of the occupants of a building. If a building or room has too low or too high humidity levels it can create an uncomfortably dry environment or contribute to mould growth and affect odour. The ideal humidity levels for comfort and health are between 30-60%. Maintaining a comfortable level of humidity can assist in reducing pests such as dust mites.
Sustainable design is part of creating a healthy building as it affects ventilation and humidity. The types of windows in a building influence ventilation and humidity levels. Subsequently, this also influences an occupant’s access to light and views and affects noise levels. The positive effects of adequate artificial and natural light on the occupants of a building are manifold. The positive effects of exposure to natural light include greater alertness and productivity. Adequate artificial light contributing to the safety of employees by illuminating emergency exits, stairwells, car parks etc. Optimising the availability of natural light for workers has, according to a study at Cornell University, had many positive effects on employees while working including a reduction in headaches, reducing glare, and reducing eye strain. Additionally, exposure to daylight balances an employee’s circadian rhythms which is linked to better sleep and employee satisfaction.
Noise levels in an office environment are also a contributing factor to a healthy building. Many office spaces are open plan and consequently, noise either from colleagues or technology contributes to noise levels. Protecting from external disturbances (construction work, aircraft, or traffic) and internal noise is necessary to create a productive environment.
There are several areas in thermal health that affect employee performance. Poor thermal health of a building has been linked to a prevalence in increased heart rates, respiratory problems and reduced cognitive performance.
Monitoring the quality of the water available in a workplace is essential. As some businesses reopen, water systems that have not been used for a long time will need to test for bacteria and pathogens that grow in stagnant water. Consequently, having a water purification system and checking the water quality in a building regularly will contribute to a safe water supply.
The considerations for creating a healthy building are numerous. When managed carefully, each of these areas contributes to job satisfaction for employees and ultimately higher value for companies. Placing a priority on the effects of the work environment on the health of employees has benefits for a business beyond meeting compliance requirements.
Healthy buildings have many benefits for the occupants, what kind of business benefits are there?
Healthy buildings are not only beneficial for occupants but also for business. Interest in sustainability and sustainable development continues to increase. Many organisations now have sustainability policies or standards with which they expect their suppliers or partners to meet. Additionally, healthy buildings assist in gaining LEED and WELL certifications as these necessitate meeting requirements for healthy buildings. Certifications such as these can contribute to building and protecting an organisations reputation and attracting and retaining talent.
Hedge, Alan (2018) Daylight & The Workplace Study, Cornell University (https://view.com/resources#filter=research-studies)
Palacios, J., Eicholtz, P., & Kok, N. (2020) Moving to productivity: The benefits of healthy buildings (open access PLOS One)
Montiel, I., Mayoral, A.M., Pedreno, J.N., Maiques, S., Marcos Dos Santos, G., (2020) Linking Sustainable Development Goals with Thermal Comfort and Lighting Conditions in Educational Environments, Education Sciences, 10(3) 65.
Laurent, J.G.C., Williams, A., Macnaughton, P., Cao, X., (2018) Building Evidence for Health: Green Buildings, Current Science, and Future Challenges, Annual Review of Public Health, 39:291-308.
Dust Mite Allergy Information https://www.aafa.org/dust-mite-allergy/
The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (2017)