The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This is very true. Unlike many simple parameters that can be measured easily and its impact ascertained, well-being in buildings is really a complex issue and there are so many factors that influence it. This article Deepa Sathiaram, LEED Fellow and WELL AP and Executive Director – En3 Sustainability Solutions, attempts to explore the impact that the physical environment has on human health and well-being and some of the key concerns and issues that designers of sustainable built environments need to be wary of while designing buildings for the future.
Globally, sustainability and green buildings have evolved very well during the last 20 years. Energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management are all areas that have received excellent emphasis and priority from building owners, governmental agencies and building designers. Several innovative ideas, solutions and products have come up in recent times to help buildings to reduce their negative impact on the environment. While this is all indeed laudable, one question that remains unanswered still is “what do buildings need to do to reduce their negative impact on its occupants?” Prima facie this may seem an irrational question. How can buildings negatively impact its own people? Unfortunately, this is true and there are several studies in the recent past that demonstrate how buildings can affect both the physical and mental health of people.
Being a sustainability expert and having worked with on over 250 million square feet of green buildings, I have always believed that “building physics” is of utmost importance. We have done several studies on the impact of heat transfer, air movement, thermal performance, light, ambient energy, and climate in buildings and how we can design better buildings that are energy efficient, harvest natural light, reduce energy use and improve performance. But over the last few years, with my close involvement in various technical and research initiatives with the International Well Building Institute, Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the International Code Council (ICC), I have begun to realize the power of “building chemistry” and its impact on people.
Bluntly put, today buildings are nothing more than a chemical box. An average building occupant is exposed to thousands of chemicals during his/her lifetime in buildings and each of these chemicals impact various body systems including cardiovascular systems, immune systems, endocrine systems, nervous systems and even reproductive systems. The U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has identified more than 16,000 chemicals in buildings as “chemicals of concern” and have so far only restricted five chemicals or chemical classes for use in buildings.
The HVAC systems design is very critical to ensure air quality and reduce contaminants within spaces and more attention and importance to these factors must be given by all designers and building operators.