Surprising Ways Buildings Can Improve

Before he became a public health researcher at Harvard, Joseph Alleninvestigated 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.

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