Building for Occupant Health and Wellbeing
An overview of healthy building and its role in improving indoor air quality
03 May 2022
It's been nearly 60 years since the Clean Air Act was passed into law in the United States, with the objective of improving air quality through the reduction of emissions and pollution. Fast forward to 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic heightened our awareness of air quality inside our buildings. The pandemic highlighted the importance of good ventilation and filtration to keep us safe from pathogens, and it exposed air quality deficiencies in many existing buildings. These concerns are not new, and they won't go away after the pandemic subsides. Healthy indoor air quality (IAQ) is central to the healthy building mega-trend that is now accelerating. Employees, tenants, students, and others who regularly occupy and visit buildings are demanding assurance that they are safe and healthy.
The movement toward healthy building is the result of the convergence of sustainability, resilience, and wellness trends. The way we design and maintain the places we live, work, study, and play – from urban planning down to neighborhoods and buildings – can influence health behaviors and social and economic opportunity, all significant factors in health outcomes, making the built environment critical in maintaining health.
Many academic studies show improved human performance and productivity in healthy buildings. Multiple studies in schools have shown significant improvements in academic outcomes in classrooms with improved ventilation and natural daylight. In addition, The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health includes three critical and interesting studies that show good indoor air quality and ventilation benefits cognitive function, boosting problem-solving skills and creativity. In short, indoor air quality directly affects human performance.
It's no surprise that people are the largest cost – representing 86% of a company's expenses – in operating businesses and organizations. Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that productivity losses due to absenteeism as a result of personal health problems costs employers a staggering $225.8 billion a year. An emphasis on wellness in buildings not only improves occupant health and reduces absenteeism, it also provides economic benefit.
Even before the pandemic, employees were demanding healthier workplaces, and in turn employers expect the same from landlords. These trends will continue to be an area of focus, building our health resilience in the built environment.
I think Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, PhD, Director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment at the University of Oregon, summed up best why healthy building is necessary in promoting occupant wellness:
"We've designed buildings for 100-year floods, now we have to learn to design for the 100-year flu. In the long run, what's perhaps even more important is making holistic environments that support human immune function."
For a deeper dive into this topic, please refer to our on-demand webinar: AIR AWARE: Healthy Building Mega-Trends and the Renewed Focus on Indoor Air Quality.
Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with more than 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is Discipline Leader, Sustainability, with Intertek Building Science Solutions in Portland, OR.