BUILDING HEALTH: Why it’s become more important than ever
In the 1970s, as we started to tighten building envelopes in response to energy efficiency demands, tenants started to report nonspecific symptoms—headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose, or throat irritation, allergies, increased asthma attacks, and even personality changes. The media called it “office illness.” In 1986, the World Health Organization (WHO) started using the term “sick building syndrome.” The subsequent decade brought academic studies—and lawsuits—which ultimately culminated with ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineering) establishing regulations that have been incorporated into building codes for acceptable indoor air quality standards.
Fast forward to 2015 when the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released the CogFX study. This study empirically showed that green buildings, those with better indoor air quality, improved cognitive function test scores and productivity—something the green building community had claimed for some time, but had little evidence to back up. Follow-up studies have continued to scale the CogFX study and, in early 2020, the focus for building health suddenly went from increasing employee productivity and reducing absenteeism to its role in safely reopening the economy when the global pandemic hit.
According to currently emerging science from the WHO, the virus spreads through “short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out.” In other words, when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, and even just breathes, those droplets stay afloat and get inhaled by others, causing infection. Solving the problem through the lens of airborne transmission allows us to better assess the needs of our existing buildings as well as design future buildings to better protect human health.
We must accept that there is no known absolute solution, and our buildings alone cannot protect us. We can use strategies grounded in science to mitigate risk, but we must also alter our behavior and protect ourselves as well as each other—wear masks, social distance, increase disinfection and cleaning, test more, and use contact tracing. Organizations must constantly communicate as changes are coming at us with break-neck speed.
The AEC industry is at the forefront of implementing back-to-work strategies. While many of our clients are maintaining work-from-home practices for their employees, our industry—construction—was deemed essential early on, and we have gone back to work in our offices. We are wading through the wealth of research, working with landlords to check base building systems, and utilizing best practices found in other sectors, like healthcare, that we can bring into the workplace. We will continue to learn which combination of strategies keep us healthiest indoors for the long term— whether specifically related to the coronavirus or other health-related issues. But it’s clear that health and wellness in the built environment can no longer be considered a fad. Healthy buildings are the key to a new normal, and the pandemic will certainly have long-lasting, positive effects on the way we design and build them.