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Health is the new Green!
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Health is the new Green!

Health is a much neglected aspect of building green. Marloes Reinink explains how Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), which is concerned with (among other things) daylight, fresh air, thermal comfort and views, can be crucial to ensuring that buildings are healthy spaces for occupants.


To date, the focus in green buildings has been largely on efficiencies of energy, water and waste. However, thinking and practice in the US and Europe is now shifting to focus on health and well-being in buildings over and above going green. We spend about 90% of our time indoors, either at work in our offices or at our homes. Often the air quality of indoor spaces leaves much to be desired, which can lead to a series of health issues. As we spend so much time indoors, it is therefore only logical that we should focus more on how these interior spaces can support our healthy living.

On the financial side, it is becoming common knowledge that investing in the health and well-being of people is a better investment, with better returns, than investing in energy efficiency. A company spends about 1–2% of its expenditure on its energy bill and about 80% on salaries. So the effect of a 1% improvement in the productivity of its employees and the related return on investment is thus far more meaningful than a 50% saving on the energy bill.

Despite the preferred marketing pitch these days for green buildings, what we have to realise is that these projects are not definitionally healthy buildings, and the green measures taken won’t necessarily increase the productivity of occupant workforces.

The health impact of buildings is largely dependent on a number of design inclusions that address improvement of the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ). These include daylight, fresh air, thermal comfort and views. It is worth noting that a building can achieve a Green Star certification without focusing on IEQ because Green Star certification is all about balance. For example, while some projects focus more on energy efficiency, others are well located and score lots of points for accessibility to public transport. Therefore, if a project does not focus on the IEQ credits and only on its Green Star Certification, it is unlikely that the people in that building will be more productive or healthier than people in a conventional building.

There is also a growing recognition of the benefits of accommodating ‘biophilia’ in our building designs. Biophilia works around the fact that humans have an innate attraction to nature. Connecting with nature reduces stress, enhances creativity and improves well-being. Research suggests that workers in office environments with natural elements report a 15% higher level of well-being, are 6% more productive and are 15% more creative. Environmental features can be expressed through colour, water, air, sunlight, plants and views.

One of the top five biophilic elements most wanting in offices is natural light. What is quite disturbing is that natural light is often not a consideration in green buildings. Only a third of the Green Star SA buildings in South Africa target the daylight credit, with aesthetics still taking first priority in building design. There is also an abiding misperception in the South African market that fully glazed buildings that provide lots of light are equivalent to green buildings. This type of design actually works against all green principles. In our climate – hot and sunny all year round – too much glass creates greenhouses that need massive air-conditioning systems to remove heat from the building. In addition, to minimise heat gains, the glass needs to be of higher quality (which is more expensive) and to be tinted (which kills the benefits of natural daylight).

Recently, the WELL Standard was developed and launched. This is the world’s first building standard that focuses solely on human health and wellness. The standard was developed over seven years in collaboration with scientists, doctors and architects. It addresses seven categories relevant to health in buildings, namely Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind.  It is a performance-based certification system, meaning that the building has to be in operation for at least a year to be able to justify the initiatives.

There is a list of more than a hundred initiatives that can be targeted, among others: air filtration management (air); fundamental water quality (water); provision of fruit and vegetables (nourishment); circadian lighting design (light); physical-activity spaces (fitness); ergonomics (comfort); and healthy sleep policy (mind). All the initiatives have a positive relation to health and well-being and, therefore, a positive influence on the productivity of employees.

Case studies piloting the WELL Standard are: 1) the Macquarie Bank at One Shelley Street in Australia, an 11-storey building completed in 2009 that achieved world’s best practice certification and a Six Green Star rating (equivalent to LEED Platinum), and which is registered for a WELL Pilot Certification; and 2) the world’s first planned WELL Certified city district in Tampa, Florida – a 40-acre development anchored around Amalie Arena that will include: residential units; a luxury hotel; an office tower; retail, restaurant and entertainment venues; health facilities and related businesses; and public recreational spaces.

As we move towards more conscious design choices, it makes absolute sense that, if we design with people’s health and well-being in mind, green will follow suit!

Author: Marloes Reinink, Founder

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