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Indoor air quality matters, too

By: Kristy O'Malley//November 2, 2015

Indoor air quality matters, too

By: Kristy O'Malley//November 2, 2015//

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iStock image used with permission
iStock image used with permission

We spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors, but we don’t completely understand indoor potential hazards.

It pays to pay attention to indoor air quality.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the first costs of construction account for only 2 percent of the 30-year total building costs for commercial office buildings. Operations and maintenance of a building are a bit more at about 8 percent of the total lifetime expenditures.

The other 92 percent of the building’s costs are spent on the people that will use the building. That means even incremental improvements in performance can translate to big savings. Reductions in absenteeism, employee turnover, and direct healthcare costs, and an increase in productivity, can mean big financial rewards for a building owner who pays attention to indoor air quality. The consequences of failing to address unhealthy indoor environments, whether actual or perceived, can have a large impact on the health of the building occupants and the owner’s bottom line.

There are precise ways to measure indoor air quality. The United Kingdom came up with an energy efficiency standard (BREEAM) in the 1980s, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program started its first pilot project in 1998.

Since then, many developers and building owners have come to recognize the real savings associated with energy efficiency. It’s easy to do the math on some of those savings: change in the energy use multiplied by the cost of the energy, less the additional cost of the intervention.

Extensive, complex and accurate approaches to design, analysis and verification have been developed to optimize the energy performance of buildings. However, the role of human health and well-being in sustainability has, until recently, largely been ignored or dismissed. In an effort to reduce building energy consumption, we have been designing and building more and more tightly contained indoor environments. As the air infiltration has been minimized, we have simultaneously introduced advanced materials that often result in an increase in emissions of contaminants.

Human health is affected by a wide range of building components. Historically, it was lead in paint, asbestos found in insulation and flooring, and PCBs in everything from caulking to lighting fixtures. Those materials caused a multitude of health problems, including cancer.

In modern buildings, contaminants include VOCs from paint, adhesives, carpet and other finishes, which can cause eye, throat and lung irritation. Mold and mildew from improperly installed or maintained finish materials that may cause allergic reactions or asthma. There are also new types of chemicals that are common, in large amounts and that persist for months or years in the buildings. These chemicals, called SVOCs, have been linked to developmental problems, hormone disruption, and cancer. Building users come in contact with SVOCs from the surfaces they touch, the food they eat, and the air they breathe. It is therefore important to try to both limit the use of these products in the construction of the building, but also to design systems that allow these contaminants to be cleaned out of the building as efficiently as possible. People also need adequate amounts of daylight, access to views and a comfortable and controllable range in temperatures. Without these, people become less productive, they request more leave, and turnover rates increase.

A few standards are starting to take notice of the opportunities that the gap in the “green building” market represents, and one of these may be beginning to get some traction. Yet, there is still resistance in some sectors to implement an integrated design process, or to use the most cost-effective and efficient methods.

Given the resistance to a relatively simple and quantifiable approach to design and construction, how will the more qualitative impacts of improvements in the built environment for human health be addressed and accepted? One group of entrepreneurs is poised to try to answer that question with their standard that was developed with human health as its target objective. Delos® Living LLC created and launched the WELL Building Standard® in October of last year. It is administered by the International WELL Building Institute a public benefit corporation (B-Corp).

The standard was designed around seven concepts that are considered to be relevant to the built environment and human health and well-being: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind.

Each of these concepts includes a list of features that are applied to the project. Primarily, the features are performance-based standards with specifically identified metrics to be measured, met and monitored. There are, however, some features that require very specific approaches or technologies to be implemented before the feature can be included in the score.

The standard has selected eleven systems of the human body that are intended to benefit from each feature, including nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, reproductive, integumentary, muscular, skeletal, urinary, respiratory, digestive and immune systems. In total there are 102 features that are concept-specific, address certain health systems, and are targeted at three building types. As with other certification standards, some of the features are compulsory, called Preconditions in WELL, and others are voluntary, called Optimizations.

The first version of WELL was optimized for commercial & institutional buildings. But pilot projects in multifamily, restaurant, retail and education are underway. Not all projects, even office projects, will approach the certification in the same way, and not all features are appropriate for every project.

Three project typologies have been established: New & existing buildings (certification), new & existing interiors (certification) and core and shell (compliance). Certification of registered projects is done through a process of onsite assessment and performance testing. IWBI has contracted with GBCI, the same organization that certifies LEED projects, to assess and certify WELL buildings. As with LEED buildings, there are levels of performance that can be earned based on the number of optimization features achieved. In addition, WELL has been designed for simultaneous use with LEED v4 or The Living Building Challenge. WELL features can be attained through several of the LEED categories, including materials and resources, material disclosure and optimization, material ingredient reporting, avoidance of chemicals of concern, indoor environmental quality, enhanced indoor air quality strategies, and low-emitting interiors.

It is yet to be seen if this new standard will prove to be cost-effective and will benefit health and well-being. Given the significant contribution of personnel costs on business operations, it only makes sense that we include human health impacts in the design, construction and maintenance of our buildings. The list of registered or certified WELL projects is still very small. But with healthcare costs continuing to rise, and the costs of absenteeism and impaired productivity so high, the consideration of human health in the built environment seems destined to become a part of the integrated design process.

Elizabeth Cooper is the interim director of the University of Idaho’s Integrated Design Lab in Boise.


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