Green Building, Heating and Cooling, Safety

The Critical Need to Develop and Promote Healthy Buildings

One of the most difficult facets of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a fear of interacting with our loved ones, acquaintances, colleagues, or even total strangers while indoors. Ensuring that the spaces where we work and live are healthy and safe for continued occupancy is critical to overcoming the pandemic, and should be seen as a fundamental pillar of public health and community resilience. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Consultative Council recently released its 2020 Moving Forward Report, which examines and provides recommendations for policymakers and building owners regarding three components of healthy buildings:

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  • Indoor environmental quality;
  • The importance of design in promoting health; and
  • Promoting knowledge transfer between building owners and public health officials.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the particular importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) in promoting public health in the built environment. Indoor environments present unique risks to building occupants that vary greatly by building type, building operations, and geographic location. Studies by the U.S. EPA have shown that harmful contaminants can be present indoors in concentrations that are two to five times higher than outdoors.

Though pandemic conditions perhaps require a change in a building’s normal operations, clean, properly ventilated, and well-filtered air is and always has been critical to occupants’ health. Poor IAQ can have both an immediate and/or long-term impact on a building’s occupants, with some effects not materializing for years. One CDC study of 3,000 individuals across 40 buildings found that 57% of sickness can be attributed to poor ventilation. Other factors that may negatively affect IAQ include improper HVAC operations and maintenance, combustion processes from mechanical systems, building materials that may emit unhealthy volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mold from indoor moisture, and/or external inputs, such as particulates from wildfires and natural disasters.

Air quality is not the only critical component of a healthy indoor environment. Building performance and resilience are also critical to ensuring public health. The building industry and policymakers should prioritize investments in IEQ, including increased funding for research, real-world testing, and incentives to promote healthy IEQ in new and existing buildings, with particular focus on disadvantaged or underserved communities.

The Importance of Design to Promote Health

As the American Institute of Architects’ “Design and Health Initiative” notes, “When health impacts and equitable access to healthy places become central to the design and planning process, transformational outcomes quickly appear.” Trends focusing on the importance of healthy building design and operations need to continue to accelerate.

Healthy buildings, a critical component of our national infrastructure, should be intricately entwined with the concepts of resilience and social equity, both on a building-by-building basis and in the surrounding community. Sustainable land use, walkability, multimodal transportation, access to healthcare and healthy food options, and the surrounding landscape all contribute to a healthy, vibrant workforce.

Building owners and public health officials should work with planners, architects, and designers to ensure that sound practices in building design and resilience are core components of community development. There are currently several rating systems, certification programs, and building codes that focus on occupant health and provide pathways and tools toward developing and maintaining healthy buildings. Additionally, the federal government must recognize the critical role that buildings play in our national infrastructure, and encourage healthy buildings programs that enable occupant health and happiness in our homes, workplaces, and public buildings.

Promoting Consistent Knowledge Transfer Between Building Owners and Public Health Officials

The U.S. EPA, in its “Healthy Buildings, Healthy People: A Vision for the 21st Century” report, listed as a primary goal the importance of improving professional education and communications, both within and between the building community and medical/public health professionals. Particularly critical is the development of common risk assessment methodology, research into common risks associated with health and buildings, common baselines from which to measure risk, and the quick communication of those risks and proposed solutions. Establishing clear communication protocols and promoting data-sharing among the building industry and public health and medical officials can help to protect public health and provide additional tools for combating future crises.

Surveys show that a bare majority of medical professionals, including general practitioners, pediatricians, and mental health professionals, are aware of the connection between the built environment and public health. The building industry should work with public health officials and advocates or associations on developing a common framework for communicating to medical professionals and the general public the importance of the built environment in promoting health.

About the National Institute of Building Sciences and the NIBS Consultative Council

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) is authorized by the U.S. Congress to serve the public interest as the essential forum for discussing issues and identifying opportunities within the building community. The NIBS Consultative Council assembles high-level building community leaders to make collective recommendations directly to policymakers— and by NIBS to the President of the United States—to improve our nation’s buildings and infrastructure. Each year, the Consultative Council publishes the Moving Forward Report to investigate key challenges facing the building industry and to make recommendations to policymakers to help overcome those challenges.

Mark N. Dorsey, FASAE, CAE, is Chief Executive Officer of the Construction Specifications Institute and Chair of the NIBS Consultative Council.