To answer the title question, the answer is, yes, the buildings in which we spend at least 90% or our time can definitely contribute to our health. Buildings, their materials, and their systems can affect our health in positive and negative ways. Sickness is a defining concept of all winter seasons, and the 2020-2021 winter has seen some of the worst sickness in humans in decades. These hardships and losses cannot be forgotten and hopefully will not be repeated. Those of us working in the building industry, as well as anyone leasing or purchasing property have influence over the health, safety, and maintenance of our buildings. This post outlines approaches we can take to identify potential sick buildings and ways to avoid creating them in the first place.

Can Buildings Get Sick?

That question may sound silly, but sick building syndrome is a real issue that affects occupants that spend time in a building with poor indoor conditions and poor air quality. These occupants unfortunately may experience headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and other symptoms you might associate with a cold or migraine. It wouldn’t be surprising if a building occupant experiencing these symptoms thought, “must be allergies”, or “I had too much to drink last night” to explain the way they feel. If the symptoms clear up once one leaves the building, this may be a sign of sick building syndrome. This situation warrants communication with the building owner and may involve a building inspection and further information gathering on similar symptoms in people throughout the buildings. Finding out if sick building syndrome is plaguing the building occupants and the source of the irritation is key. Making building improvements to rid the building of all sources of irritation should be done as quickly as possible. Imagine the increases in health and productivity that are possible as a result of these building improvements. If the building occupants feel better in the building, they are more likely to show up, show up on time, and enjoy their time inside the building. Most businesses and work teams can benefit from results like these in terms of employee retention, happier work relationships, etc.

Approaches to Improve Indoor Conditions

All building occupants deserve healthy air, water, and surfaces to use while in a building. Building codes account for these needs and so should building operations policies. It is often when a building or operations policy is not adhered to, when sick building symptoms occur. 

Are New Buildings Safe?

This may be a common thought, since one might expect these buildings to be free from harmful materials and building practices. On the contrary, many building materials and finishes off-gas harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds) even after being installed. New and renovated buildings’ managers should take the necessary steps to flush out the building’s air and treat air filters accordingly prior to building occupancy. Additionally, builders and designers can choose adhesives, furniture, paint and other materials that meet criteria for low or zero VOC content as well as other certifications that contribute to good indoor air quality.

Older Buildings

Older buildings’ “symptoms” can range from the existence of now-outlawed toxic building materials, mold, pests, etc. Recent changes in building codes and standards have increased the health of buildings and the materials used to construct them. Prior to around 1970, the use of materials including lead, mercury, and asbestos was common. As we know now, these materials are toxic and even deadly. Builders now have ways to find, test, and abate these materials to abide by new building codes and improve the health of building occupants in older homes and buildings. 

Between the Walls

Many companies that manufacture flooring, paint, furniture, adhesives, wood products and other interior building products have been reducing the VOC content in their products. Products can prove these efforts by obtaining certifications like Cradle to Cradle, GreenSeal, FlorScore, etc. which all demonstrate the products’ achievement of certain environmental benchmarks pertaining to the product type. 

Behind the Walls

Not surprisingly, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system of a building can play a major role in improving and maintaining proper indoor air quality. You may never see the ductwork or other major components of the systems if they are behind walls or in mechanical rooms, but you will feel the effects if the systems are not working as they should be. Systems today are designed for the number of occupants expected to be in the building and provide a certain amount of outdoor air per occupant by code. This is usually a minimum standard and the potential to exceed these standards should be considered.

One common approach to indoor air quality is banning smoking on the building property, or only allowing it in certain spots on the property which are a certain distance away from building entrances and air intakes. This distance is usually at least 25ft. Other toxic fumes, such as those that can come from kitchens, restrooms, garages, etc. should be vented outdoors.

The Healthiest Buildings

You may be wondering if there are standards that require buildings to exceed minimum building code requirements for ventilation and healthy materials? Yes, and the standards are constantly evolving to meet the needs and potential of the building industry. Buildings themselves can achieve levels of certifications like LEED, WELL, and Living Building Challenge which represent the achievement of meeting the strict environmental standards set by these organizations. The certifications are goals set forth by the building design team when the project starts and influence all components of the project including site considerations, building design, building systems design, building finishes and furniture, construction practices, and operations policies. The certifications listed above prioritize environmental and occupant health within established architectural and construction project processes. 

Conclusion

So, we know that we spend a majority of our time indoors, especially in the winter. There are approaches to building designs and methods that can make our indoor environments as healthy as possible. New approaches to building health are sure to come in the next few years as well. As in any case, monitoring your health and the health of those you spend the most time with indoors can give clues to certain physical stressors and health aggravating factors. This post is not meant to scare you but arm you with the information needed to assess buildings and building systems that can be improved for the betterment of all future occupants. It may encourage you to spend a little more time outside when you have chances to do so safely. Wherever you are, stay safe and warm this winter!

Sources

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/sick_building_factsheet.pdf

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796751/

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