Sustainability, as it relates to construction and design, is a relatively simple idea. Recycling, energy efficiency and saving water are now mainstream concepts. The use of sustainable, non-toxic and natural materials - even for commercial buildings and industrial spaces - is unquestionably a modern trend.
But there now a shift in this trend - to use modern technology in new ways to benefit human health and wellness. The idea is to create a new generation of "healthy buildings" that are comfortable, safe and beautiful all at the same time.
We’ve found three basic factors at play in this trend of sustainability and eco-consciousness. What follows are the ways those concepts influence "healthy" buildings.
Architecture & Human Health
Although it's not an entirely new concept, the connection between architecture and human health is a still-developing field of study, both for the home environment and for commercial spaces like offices, warehouses and commercial buildings.
A 1998 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology explored how the built environment can be used to reduce stress, increase productivity, promote happiness and encourage physical well-being. This study examined open plan design, effective use of space, time away from desks and work centers, and the impact of natural light and access to nature.
Since then, numerous studies have confirmed what the 1998 article revealed: that higher productivity and reduced employee stress are achieved largely by rethinking a building's physical space.
Key ingredients in the updated building model require several designated spaces:
- private communication
- networking and collaboration areas
- a planned meeting room
- a presentation area
- space for social interaction such as a cafeteria or break room
Other studies note that natural daylight -- especially sunlight -- is a mood booster for employees. Living plants are especially effective because they freshen indoor air quality. But even view of gardens or trees can make workers happier and more productive. Exercise is another perk, but a business doesn't have to provide a fitness room. While a brisk walk around the building or a power nap on a garden bench might be the ultimate stress-reliever, a room with comfortable chairs and good music can also be effective!
Sustainable and Non-Toxic Materials
Scientific advances have made newer building materials not only stronger and more effective, but also better in terms of human health and the environment. Greener standards mean that we now save energy, water and natural resources; they also help architects and engineers meet higher standards for air quality, clean operation and better function. Materials that are not chemically treated and that don't "outgas" or emit toxic fumes help reduce illness.
The U.S. Green Building Council encouraged thinking of buildings as "living, breathing organisms" when it established the LEED rating and compliance system. Today, with more than 20,000 LEED-certified buildings worldwide, the council has moved beyond the simple monitoring of energy performance by emphasizing "the potential for projects to contribute positively to their communities and the planet."
From the building shell to its exterior skin, and throughout the interior, new standards mandate not only better materials, but also a better approach to use of natural resources and the concern with user well-being, safety and health. Better filtering and venting procedures reduce asthma, allergic reactions and the buildup of interior pollutants. The benefit is that fewer employee hours are lost to absence.
Technical standards have also been strengthened for building components -- from concrete to paint and carpet, from potential for mold development to the tensile strength of structural glass. If ever there was an exciting age in terms of architecture and construction, this is it.
This trend in healthy buildings also addresses the aesthetics of construction materials. Reclaimed timbers, reused brick, recycled glass, sustainable bamboo, newly-popular exposed metal surfaces -- all provide exciting options for design, while good for the environment, durable and appropriate.
Safety and Code Compliance
Safety, of course, is a prime concern for office buildings and commercial space. Whether building codes address structural standards to protect buildings from weather and natural disaster, or to encourage better function and use of resources, these safety standards and stringent requirements are meant to protect human life and health.
Safety standards include restrictions and guidelines on the following:
- sprinkler systems
- indoor air quality (IEQ)
- smoke alarms and containment systems
- pollutant containment
- proper temperature controls
- power failures
- emergency alarms
- and toxic substances
These new standards have inspired innovative new technologies. It is now possible to install automatic "smoke curtains" to block the spread of smoke and flames. As an example, the ability to block specific rooms or cordon off even large atrium spaces in case of unexpected fire could be instrumental not only in saving lives but also in protecting property. The benefits of new products and technology can be enormous.
It is all an attempt to make the built environment more efficient, but also to enhance the quality of human experience within these buildings. As US Green Building Council COO Mahesh Ramanujam noted, "buildings have a lot to do with our external and internal environment, and have a major impact on both our health and the health of future generations."