Green Buildings Are Healthier


Green buildings can not only improve water and energy efficiency, but also create healthy environments. The healthy working environment component of the green building movement is becoming increasingly important (and a valuable selling point). As part of its well-known “For the Greener Good” lecture series, the National Building Museum organized a panel discussion on “a Green Building is a Healthy One,” which included Gregory Kats, Senior Director and Director, Climate Change Strategies, Good Energies; Vivian Loftness, Professor, Carnegie Mellon University; Michelle Moore, Federal Environment Executive, President’s Council on Environmental Quality; and Lisa Schmitz, Director of Bank of America’s Sustainability Initiatives.

The National Building Museum moderator kicked-off the meeting by arguing that “working in a green building is a healthy experience.” However, little data exists to prove this. “How do we measure a building’s impact on our health?” To better understand the linkages between health care costs and working environments, researchers need to examine the impact of the built environment on health. The end goal is to get to a place where we can confidently say: “working in a green building will lower your health care costs.”

Why invest in creating healthy working environments through green buildings?

Lisa Schmitz, Bank of America: We initiated an internal study to determine the importance of sustainability in the workplace and found that a healthy workplace provides a competitive advantage. As employers, we can attract and retain talent more easily. In New York City, we examined One Bryant Park, one of Bank of America’s new green office buildings, in an attempt to prove what we already know. Our study looked at the population who moved into the building and recorded healthcare costs for these employees both before and after the move. We are looking at visits to doctors, prescriptions, etc.

Gregory Kats, Good Energies: Green buildings only cost 2 percent more to construct, but reduce energy usage by 33 percent on average. In a recent survey, we worked with 100 architects and examined 350 buildings, as well as detailed data on 70 buildings. We found that the public perceives the cost of green buildings to be much higher than they actually are. In reality, this isn’t the case. The health impact is also potentially large.

Our study found that a few dollars per square foot yields a 0.5 improvement in productivity. We are measuring productivity gains by looking at reduced sick days (and the cost of substitute staff). The more we quantify benefits, the higher they are.

Michelle Moore, President’s Council on Environmental Quality: We seek to green government facilites. Last year, the White House Green Government Challenge final report was posted. Earlier versions of the report invited federal employees to send in their green ideas, and then vote on the best ideas. The ideas that got the highest number of votes were related to the workplace. These include green cafeterias stocked with organic, healthy, local food and making stairwells more people-friendly so people can use them instead of elevators. Additionally, workers called for offices to be put into green areas — green-supportive facilities. 

To ensure consistency with President Obama’s transparency initiatives, we will make data sets available online. There is a federal body of knowledge that is useful for further analysis.

Vivian Loftness, Professor, Carnegie Mellon University: The energy and water benefits of green buildings are being studied. However, we need more longitudal studies on the health benefits of working in these buildings.

At Carnegie Mellon’s Living Lab, we are applying sensors and controls to people to determine body temperature changes when they interact with certain environments. We are lab-testing innovations in green building design including the impact of acoustics and lighting on worker performance. We’ve found faulty acoustics in open space plans can increase levels of distraction. There are also critical threshholds for light — buzzing fluorescent tubes above cubicles also distract. 

Some offices include glazed glass sliding doors so you can be open and collaborate or focus privately. It’s about creating a balance between privacy and collaboration.

What indicators need to be measured?

Loftness: U.S. absenteeism rates are the lowest in the world. No one in the U.S. stays home when they are sick so it’s hard to track. However, there are classic respiratory issues, including asthma and allergies, that can be measured. There are growing rates of adult onset asthma. Are the buildings we work in doing this?

Kats: PNC Bank is measuring employee satisfaction with their office environments. In green bank branches, employee satisfaction is at 90 percent, which is much higher than other branches.

Particularly in green affordable housing, we can measure sickness, asthma rates — the data-set is large, and impacts high. Schools should also be examined.

Schmitz: We’ve initiated a survey to study the health impact of work environments. While many workers who are sick don’t go to the doctor or stay home, we can ask about symptoms. In Sweden, a survey asked employees how frequently they had colds, flus, stiff necks. Through this, they can identify the buildings where people are having higher levels of health concerns. However, people may be afraid to respond to these, worrying that accurate responses could raise their healthcare coverage costs, so the surveys need to be made anonymous.

Moore: In the health care industry, we have a potentially large data-set if we look at high performance design and hospitals. Healthy environments in hospitals have lots of potential financial impacts — faster recovery times means patients spend less time in the hospital (and spend less).  

What is making us sick?

Kats: The lack of daylight and buzzing old fluorescent lights.

Loftness: Mold. If you see visible mold, you can find a correlation with asthma and allergies. In public housing, there is often water damage in the older buildings. This needs to be addressed. Increasing the amount of fresh air: In many buildings, the air is recycled and the quality of air is not sufficient. The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory said you can triple indoor air quality and still see benefits. Daylight & View: We aren’t sure which of these is most important, but windowless offices should be made illegal in the U.S. (as they are in Germany). In a study of hospitals, they found patients in southeast-facing rooms had shorter stays. Patients in these rooms had higher melatonin production in the mornings. Views of landscape, access to nature helps.

Getting outside for part of the day is also important. Walking under a canopy of trees has important benefits.

Schmitz: Bad air. The air outside in New York City is pretty bad. We had to think about our building as a giant air filter. The air inside had to be 100 percent better than the air outside. Better air means a better work environment. We installed an underfloor air circulation system — it’s important how air is fed in, and each associate can control the air flow in their individual area.

Kats:  Energy usage reductions synch up with improvements in healthy environments. Buildings that reduce energy usage by 2/3 can see a 70 percent improvement in healthy environment indicators.

We are moving towards zero-net buildings. In the EU, they are aiming for zero-net buildings by 2019. The state government of Massachusetts and the General Services Administration (GSA) are also exploring net zero mandates. These types of green buildings can also have a price premium 40 percent higher than regular buildings.

What about traditional building practices? Is it all about new technology?

Loftness: In the U.S. Southwest, adobe buildings are very efficient at using passive technologies. There can be a 50 degree change in temperature during the day. Abobe buildings give you a lag — they store heat at night, and are super-efficient. I would love to be able to unplug all buildings. However, how do you quantify the value of traditional building solutions?

Kats: How you orientate a building is important. Porches, tree shading, reducing thermal mass — these can also help.  Buildings should also use local resources.

In smart buildings, you can harvest daylight. In terms of new technologies, you can now use iPods to control building heating and cooling and lighting remotely. Through a smart grid, you can virtually distribute energy loads.

The solutions involve a mix of traditional and sophisticated smart practices, smart data-driven design.

Moore: The new Morphosis-designed Federal Building in San Francisco uses all natural ventilation. It’s the first tall building in San Francisco built without air conditioning in the last 50 years.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is also looking at net-zero housing for various military bases. Fort Hood in Texas will implement net-zero housing. Bases can be use regional place-based approaches.

Schmitz: There is value in engineering out light switches. However, we ended up bring light switches back because people enjoy the ability to turn lights off during the day. Many people now meet in conference rooms with the lights out, relying on natural light.

What is the impact of unhealthy buildings environments on mental health?

Loftness: We’ve seen increased rates of anger and aggression among school children in unhealthy buildings. Noisy, over-lit environments do contribute to increased anger. Can we reduce pent-up frustration through the physical environment? This is a potential area of research.

Are firms and developers now marketing the health aspects of green buildings?

Kats: Most of the greenest buildings have been built by non-profit organizations and governments. Only recently are we seeing turnover in commercially available green office space. Firms may be investing more in green buildings because of three key risk elements:

1) Energy prices are volatile. Green buildings are a risk reduction strategy.
2) Firms may be liable for providing poor indoor air quality or impacting health. There are dangers to working in unhealthy environments. There have been lawsuits.
3) Non-green buildings are quickly becoming obsolete. Even if a developer doesn’t believe in climate change, they can see that a non-green building could be worthless in 50 years.

The trends are in this direction and are driving the market. By 2015, 50 percent of non-residential construction will be green.

Loftness: The Solaire, a new development in New York City, is pricey, but has been talking up the healthy environment it’s providing its tenants. Children’s health problems have decreased in that building. Also, hospitals have also been promoting efforts at evidence-based design.

Many industrialized countries mandate seated views in front of windows. In Germany, every worker must have access to daylight — it’s the law. The question is do we need government mandates or are market incentives enough? I think the private sector won’t do this on their own. Investment is often driven by low-cost decision-making. As a result, there is low levels of investment in physical infrastructure. Quality, long-term decision-making needs to be guided by the government.  Where is the U.S. on this?

Moore: The Federal government owns half a million buildings across the U.S., almost 1.7 percent of the country’s building space. The Federal government can help move the market in this direction.

Schmitz: People are increasingly making decisions on where to work based on what green building features are available. Our Human Resources department has heard these questions.

Are epidemiologists involved in green building research?

Loftness: Epidemiologists are involved in Carnegie Mellon research on green buildings; building field studies do involve them. However, bad building data is most often wrapped up in court cases — they are locked up so we can’t access the data and learn from our mistakes. We can instead conduct controlled lab experiments with public health specialists.

There was one study by the CDC on land use and obesity, which demonstrated a correlation between ritalin use and depression and gated communities.

What is the greatest bang for the buck in terms of investing in healthy office environments?

Kats: Cleaning supplies. Stop introducing toxins into the office environment.

Schmitz: Invest in more research. We know what’s good, but can’t prove it right now. We need to ask the tough questions.

Loftness: Green buildings are about health as much as they are about the environment. I want to unseal our buildings. Building should use natural ventilation, passive solar heating, and coast on natural systems as much as possible.

Image credit: Federal Building, San Francisco. Nic Lehoux, BD Online.

One thought on “Green Buildings Are Healthier

  1. Mark L. Johnson 03/03/2010 / 1:43 pm

    I missed an obvious piece of information…
    Are these studies also using new or remodeled buildings that are not touting their “greenness”? That is, could people be more positive about their work spaces, just because they are fresh and have new, up-to-date technologies or layouts? I realize the near-past has produced some new buildings that are “sick” buildings and that laws and codes may have changed to assure healthier buildings; but it would be interesting to study whether a well-kept, 200-year-old, historic building is inherently less healthy than a new, “green” building.

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