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Here’s to Our Buildings, Our Health! SWA’s Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 1

How many of you out there would say you are happy at your place of work? Are you having a hard time concentrating? Now, take a pulse on your surroundings. Are the lights too bright? Are you too cold? Too hot? Do you hear constant humming from the HVAC equipment in the background? How much sleep are you getting at night? How many plants are in your view? Do you even have a view?

I’m sure many of you have heard the statistics that we spend nearly 90% of our days indoors. BUT, did you know that:

  • 75% of deaths are caused by chronic disease, up from 13% in 1800;
  • Today’s children are the first generation expected to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents;
  • 85% of the 82,000 chemicals in use are lacking in available health data.

When we hear the term “high performance building,” many of us think about energy efficiency first. But, what factors contribute to human health in buildings? How do we design for and maintain efficient building performance without compromising occupant health and well-being? What benefits are associated with healthy homes and work spaces? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves.

Stok report breaking down the cost savings associated with healthy work spaces

Lots of research has been done. Pulling from the LEED, EGC, and WELL concepts, and supported by case studies (specifically Harvard’s School of Public Health’s 9 Foundations and Stok’s report on how workspaces that promote health and wellness), here are SWA’s Top 5 (of 10) tips to effectively address Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in buildings:

1) Send in the O2

Research has found that occupants in buildings where fresh air is adequately circulated are more productive and healthier than those who work in poorly ventilated spaces. In the COGfx study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, cognitive function doubled when occupants received double the amount of fresh air. Doubling ventilation was particularly effective when combined with energy recovery ventilation (to reduce building operating costs) and low-emitting finishes (further improving cognitive function). Increasing fresh air above code minimums is tied to a corresponding increase in alertness, productivity, emergency response, problem-solving, and self-reported satisfaction and well-being.

2) Turn on the (Kitchen) Fan

LBNL research on kitchen ventilation estimated that 60 percent of homes in California in which residents cook with a gas stove at least once a week can reach pollutant levels that would be illegal if found outdoors. That equates to 12 million Californians routinely exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels that exceed federal outdoor standards, 10 million exposed to formaldehyde exceeding federal standards, and 1.7 million exposed to carbon monoxide exceeding ambient air standards in a typical week in winter. To help manage and mitigate these indoor pollutants, design kitchen range hoods to meet ASHRAE 62.1 2013 levels; install fans over the entire stove/all four burners; exhaust directly to the outdoors; and, use the fan every time you cook.

3) Take My (Room) Temperature

Thermal comfort is influenced by air temperature, mean radiant temperature, air speed, humidity, personal metabolic activity, and clothing-induced thermal insulation. Low relative humidity (RH) – below 40% – and low temperatures can actually spread airborne bacteria and infectious disease particles, such as the influenza virus (yuck). Static electricity can also build up and negatively affect printers and computers. When indoor environments are too warm and humid (above 60% RH) there are increased reports of itchy, watery eyes, headaches, throat irritation, respiratory symptoms, increased heart rate, negative mood, fatigue and mold growth. These not so fun side effects can impact performance and learning, as well as lack of sleep. Commission your space to: meet ASHRAE 55 – 2017 levels; design summer conditions for an optimum temperature of 76°F with an acceptable range of 73-78°F and winter conditions for an optimum temperature of 72°F with an acceptable range of 68-74°F; keep relative humidity between 40% and 60%; provide individual level thermal control, where possible; survey the spaces and occupants regularly to identify zones that underperform and respond to concerns accordingly; conduct regular inspections of roofing, plumbing, ceilings, and HVAC equipment to identify sources of moisture and potential condensation; and, when moisture or mildew is present, immediately address the source and replace contaminated materials.

4) Filter Me This

According to the EPA, the air inside your home can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside. As noted above, recent have shown that fine airborne particles are a true detriment to health. Selection of air filters based upon the offending particle size is becoming critical to protect the health of a building (and its occupants). Filter outdoor and recirculated air with a minimum removal efficiency of 75% for all particles with high efficiency filters. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) is a standard that rates the overall effectiveness of air filters. The higher the MERV rating on a filter, the fewer dust particles and other contaminants can pass through. Aim for MERV 13 or higher to capture atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). MERV 14 removes 75+% of particles in the 0.3 – 1 micron range.

5) Free to Be…Toxic Chemical Free

Chemicals of concern are prevalent in modern building materials, finishes, and cleaning products. The main culprits? Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), formaldehyde, heavy metals (benzene and mercury, phthalates, microbials), and flame retardants, just to name a few. Remember, there are 82,000 chemicals currently in use. Exposure is known to cause asthma and respiratory illness, infertility and other reproductive disorders, and certain types of cancers. As an example, asthma rates in the United States have been rising since 1980, and today 26 million people are affected by chronic asthma, including over eight million children. Check out the Health Materials Lab Red List and Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes for a full list of chemical no-no’s and resources to avoid using building materials that contain known hazardous chemicals.

Health circle chart

Read tips 6-10 in SWA’s Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 2!

  1. Pests, Leave My Kids Alone!
  2. Shhh…Reduce Noise, Reduce Stress
  3. Brighter Work Days, Dimmer Nights
  4. See a Plant, Give a Hug
  5. Get Accessible & Get Active

Don’t forget to check out our previous blogs on green building program comparison and exhaust ventilation.

Lauren Hildebrand Headshot


By Lauren Hildebrand, Sustainability Principal | LEED AP BD+C | LEED for Homes Green Rater

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