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Tag: Occupant Health & Wellness

Sustainable Buildings Are Healthy Buildings: How to Design and Maintain a Healthy Built Environment

What is a sustainable building? We know it must be an energy-efficient, high-performance building and emit as little carbon as possible to protect the environment. But a sustainable building must also be a healthy building that protects people and communities.

A building can’t be considered sustainable if it doesn’t sustain the physical and mental health of all its intended occupants and sustain the community around it.

Healthy buildings require a holistic approach that accounts for how every building material, system, and technology affects the wellbeing of occupants.

This is an important topic at SWA, so we asked our interns to explore it! They talked to our experienced building systems, sustainability, and Passive House consultants and put together this blog post as a resource on designing and maintaining a healthy built environment.

Keep reading to learn more about the following considerations for healthy buildings:

  1. Occupant comfort and productivity
  2. Optimal indoor air quality (IAQ)
  3. Ventilation system upgrades in existing buildings
  4. Healthy building certifications (Fitwel, WELL, etc.)
  5. Building operations and maintenance staff training

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What Would a Passive House New York City Look Like?

New York City: the city that never sleeps—and where buildings account for approximately two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2019, New York City Council passed Local Law 97 (LL97) to hold building owners responsible for carbon emissions. The goal is to reduce over time, eventually reducing emissions 80% by 2050. As it stands, the law applies to most buildings over 25,000 square feet, which is roughly 50,000 residential and commercial properties across the five boroughs.

One pathway to decarbonize New York City’s buildings is using the Passive House standard: a high-performance building standard that significantly reduces whole building energy consumption by up to 60-70% while providing superior comfort and indoor air quality. When coupled with renewable energy systems, Passive House makes net zero energy buildings more feasible. (more…)

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like …. Cold Season

Imagine it’s Christmas morning. You wake up from a nice sleep eager to spend time with family and open presents. You can’t wait to get out of bed but know that the warmth you have under the covers will soon escape into your cold, drafty apartment. The window doesn’t close that well, and the baseboard heater can never quite get up to the desired temperature. Now you’re cold. Your body is working harder to warm you, so now you’re tired too. Your only comfort is the idea of sitting by a fire soon with a cup of hot cocoa… except it’s not actually Christmas. It’s just a normal day, and you’re cold…again.

For most of us, feeling cold is simply just uncomfortable and may decrease our productivity. However, for the elderly being cold can lead to health problems, organ failure, and even hypothermia. Seniors who are chronically cold during the winter may not even know the toll their discomfort is causing to their health, and they may require a more adequate living environment to keep them safe.

When preparing for the development of a new senior residence, it is important to take into consideration the needs of the senior demographic during the design phase. Keeping our seniors safe is one of the biggest priorities for senior living facilities, not only when it comes to ADA compliant and accessible living conditions, but also regarding tenant comfort and health.

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Finding Your Way: Third-Party Assurances for Your Properties

Over the last several months, experts in sustainable design related to human health and interior wellness have developed guidelines, protocols, and toolkits to adapt existing buildings to the ‘new normal’ caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These tools can be leveraged by building owners and property managers to enhance their healthy building strategies, ensuring their properties are mitigating risk with building wellness and safe building protocols. And, once implemented, building teams can earn recognition for their hard work with industry recognized organizations, which will build confidence for tenants and employees.

We’ll be highlighting three programs that complement your ESG and/or wellness goals across any portfolio or building typology. All three were created to be scalable, flexible, easily implemented, and cost-effective. Let’s get started.

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Leveraging LEED for New Construction Post-COVID Part 2

LEED: Toolkit for a Healthy and Resilient Post-COVID Built Environment

At SWA, we have used LEED across a wide range of projects and contexts. We have seen firsthand its strength as an adaptable toolkit for guiding high performance building design, construction, and operation. The intent of each LEED credit category takes on a particular meaning, both locally and globally, in response to the emergence of such factors as global climate change and its associated consequences—including pandemics. In the post-COVID context, these intents will take on new meaning and new urgency. Read Part 1 of this blog here!

image of coal plant

Credit: Arnold Paul

The overall goal of the LEED rating system is to reduce the negative impacts of the built environment on environmental and human health. Ideally, this focus contributes to our general, overall resilience to public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing and mitigating various factors that make us more vulnerable to diseases. For example, we know that long-term exposure to air pollution and poor air quality dramatically increases the chances of dying from COVID-19 and that most of the same pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases exacerbated by exposure to air pollution. Anything we can do to improve air quality will also improve our resilience to disease. Most significantly, we need to move away from fossil fuel-based energy and toward clean, renewable energy—and a large portion of LEED is focused on doing just that.

As researchers have noted, many of the root causes behind climate change also contribute to a greater risk of pandemics. An example is deforestation and associated habitat loss, which forces wildlife to migrate, bringing novel viruses into closer contact with livestock and humans, and increasing the odds of disease transmission. On top of that, by altering temperature and rainfall patterns, climate change has created conditions that are more conducive to the spread of disease in general. So, the strategies we need to enact now to address the climate crisis—many of which are addressed in LEED credits—can also mitigate the occurrence, scale, and impacts of future disease outbreaks.

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Leveraging LEED for New Construction Post-COVID Part 1

In the post-COVID world, there needs to be a greater awareness that the built environment can protect and promote human and environmental health. Buildings can, and must, play a critical role in delivering a stronger, more resilient public health infrastructure that can help prevent and mitigate crises such as the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The good news is that we already have effective tools for designing, constructing, and operating such buildings—chief among them LEED and the WELL Building Standard.

We believe people are now more conscious of how the built environment affects their health. As a result, we’re likely to see an increase in investment in sustainable building design, construction, and operation and a corresponding increase in demand for green building rating systems such as LEED and WELL. We may also see the green and healthy building concepts that are included in these systems increasingly integrated into building codes.

USGBC plaque

[Credit: Blanchethouse (username) / Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org]

Certification programs (e.g., LEED and WELL) have been developed though collective effort. They are extremely effective and adaptable tools that project teams can use to ensure that their buildings achieve the best possible performance in terms of protecting environmental and human health. Importantly, these programs continue to evolve, offering ever more effective strategies for improving the built environment, ensuring that buildings adapt to whatever circumstances may arise in uncertain times. But right now, project teams can make immediate use of LEED and WELL, and similar tools, to start preparing for the new reality ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How can project teams leverage LEED now? In this series, we’ve highlighted the LEED credits that can be used to guide efforts to make our buildings safe, healthy, and resilient. (In a follow-up series we’ll discuss the WELL features that can be used to guide our post-COVID building work.)

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The Great Indoors: Creating a Healthier and Safer Built Environment

Image of elderly couple sitting on a bench laughingAs humans, we spend a lot of time indoors. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate that under normal circumstances the average American spends over 90% of their life indoors. With the spread of COVID-19 and widespread voluntary and involuntary quarantine, the rise of work from home policies and new direction to social distance has resulted in a further increase to the amount of time we spend indoors. Now more than ever, people are cognizant of the air they’re breathing and the surfaces they’re touching. The buildings that we live, work and play in impact our physical and mental health. With certain building and design considerations, we can make these impacts beneficial.

We recruited some experts at SWA to fill us in on the various considerations when it comes to the health and comfort of a building, as well as some certifications that assure these considerations are met.

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Establishing Moisture Control in Multifamily Buildings

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of a humid apartment after taking a hot shower. Some of us kick on an exhaust fan, perhaps un-fog the bathroom mirror, or even open a window to get the moisture out. Domestic moisture generation—moisture from human activity—is a major factor driving the humidity levels in our residential buildings, especially in super air-tight, Passive House construction. Before diving into just how much of an impact domestic moisture has in our buildings, let’s first look at average daily moisture generation rates of a typical family of three[1]:

  • breathing and transpiration—6 to 9 pounds of water vapor/day;
  • 10-minute shower in the morning for each individual—3.6 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking fried eggs and bacon for breakfast—0.5 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking steamed vegetables with pasta for dinner—0.5 to 1.0 pounds of water vapor; and
  • one small dog and a few plants around the house—0.5 pounds of water vapor/day

This brings the daily total to 11.1 to 14.6 pounds of moisture generation per day, or about 1.5 gallons of liquid water.

Where does all of this moisture go? In a typical code-level apartment building with moderate to high-levels of air leakage, water vapor has two year-round exit pathways: exfiltration through the façade and dedicated kitchen or bathroom mechanical exhaust. Additionally, in the summer, moisture is removed via condensate from the cooling system.

Let’s now put this in the context of a highly energy-efficient apartment with very low levels of air leakage (about 5 to 10 times less than the code-compliant unit), and balanced ventilation with energy recovery. The first means of moisture removal, façade exfiltration, is virtually non-existent given the building’s superior air-tight design. Next is mechanical exhaust ventilation in the kitchens and bathrooms. Because the unit has balanced ventilation and energy recovery, the exhaust air stream in a Passive House project typically passes through the energy recovery core. Depending on the core selection, a large percentage of the interior moisture may be retained in the apartment air despite the constant mechanical air exchange.

There are two basic types of cores:

  • Heat recovery ventilator (HRV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat is recovered (transferred from the exhaust air stream to the supply air stream) while no moisture is recovered.
  • Energy recovery ventilator (ERV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat and a certain percentage of moisture in the air is recovered.

To fully understand this issue, Figure 1 breaks break down the moisture-related pros and cons of ERVs and HRVs in the context of a high-density, Passive House building.

  ERV HRV
Pros Summer – prevents high exterior air moisture load from being supplied to interior air; cooling loads are minimized Winter – flushes high internal moisture load out of building; humidity levels reduced
Cons Winter – if internal moisture generation is high, interior moisture load is not flushed out of apartment; humidity levels increase Summer – allows exterior air moisture load to be supplied to interior air: cooling loads increase

Figure 1. Moisture related pros and cons with ERVs and HRVs in high efficiency, airtight construction

 

Traditionally, the key factor in deciding between an ERV or HRV for a high-efficiency building has been the project’s climate. However, as internal moisture loads begin to exceed exterior moisture loads in high-density projects, the decision between ERV or HRV must be looked at more closely for each project regardless of climate.

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ERV + AHU?

Everyone pretty much gets that continuous (or very frequent) ventilation is necessary in high-performance homes. And – at least in theory – most people get why balanced, heat recovery ventilation is better (than unbalanced and/or without heat recovery). But the devil’s in the details.

A couple years ago we started an R&D project with funding from DOE’s Building America program, and one of the first steps was interviewing several developers about ventilation (single- and multi-family residential, mostly on the East Coast). For none of these developers were HRVs or ERVs standard.[i] They all had some experience with ERVs, however, and when asked about these experiences the word “nightmare” came up shockingly often.

The ERVs on the market now can certainly work well in the right application, but we see problems more often than not. One of the biggest challenges is trying to add ERVs on to central heating/cooling systems in homes. Most ERVs aren’t really designed for this, and here’s what we see:

  • Ducts connected to the wrong places! Outlet and inlet ducts get reversed, or the supply air from the AHU getting exhausted (sad how often this happens).
  • ERVs are attached to supply and/or return trunks of the AHU. Unless the AHU fan is running constantly (or whenever the ERV is turned on), outdoor air comes into the AHU and is sucked right back out the ERV exhaust.
  • If the AHU fan is turned on, the relatively small fans in the ERV can’t successfully compete with the big AHU fan. People don’t get the ventilation flow rates they want and/or the flows are very unbalanced.
  • AHU fans can use A LOT of electricity. Hundreds of Watts is common – I’ve measured over 1 kW (though this is changing – more below).

Even if installers follow manufacturer instructions for attaching ERVs to AHUs, they could still end up with low flows, unbalanced flows, or high electricity consumption. Through this DOE R&D effort, we’re trying to do better.
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Here’s to Our Buildings, Our Health! SWA’s Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 2

Quick pulse survey: in the last three months, since we published our Part I blog on tips for healthier indoor environments, how many of you have either incorporated some of our healthy recommendations into your home, or informed your clients on the most effective ways to address health risks in buildings (hint: if you need a refresher, please visit Part I)?

As previously discussed, there is overwhelming evidence for the business case for healthier buildings, from greater employee productivity and reduced sick days in the workplace to reduced asthma incidents and ER visits for children living in green housing. Leading organizations know that improved wellbeing helps employees to be healthier and lowers healthcare costs. It also helps employees to be more productive, creative and innovative, and less likely to leave for a competitor. The same concept can be applied to tenants in rental buildings and condos.

Before we dive into health tips #6-10, here are some fun (and not so fun) facts to keep in mind while we spend winter days INSIDE our workplaces, schools and homes:

  • USGBC graphic with health statsIn the winter, school-aged children ages 11-17 will spend 60 minutes a day outdoors, compared to 175 minutes in the summer. (Source: Schools for Health by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.)
  • In a study of 73 elementary schools in Florida, students in schools cooling with the noisiest types of HVAC systems were found to underperform on achievement tests compared with students taking tests in schools with quieter systems.
  • According to a recent survey released by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), employees who work in LEED certified green buildings are happier, healthier and more productive than employees in conventional and non-LEED buildings:
    • More than 90 percent of respondents in LEED certified green buildings say they are satisfied on the job and 79 percent say they would choose a job in a LEED certified building over a non-LEED building.
    • More than 80 percent of respondents say that being productive on the job and having access to clean, high-quality indoor air contributes to their overall workplace happiness.
    • 85 percent of employees in LEED certified buildings also say their access to quality outdoor views and natural sunlight boosts their overall productivity and happiness, and 80 percent say the enhanced air quality improves their physical health and comfort.

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