Green buildings save more than money

Green goes indoors

by Bruce Mason

• As you read this, take a look around you. The floor beneath your feet may be off-gassing formaldehyde. The carpet may be emitting other volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that irritate the throat and cause headaches. You might have limited access to fresh air. Your chair (or couch) was probably treated with flame-retardants, linked to loss of memory and fertility. Your walls might be covered with toxic paint. You might have harsh, ubiquitous cleaning products in your cupboards. And there might be hidden mold.

You get the picture and it’s not pretty. If you want to live a healthy life, be aware you will likely spend 90 percent (on average) of it inside buildings. Identifying the threats to your and your family’s health is essential. Almost every product you use indoors contains chemicals that manufacturers don’t completely understand, with health impacts that haven’t been fully studied.

Good news! The world has its first building standard focusing on human health and wellness. The WELL Building Standard® (WELL) combines best design and construction practices with evidence-based medical and scientific research. Seven years in the making, WELL is the culmination of research and the partnership of leading scientists, doctors, architects and wellness experts. It sets performance requirements in seven categories – air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind – to enable built environments to improve nutrition, exercise, mood and sleep patterns in 100 categories. More than 20-million-square-feet of real estate in 12 countries, across five continents, have been WELL certified. And it has now been embraced by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI) and the Canada Green Building Council.

Rick Fedrizzi, USGBC’s CEO explains, “In 2016, erecting sustainable, profitable green buildings will no longer be enough to stand out. Buildings will also be expected to directly contribute to the health and well-being of the people who live, work and learn inside them. For buildings, healthy will become the new green.”

Back in 1984, a World Health Organization report gave rise to the “Sick Building Syndrome.” It described acute health and comfort effects linked to time spent in buildings, from flaws in heating, ventilating and air-conditioning, contaminants from building materials, VOC’s, radon, molds, ozone by-products of office machinery, cleaning products, lack of adequate fresh-air intake/air infiltration, fuel combustion, pesticides and a host of wide ranging issues and problems. Now, fewer buildings are as “sick” and many are not only feeling better, but they are also increasingly efficient and sustainable.

The California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board recently found that 67% of new homes in that state don’t meet its minimum standard for air changes. Not enough folks open their windows or run kitchen exhaust fans to adequately ventilate homes. As well, “nearly all homes had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation, while 59% exceeded guidelines for acute irritation.”

Meanwhile, Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment has found that air quality affects our quality of thinking. Exposure to common indoor pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and VOCs – found in everything from paint to carpets – affects cognitive functions. Average test scores decreased as CO2 levels increased to levels commonly observed in many indoor environments. Improved ventilation doubled participant performance, especially in critical areas such as crisis response, strategy and information usage.

In green, efficient buildings – built to be as airtight as possible – the focus was on energy usage, water efficiency and lower utility bills. While energy has been cheap and saving money has previously been a poor sales pitch, the worldwide awareness of sustainability, for the sake of the planet, has put most humans squarely in the ecosystem equation, along with flora, fauna and fellow creatures.

There is no better place to start, no better frontline, than buildings where we spend most of our time. And buildings will no longer be considered green if they merely do less harm. More of the places where we live, work and learn will begin to actively and intentionally protect and restore our health.

Fedrizzi says, “Green buildings are healthier for their inhabitants, but until now we didn’t have an aggressive system that looked at wellness and the human condition from a completely separate lens. The WELL rating system will bring a better understanding of what it means to be healthy – and the ability to achieve wellness through technology and design – to the front burner.”

You will hear much more about how sustainable buildings are going from being green, to being good for you. Finally, we are beginning to focus on the real role of buildings: to keep us healthy, happy, safe and comfortable.

An efficient house will have to be a healthy house, beginning right now, in 2016. And while it’s difficult to measure if fresh food is available, if there are opportunities to exercise and if your house is making you crazy, WELL does it by re-certifying every three years, checking the contents of the fridge and the mileage on the treadmill, etc.

Energy is now just one input, a variable; the fact that a comfortable building will use a lot less is a happy coincidence. But, as you well know, wellness is all the talk and thinking, from Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow to the yoga boom. It’s big business and rightly so.

Proof that a light has been switched on all over the word and wellness is more than a touchy-feely fad, is GE’s new C-Sleep bulb. For years, governments and greens have pushed the economic benefits of compact fluorescent bulbs even though they rendered colour terribly and made everything drab and blue. Study after study shows that the colour of light influences sleep – that night-time light exposure can suppress the production of melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland. This suppression, in turn, hinders our ability to fall asleep and wake on a regular schedule. This new bulb is designed around our circadian rhythms – orange in the evening to lull you to sleep and blue in the morning when you need it.

This new light bulb is coming soon to a store near you. To learn more, search for the WELL Building Standard. And if you have a product or service that promotes wellness, Common Ground wants to hear from you. Email: brucemason@shaw.ca

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