The Healthy Building Movement: A focus on occupants - Aug/Sep 2017
By Darius Helm
Environmental sustainability has been top of mind among architects and designers for the last couple of decades, but in the past few years there has been a noticeable sideways shift toward the well-being of building occupants, from acoustical abatement, air quality and comfort underfoot to nourishment, fitness and even beauty and “mind.” While much of the healthy building movement aligns with environmental sustainability objectives, what’s most noteworthy is the shift from a global environmental perspective to the human perspective.
Environmental sustainability is one of three pillars of a larger model of sustainability that has gained prominence in recent years, the other two being social equity and economic sustainability. For the more mnemonic oriented, the pillars are people, planet and profit. It’s a concept that can be applied to everything from businesses to communities and nations and, in its most idealistic expression, to the entire Earth. While environmental sustainability entails living within the means of natural resources, and economic sustainability entails the efficient and responsible use of resources in order to be profitable, social equity means the just and fair treatment of people to achieve social well-being.
The new millennium has also seen an increasing focus on productivity, from basic models of efficiency to cutting-edge concepts like evidence-based design, the study of how the various aspects of the built environment impact the health, well-being and productivity of its occupants and visitors. Evidence-based design is behind the overhaul of the healthcare sector, from medical equipment design and the performance of flooring (like comfort underfoot, ease of maintenance and rollability) to natural lighting and biomorphic interior decors.
Inhabitants of the developed world spend about 90% of their time indoors, and until fairly recently, there were no overarching principles behind the design of these environments. It started with utilitarian considerations, and as interior environments became more complex, they evolved through a reactive model of problem solving, and that carried us all the way through the 20th century. In the corporate environment, for instance, we saw the development of cubicles for individual workspaces, chairs that rolled, carpet for acoustical abatement and comfort underfoot. People started to think about everything from efficiency to ergonomics.
In recent years, this study of interior environments has developed into a sophisticated science, with a wealth of data and studies of every aspect of the interior. Numerous studies have shown that well-being, productivity and cognitive function are enhanced through a range of factors, including natural light, ventilation, noise reduction and access to nourishing food, to name but a few.
A study led by researchers at Harvard University on cognitive performance revealed that workers scored 61% higher on cognitive tasks in environments with more ventilation and lower VOCs. And a follow-up study, which compared cognitive function in buildings with low VOCs and good ventilation to buildings with similar attributes that also had green-building certifications, revealed a 26.4% increase in cognitive task scores in the green buildings, along with a 30% reduction in symptoms of sick-building syndrome and a 6% increase in sleep quality scores. Joseph Allen, the principal investigator and Harvard professor, reported that an analysis showed that an investment of $40 per employee to improve these conditions would yield a $6,500 increase, per employee, in productivity.
According to a report by the World Green Building Council, a global network of green building councils, it has identified eight key green building factors that impact the bottom line: indoor air quality and ventilation; thermal comfort; daylighting and lighting; noise and acoustics; interior layout and active design; biophilia and views; look and feel; and location and access to amenities. The report claims that well-ventilated offices can double cognitive ability; employee performance falls about 5% if workspaces are too hot or too cold; employees get more nightly sleep (46 minutes) when working in offices with windows; distraction due to noise can cause a 66% drop in performance and concentration; good aesthetics increase workplace satisfaction; and access to amenities reduces absentee rates.
In the U.S., two of the most prominent organizations that offer frameworks and certifications for green building are the International Well Building Institute and the International Living Future Institute. Across the globe, there are several green building institutions that incorporate various aspects of healthy building principles, including BRE, a British organization that operates across Europe, and Australia’s Green Star.
THE INTERNATIONAL WELL BUILDING INSTITUTE
The International Well Building Institute (IWBI) only dates back to 2013, and it introduced its WELL Building Standard in October 2014. But it has quickly taken hold in the market. To date, there are about 510 WELL registered projects. Over 200 are in the U.S., and the rest are spread out across about 30 other nations, including Canada, Mexico, France, China, Spain, the U.K., Brazil, India and Australia. Notably, China is second on the list with 73. There are 35 certified projects, and over 20 are in the U.S. Two months ago, total registered and certified WELL buildings crossed the 100 million mark in square footage.
According to IWBI, WELL is complementary to the LEED green building rating system, with about a 20% overlap. And the two systems, which both use the Green Business Certification Institute for third-party verification, have a close relationship. This relationship was further cemented in November 2016 when Rick Fedrizzi, co-founder and former CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which created and runs the LEED program, was named CEO of IWBI.
Most of the buildings using the WELL standard are in the corporate office sector, but in addition there are more than 80 residential buildings across the globe that are registered (mostly multifamily), along with about 20 retail projects and a few more in education and restaurants. A current focus for WELL is the senior living sector. There are a only a handful of senior living projects registered right now, and as soon as a couple more come on board, standards will be developed for the sector.
The WELL standard looks at healthy buildings through seven categories: air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind. Air certification covers not just emissions and ventilation, but also the use of materials in the environment-since surfaces accumulate airborne germs to various degrees-and maintenance protocols that disinfect targeted areas. It also includes pest control, moisture management and combustion minimization. Water certification includes everything from fundamental water quality, contaminants and public water additives to the promotion of drinking water (including drinking water taste properties) and periodic water testing.
When it comes to nourishment, certification covers the gamut, from access to fruits and vegetables to nutrition and food allergy labeling, processed food restrictions, food preparation and storage, serving sizes and special diets. It even includes “mindful eating.” The light category is also very sophisticated, measuring circadian lighting design, low-glare workstation design, shading and dimming controls, healthy sunlight exposure and color quality, among others. And the fitness certification matrix covers activity incentive programs and structured fitness programs, fitness equipment, outdoor pedestrian promotion, fitness equipment, active workstations, and stair accessibility.
The comfort matrix ranges from meeting ADA regulations and ergonomic interior elements to thermal and olfactory comfort and several issues relating to acoustics, including sound-reducing surfaces. And finally there’s the mind certification matrix, which is particularly wide ranging. It includes biophilic design, health and wellness awareness, self-monitoring (sensors and wearables), stress and addiction treatment, workplace family support, a healthy sleep policy, a business travel policy, artwork, and even altruism, which covers charitable activities and charitable contributions.
In all, WELL includes over 100 performance metrics, design strategies and procedures, and to achieve certification it requires an onsite assessment and performance testing by a third-party auditor.
IWBI is currently working on version 2 of its standard, which should be released early next year. It will include extensions in various categories, including “mind.”
THE INTERNATIONAL LIVING FUTURE INSTITUTE
In 2006, Jason McLennan presented version 1.0 of the Living Building Challenge to the Oregon-based Cascadia Green Building Council, one of the three original chapters of the USGBC-McLennan had been working on the idea since the mid 1990s. Soon after, it was formally launched to the public. By 2009, the first Living Building Challenge project was completed. The original operation was called the International Living Building Institute, and in 2011 it was renamed the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).
In 2012, ILFI introduced the Declare label, an ingredient label for materials that lists all ingredients by CAS (Chemical Abstract Service) numbers, which are unique identifiers for every chemical substance dating back to 1957, down to 100 parts per million. There are three types of Declare labels: Red List Free, which are 100% disclosed and contain no Red List ingredients; LBC Compliant, which meet the Living Building Challenge requirements and are at least 99% disclosed but may contain one or more Red List ingredients “that fall under an existing, published LBC Exception”; and Declared, which are 100% disclosed but contain one or more Red List ingredients not covered by an Exception.
In 2015 came ILFI’s Living Product Challenge, a more comprehensive product certification system structured like the Living Building Challenge.
So far, there are over 380 projects registered with the Living Building Challenge certification and 74 certified projects. Many of the projects that are pursuing or have attained certification are also LEED certified. About a third of the total projects are in the commercial market, mostly in the corporate sector. Another third are in the education and institutional sectors. And the balance are residential, including the home of the founder, Jason McLennan. There are projects all around the world, though most are in the U.S., followed by Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The Living Building Challenge, version 3.1, certifies through seven “petals”: Place, Water, Energy, Health + Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty-each with a range of imperatives (for a total of 20), and all the imperatives in each petal must be met to achieve that petal’s certification. In Place, for instance, the imperatives are limits to growth, urban agriculture, habitat exchange and human-powered living. In Water, there’s just one imperative, net positive water, and in Energy, it’s net positive energy. Health + Happiness is comprised of civilized environment, healthy interior environment and biophilic environment. The Materials imperatives are red list, embodied carbon footprint, responsible industry, living economy sourcing and net positive waste. The Equity imperatives are human scale and humane places, universal access to nature and place, equitable investment, and just organizations. And the Beauty petal is made up of two imperatives, beauty and spirit, and inspiration and education.
A full Living Building Challenge certification means that all imperatives in all petals are met, and according to ILFI, that’s the most rigorous green building certification in the industry. But other levels of certification can be attained by meeting one of the three most challenging petals (energy, water and materials) along with at least two other petals. Certification requires performance demonstrated over 12 consecutive months. For renovations, as opposed to new buildings, some of the imperatives, like urban agriculture and universal access to nature and place, are omitted.
Like the WELL Building Standard, the Living Building Challenge includes aspects that seem difficult to quantify, like the Beauty and Health + Happiness petals. Health is fairly obvious, but happiness seems more subjective. Happiness is at least in part achieved through biophilic environments, which have been shown to lower stress, and that includes “sufficient and frequent human-nature interactions” and uniquely connecting to “the place, climate and culture through Place-Based Relationships.” And the Beauty petal includes meaningfully integrating public art and design features “intended solely for human delight and the celebration of culture, spirit and place appropriate to the project’s function. It also requires that educational materials detailing the operation and performance of the project be “provided to the public to share successful solutions and to motivate others to make change.”
FLOORING AND HEALTHY BUILDINGS
Flooring can play a significant role in both of these healthy building certifications. Low VOC-emitting materials, for instance, are absolutely essential. And other environmentally sustainable attributes are generally significant, particularly for ILFI’s certifications, which has a list of prohibited materials and chemicals along with other requirements, like FSC-certified wood and local sourcing for a percentage of materials.
Antimicrobial flooring is also an asset to these certifications. And it’s also worth noting that both of these systems address cleaning and maintenance protocols and the impact of maintenance chemistries, and that’s another place where flooring selection can make a huge difference. Floorcoverings that have low maintenance profiles and can be cleaned with environmentally friendly products can go a long way toward helping attain certifications.
Flooring also plays a huge role in acoustical abatement. Carpeting, for instance, can quiet a space. Cushioned flooring absorbs the sounds of foot traffic. And underlayments like sound-absorbing cork can not only quiet the space they’re installed in, but they can also reduce noise transmission to lower levels. This isn’t necessarily a big deal in most corporate workspaces, but it can be critical in multifamily housing projects and senior living.
In both systems, aesthetics and biophilic design impact the assessments, and flooring has a major aesthetic impact on interior spaces. Natural products like hardwood and stone can impact certifications, but so can carpet and other materials that feature visually pleasing designs. And trending right now are designs with biomimicry elements, that subtly echo the color, patterns and textures of the natural world.
To date, 16 flooring companies are using ILFI’s Declare labels. Leading the way is Mohawk with 21 products, according to the most recent information on ILFI’s Declare page. Forbo has 17, Milliken has 12, Bentley Mills has six and Metroflor has four. Novalis, Shaw and Tarkett each have three, and American Biltrite has two.
Mohawk is also the first flooring firm to attain certification under ILFI’s Living Product Challenge. Its Lichen carpet tile, introduced earlier this year, achieved Petal Certification. Lichen fully achieved the Water Petal because it is net positive for water, and this was accomplished through the closed loop system at its Glasgow, Virginia carpet tile facility, along with a “handprint” boost through a shower retrofit at Atlanta’s Morehouse College-the water savings from those fixtures outweighs the water used to make Lichen through its lifecycle. Lichen, which met ten of the 20 Living Product Challenge imperatives, scored in the Materials imperative with its Red List Free construction (including its EcoFlex NXT polyolefin backing) and scored in the Beauty Petal with its biophilic design.
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