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Materials and Methods for Designing Healthy Buildings

by Jason Brubaker
December 06, 2017

The demand for healthy buildings, while not a new concept, has dramatically increased in recent years. As we learn more about the negative effects of an unhealthy building, like sick building syndrome and lower productivity, builders and architects are finding new and better methods to achieve optimal building health.

The push for healthier facilities has been furthered through certification programs like LEED and FSC. These initiatives require that building materials and processes minimize negative health effects for occupants. As discussed in a previous blog post, LEED certification isn’t just an optional gold star for your project—it’s quickly becoming the standard for modern construction and design.

That said, designers and architects can help create healthier buildings by paying close attention to what causes a healthy project. Understanding which materials and methods achieve a healthier space is the first, and perhaps most crucial, step towards the ideal indoor environment.

Indoor Air Quality

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of an unhealthy building is poor air quality. Proper cleaning and maintenance are vital to healthy air quality in a building, but using the right materials is equally important.

Carpet, for instance, is a common culprit of sneezing and coughing occupants. Although carpet can be cleaned, bacteria and other particles become easily trapped inside the flooring, causing allergic reactions from occupants.

Hardwood, on the other hand, has a smooth surface that shows dust and dirt, which makes it tough for things like dust mites or pollen to stick around.

High humidity also attracts more bacteria and allergens. Practices like overwatering office plants, improperly drying the floor after mopping, and not keeping the humidity level between 30-50% contribute to poor air quality.

Thermal Control

In addition to humidity, thermal levels can have a huge impact on a building’s health. These aspects also go hand-in-hand, so controlling thermal levels can help improve the facility’s humidity and air quality.

One effective method for controlling thermal levels is retrofitting office windows. Innovative films can achieve approximately 50% heat rejection, and can even keep heat in during the winter months. This technology allows users to keep heat out while letting sunlight in, which brings us to our next point.

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Access to Natural Light

Let in sunlight to lower dependency on artificial lighting. Recent studies suggest that indoor lighting may harm a building’s Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) and can be detrimental to workers’ daily productivity and health. Additionally, lack of natural daylight is the second-largest cause of sick building syndrome (behind air conditioning).

Consider installing more light switches and daylight sensors. These devices alter the facility’s indoor lighting to accommodate the amount of natural light. Doing so not only improves workers’ productivity but saves energy too.

Non-Toxic Building Materials

It’s crucial that architects and designers are fully aware of the materials they are using. Ideally, more professionals would use FSC- and LEED-certified products, which are manufactured without harmful chemicals, eliminating dangerous emissions.

The EPA stated in their Healthy Buildings, Healthy People report: “While there are standard methods to quantify emissions from certain types of products and materials (e.g., carpets, office furniture, paints), many more are needed to facilitate widespread commercial development of new products and materials that emit significantly lower levels of indoor pollutants.”

Toxic chemicals and materials not only impact occupants’ health, their flammability can compromise safety. Between hardwood, carpet, and vinyl flooring, hardwood is the least flammable. Because of the fibers and chemical makeup of vinyl and carpet, these options are more susceptible to catch fire than hardwood. Additionally, FSC-certified hardwood passes the sustainability test, meaning a healthier (and safer) floor for the workplace.

Air quality, lighting, and chemicals all have an effect on the health of building occupants. By incorporating healthy design concepts into your project, you won’t just be following the “go green” trend—you’ll be building a healthier, happier work environment for your clients.