Greenbuild Special Report: Creating a Healthier Built Environment

A master speaker session and subsequent panel of physicians and industry exports tackled the issue of building healthy spaces at Greenbuild yesterday in Philadelphia.

There is a reason why “stepping out for some fresh air” is an expression. It is unfortunate that the health of the end user of space is not the primary factor driving the design and construction of our built environment, considering that most of us spend the vast majority of our lives indoors.

A master speaker session and subsequent panel of physicians and industry exports tackled the issue of building healthy spaces at Greenbuild yesterday in Philadelphia. While creating healthy space does cost money, they said, it will lead to a more productive workforce with fewer sick days and greater collaboration.

A key point was that the problem extends far past the issue of air quality. Dr. Richard Jackson, professor & chair of environmental health sciences at UCLA, links America’s most prevalent health problems—childhood and adult obesity, diabetes, depression and heart disease—directly to the space we live in and the fact that our lives have come to be dominated by the automobile.

Among the most interesting and alarming notes from Jackson’s presentation:

  • Two-thirds of children in California cannot run/walk a 12-minute mile.
  • There has been a four-fold increase in the number of people using antidepressants in the last 20 years.
  • 52 percent of adults age 46-64 report engaging in no regular physical activity (including walking).
  • U.S. Healthcare as a percent of GDP has increased from 7 percent in 1970 to more than 17 percent today.
Dr. Richard Jackson
Dr. Richard Jackson

Jackson, who is also the former state health officer of California, believes the solution is preventive care, something that is incredibly simple but extremely difficult to achieve in an environment rigged against its inhabitants.

“No drug works better than walking. When you think about sustainable communities, they must be walkable,” he said. “High-quality, dense environments are good for your carbon footprint, but they are also good for your health.”

A study in Charlotte, N.C., for instance, found a correlation between health and active transportation. Two years after the city’s light-rail system was installed, researchers observed that commuters who used rail weighed 6.5 pounds less on average than those who drove to work.

“Public health is how we advance and deal with the causes of death,” he added. “You can’t be sitting in the ER waiting for someone to show up. You have to move upstream.”

In addition to creating space that promotes walking, Jackson’s ideas for achieving a healthier populous include more unusual measures like taxing fructose, requiring a fitness grade on report cards and incentivizing affordable produce while making junk food more expensive.

Kira Gould, co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design and director of communications at William McDonough + Partners, agrees that there is something out of whack when doctors and drugs are the first things that come to mind when thinking about health.

“It is impossible to ignore the connection between health and the built environment,” Gould declared. “The context in which we live should be seen as the macro definition of public health. Along the same lines, we should see sustainability as life, rather than a technological fix.”

Gould is optimistic. Pointing to Greenbuild as a good gauge of the speed at which the industry adopts healthy building practices, she noted that last year a major topic was transparency in building materials. This year, discussions ruled that transparency is not enough. Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council, weighed in on Gould’s thoughts.

“Transparency is just the starting point,” he said. “Another thing we are thinking about is the lack of operational performance metrics for air quality in buildings. We have a relatively good focus on what energy utilization intensity is, what water utilization intensity is and how to score walkability. But we are relying on design standards to serve by proxy for air quality. The next step is developing performance metrics for spaces that can be monitored by sensory equipment.”

Of course, changing our habitats is not that simple. The United States was among a handful of countries that elected not to join the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), an international environment treaty, noted Robin Guenther, principal of Perkins + Will and senior advisor to Health Care Without Harm. “It just goes to show the power of the American chemical industry,” she declared. “It is an industry that can stop government. It is an industry that clearly feels threatened by the transparency movement. There are good players, sure, but there are also laggards. I feel that it is a significant roadblock.”

Philadelphia’s health commissioner, Dr. Donald Schwarz, added that a centralized resource that differentiates between the good and bad guys would get the public’s attention and shame certain companies into stepping up their game. He believes the solution to public health can only be achieved via an interdisciplinary approach that involves all parties—architects, scientists, planners and doctors—sitting down at the table together. Ultimately, the question is what kind of life we want to allow future generations to live.

“It comes down to what we are leaving behind,” Schwarz said. “I don’t think we want to leave behind heavily exposed, under-exercised people who are only going to get sicker from their environment.”