Healthy Buildings: How Construction Fights Disease and Saves Lives

Healthy buildings are innovative structures that use uplifting design elements and sustainable technology to help occupants lead healthier, happier lives. COVID-19 has forever changed our relationships with buildings, and most companies still aren’t sure that they can convince everyone to return to the office. Builders have taken notice that construction plays a key role in keeping occupants both healthy and safe.

We’ve discussed the green building trends and innovative technologies shaping the next decade in construction, and both have the end goal of creating healthier structures. What exactly does this mean for construction companies? There are different ways to make buildings healthier, depending on factors like location, climate and a company’s vision.

Learn more by reading on below, or jump to our infographic to visually understand the benefits of healthy buildings.

What Is a Healthy Building?

A healthy building aims to make its occupants happier and more productive through responsible building methods, efficient construction equipment and natural design elements. For example, it includes incorporating light filtering elements, rainwater harvesting systems, energy converters (such as solar panels) and even smart apps to manage daily operations more efficiently.

benefits of healthy buildings

The science behind productivity finds that building health directly contributes to performance. Health Performance Indicators (HPIs) are metrics that track building health by assessing the structure and its occupants. With filters and smart ventilation, healthy buildings reduce the presence of disease-causing pathogens and give us cleaner spaces to breathe.

An unhealthy building can have obvious red flags like hazardous materials or mold buildup. However, it’s usually the hidden dangers of toxic buildings that are the most worrisome. Read on to learn more about the criteria used for judging the healthiness of a building.

Foundations Of a Healthy Building

The criteria that measure a building’s health were developed by researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health as a result of analyzing over 40 years of data. Some of these indicators are more obvious than others—moisture and poor ventilation can contribute to the accumulation of mold and poor water quality may indicate a more serious problem.

However, there’s not always a clear giveaway that a building needs improvement. Sometimes, unhealthy indicators are more difficult to pick up on. Employees complaining about a cold office may seem more like a nuisance than a performance inhibitor, but research shows that even small changes in temperature can negatively affect productivity.

annotated cross-section of a healthy building

Nine elements of a building’s design and construction were determined to affect the health of occupants:

  • Ventilation
  • Air quality
  • Moisture
  • Water quality
  • Thermal health
  • Dust and pests
  • Noise
  • Lighting and views
  • Safety and security

COVID-19 is forcing builders to reassess ventilation in their ongoing and future products. The CDC acknowledges that ventilation can transmit airborne pathogens like the coronavirus; new research suggests that a comprehensive ventilation management plan reduces transmission of pathogens up to 80% by utilizing air scrubbers, occupancy management and more.

While the current pandemic might not be a concern forever, it’s already influencing building plans to reduce future outbreaks. New and improved certification rollouts are helping people feel safe while transitioning back to working in offices or shopping in stores. These certifications will play an important role in monitoring building health and safety in the future.

How Healthy Buildings Are Certified

There are three common certifications used to determine a building’s relative health. LEED, BREEAM and WELL certifications measure different aspects of sustainability and quality to determine which buildings are healthier than the rest. Each certification system relies on different criteria to assess building health. Sometimes, buildings can even be precertified based on their plans.

  • LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
  • BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method)
  • WELL (International WELL Building Institute Building Standard)

These certifications assess a building’s energy efficiency (LEED), environmental sustainability (BREEAM) and general health and safety for occupants (WELL). The WELL standard uses the Health-Safety Seal to recognize structures that make an effort to combat the transmission of viruses within the building.

Each certification rewards different levels of compliance: WELL and LEED certify “silver”, “gold”, and “platinum” buildings. BREEAM buildings that pass certification are marked with one of five designations, ranging from “passing” at the low end to “outstanding” for the highest achievement.

Environmental Research Meets Construction Technology

Building healthily means acknowledging all the ways to future-proof the design process, constructing with social and climate changes in mind. Beyond constructing simply sustainable buildings, firms are looking for ways to up the social impact of the buildings they create, like installing public arcades and art installations.

ESG data, IEQ inspections and BIM technology

Data analysis is a crucial part of project planning for healthy structures, as data monitoring is a daily function for these smart buildings that operate with lots of autonomy. Healthy buildings are the result of comprehensive data analysis (sometimes using artificial intelligence), in-depth inspections and detailed building automation systems.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Data

ESG data adds context to a project by assessing its physical, cultural and regulatory impacts. For example, Amsterdam is battling incremental sea level rise, so designers must adapt to future-proof their plans and account for climate refugees. ESG data leads to more empathetic construction projects that result in a positive impact on their communities.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Inspections

In an IEQ, third-party inspectors will examine entryways and empty spaces, measuring airflow to judge the building’s insulation. Pressure differentials are checked to make sure air is flowing properly. Most importantly, IEQs assess the health of building occupants via observation or interviews to judge whether the building they work in is making them tired or sick.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) Technology

Building Information Modeling is a tool that simplifies building management by centralizing elements of a building project digitally. BIM helps green buildings become healthy buildings with impressive tech like occupancy-based room temperature monitoring. It can reduce the need for regular maintenance intervals by monitoring minute details like printer paper levels.

Fascinating Healthy Buildings In the Real World

Healthy buildings are more popular than ever as more firms decide to invest in environmental sustainability. These buildings can take the form of entire new structures or adaptive reuse projects that turn older structures into renovated healthy buildings.

Greenscaping is already one of the most dominant trends in construction today. One NCBI study found that exposure to green spaces had a significant positive effect on mood. Smart daylighting, where buildings adapt to incoming light and reduce the need for electricity or blinds, is a popular alternative to all-glass façades that flood offices with light and heat.

Check out these three prominent examples of healthy buildings that are changing their communities and improving the lives of their occupants:

Bloomberg Campus (London, UK)

Bloomberg’s new European headquarters holds a 99.1% BREEAM Outstanding rating. The “world’s most sustainable office” displaces thermal energy to run without traditional heating or cooling for most of the year. The development restored an ancient Roman temple site, opening access to the public for an immersive and educational element to this healthy structure.

interior lobby of Bloomberg's London campus

Apple Park (Cupertino, CA)

Apple Park’s distinctive circular design capitalizes on exposure: the world’s largest sheets of curved glass frame seamless views of 175 acres of hilly parkland. The flagship building’s design allows green-scaped views from all exterior and interior rooms. Apple Park’s Ring Building is also the largest LEED Platinum-certified structure in all of North America, at 2.8 million square feet.

Aerial view of circular Apple Park campus

The Crystal (London, UK)

The Crystal was designed to exceed standards. When it opened its doors as an event center, it was the world’s first LEED Platinum and BREEAM Outstanding certified building. Large, angled windows bring in light while blocking out heat, while solar panels cover its jagged surfaces to capture sunlight from different angles through the day. It produces much of the energy it uses.

Waterfront view of the Crystal center in London

Healthy Buildings Are Key to Construction’s Future

The construction industry is beginning to rebound from the slow crawl of 2020. Firms are learning how to work smarter and technology is speeding up how projects can be approved and completed. For example, it’s increasingly common to contract construction services digitally and incorporate them into BIM software.

The future of construction will continue to be influenced by lessons learned during the pandemic. WELL certifications will be sought out by more companies if they successfully convince people of improved building health and safety. Data analysis will help these certifications become more intuitive as we continue to learn the benefits of healthy buildings.

Certifications will continue to educate the public about healthy initiatives, leading to increased demand for healthy structures that exist both in and outside of urban centers. We should expect more from the buildings we’re creating. After all, their impacts like disease prevention and community revival will be even more noticeable to future generations.

healthy buildings infographic


Additional Sources: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health | 2 | Harvard Business Review | 2 | EPA | COGfx | New York Times | PLOS | CDC | Cision | NCBI | Bloomberg | BRE | Foster+Partners | WELL | Politico | BBC | NBC | ThoughtCo | The Crystal

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