When you think of green technology, you probably think of sustaining the planet. But COVID-19 and the subsequent shelter-at-home orders have highlighted the connection between sustaining our own health and how it is impacted by the buildings in which we reside and in those where we work. While the pandemic may have made us more aware of our time inside, even before the coronavirus, studies estimated that we spend nearly 90% of our time indoors. The spaces where we spend our time can thus have a profound impact on our health.
Green construction then offers another angle from which to consider sustainability, how we maintain our health, and how green technology can facilitate that. As early as the 1970s, the U.S. had begun grappling with construction technology and health effects. Lead paint and lead plumbing were of particular concern because of irreparable damage caused by exposure, particularly to children. Such issues were exacerbated by the discovery of the link between asbestos (used in insulation, roofing, and flooring) and various lung diseases. We continue to find links between traditional construction methods and health hazards, such as mold and mildew, air pollutants, the impact of low lighting, and more.
Green buildings offer solutions to a number of health concerns related to our indoor environments. One of the most common health concerns in buildings has to do with poor air quality. Inadequate ventilation in traditional construction traps pollutants in our indoor environments, leading to respiratory problems. Recent estimates reveal, for example, a rising rate of asthma with approximately 30% of children and 10% of adults affected. Furthermore, traditional building materials can emit toxins such as formaldehyde and phthalates into our building environments, Occupation Health and Safety magazine reports that such pollutants have “been associated with increased risk of asthma, allergies, and pulmonary infections.” Air quality problems are made worse by our reliance on air-conditioning systems that when not properly maintained help trap pollutants in our indoor spaces and contribute to harmful mold and mildew development.
Green technology offers a number of solutions to air quality problems. First, environmental building design focuses on free airflow and proper ventilation as a means of efficiently cooling interior spaces. New design systems, such as the use of cooling roof tiles and smart windows that can essentially be dimmed on command, offer new ways of cooling that don’t require air conditioning. New biodegradable non-toxic building materials are replacing those that leach pollutants into our environment and recyclables such as denim and paper are replacing outdated and dangerous substances like asbestos as insulation. Finally, the biophilic design movement is literally bringing nature into our spaces with living walls made of plants that can filter our air and provide increased levels of oxygen. All this results in better air quality, which has a real impact. A Harvard Public Health study revealed that “People who work in well-ventilated offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores.”
Another common concern of indoor environments revolves around lighting. Insufficient lighting or harsh lighting systems such as fluorescent fixtures lead to eye problems, headaches, depression, and decreased productivity. Green building technology focuses on increasing natural light by maximizing building exposure through positioning, through larger window exposure, and through reflective techniques that enhance the impact of natural light. Energy-efficient lighting systems, such as LED, and techniques, such as dimmers and timers, are more conducive to lighting that speaks to our bodies’ circadian rhythms, which research suggests results in better sleep at night and thus increased health.
Finally, a number of smaller focal points in the green design are resulting in positive changes for our health. Much of the focus on protecting clean water supplies has led to the replacement of outdated lead systems that can cause severe neurological damage and even death. Additionally, the movement of sustainable materials has called for the use of organic paints that can replace those containing lead. Green buildings are also literally taking into account our personal health, shifting, for example, from the old model of hiding stairwells to one that highlights them and encourages us to walk more. Furthermore, research on the biophilic movement has shown that bringing nature into our interior spaces has a positive effect on our mental health and increases our overall productivity.
The sum total of environmental design is that it reduces waste and decreases our carbon footprint on the planet. Lower reliance on fossil-based fuels means far fewer pollutants in our environment. The less pollutants, both indoors and out, the lower the possibility of deleterious effects on our health. As Harvard researcher Joseph Allen says, “we’re chronically under-ventilating our indoor environments, despite years of evidence suggesting we should do the contrary, green buildings increase air circulation while reducing the load on energy that caused the airtightness.” So green building design may be the way to go. A win for both our environment and for our own health.