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We spend ninety percent of our lives indoors in environments where we live, learn, and work. In some countries, that number is even higher due to extreme climate and outdoor pollution. If we spend ninety percent of our time indoors, that means that by the time our learners graduate from high school, they will have spent 15,600 hours inside a school.

Like many other institutional environments, schools have been built with efficiency as a priority, with little knowledge of the connection between the indoor environment and human health. The energy crisis in the 1970s guided one example of a focus on efficiency. To conserve energy, architects and engineers focused on tightening up the structure of buildings to make them less leaky, thus reducing ventilation rates and making the building more efficient. Unfortunately, at the time, there was little quantitative research to inform those decisions that would harm the physical and cognitive health of the building’s occupants.

The good news is that we now have a significant number of scientific studies that help to inform the value of investing in healthy buildings. Within the context of education, we now know, beyond anecdotally, that the health of a building impacts the health of students and staff, student cognition, and performance of students and staff. Evidence of impact include (Extracted data points from Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, authored by Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber, 2020):

  • Students’ cognitive testing shows a five percent decrease in “power of attention” in poorly ventilated classrooms. 
  • A study of over 4,000 sixth-grade students indicates lower ventilation rates, inadequate ventilation, moisture, and dampness were associated with higher incidences of respiratory symptoms. Additionally, inadequate ventilation was associated with higher numbers of missed school days.
  • A study of over 3,000 fifth-grade students indicates higher math, reading, and science scores in classrooms with higher ventilation rates. 
  • Third-grade students with “focus” lighting (1,000 lux, 6,500 K) for a full academic year had a higher percentage increase in performance on oral reading fluency than students in a standard lighting scenario (a 36 percent versus a 17 percent increase). 
  • A study of 300 students detected mouse allergens in 99.5 percent of samples taken. In addition, students with higher exposure to mouse allergen had a higher likelihood of having allergy symptoms and lower lung function.

When considering investing in healthy buildings, we can borrow research insights from our cousin industries, healthcare, and the workplace for additional evidence. For example, healthcare organizations have been at the forefront of sustainability initiatives since the early 1990s due to research showing a correlation between healthy hospital environments and improved patient outcomes. There are also numerous studies on the correlation between healthy buildings and health, well-being, and enhanced performance of employees, including reduced absenteeism rates in the workplace. 

To build the case for why it is essential to pay attention to healthy buildings, we must first shift the conversation about health and well-being.  From the medical industry to the consumer, we must rethink the old definition of health, “the absence of disease” to a definition espoused by the World Health Organization, “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Secondly, we must reframe our views on the relationship between the building and its surrounding environments. Traditional thinking focuses on the impact fossil fuels and carbon emissions have on the outdoor environment without considering how the built environment is affected. Acknowledging that the contributing factors of the outdoor environment, the materials of the building envelope, building systems, and operational practices are all interrelated is the first step to a healthy built environment. 

Consider how buildings impact the health of the earth. The built environment consumes more materials than any industry in the world. At the end of the life cycle of a building, the structural materials go into a landfill, ultimately negatively impacting air and water quality. Consider the impact that outdoor air pollution has on the health of a building’s indoor air quality (IAQ). Small particulate matter, usually found in smoke and haze, originates from complex interactions of chemicals emitted from power plants, industries, automobiles, and landfills to form tiny dust particles deeply inhaled into the lungs. Outdoor air pollution penetrates the building through open doors, open windows, HVAC systems, personal clothing, and shoes.  A well-maintained air filtration system plays a crucial role in the health of indoor air quality by regulating the speed of air circulation, temperature, relative humidity, and the concentration of small dust particles and other contaminants. 

Pollutants enter the water supply from chemicals that leach into the soil or industrial waste. Unless carefully controlled, these contaminants can make their way into the drinkable water supply inside buildings. In addition, other sources of contamination exist within water delivery systems made of lead or contain harmful compounds. Referencing evidenced-based guidelines for air and water quality can help mitigate the health risks posed by environmental contamination.

Several organizations develop evidence-based guidelines for mitigating the adverse effects of overconsumption of resources, global population growth, migration to cities, and a changing climate. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), founded in 1993, promotes sustainability in building design, construction, and operation.  In 1998, the USGBC developed a LEED green building rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), established in 2013 by the Delos organization, is a public benefit corporation established to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. IWBI developed a certification project called the WELL Building Standard. These certifications help organizations set a true north and provide an on-ramp to establishing a healthy building culture, creating economic value, and improving human health and performance. 

Green school – Medea Creek Middle School, The Oak Park Unified School District 

To further advance the goals of sustainable practices for healthy buildings, both USGBC and IWBI are working together to share which of their standards and criteria for certification are equivalent or have alignment, referred to as crosswalks. The current versions of the standards, LEED v4, and WELL v2, incorporate crosswalks for 47 of the requirements for Interiors; 50 requirements for New Buildings; and 18 requirements for Existing Buildings. These requirements cover strategies and performance criteria in the categories of Air Quality; Physical Activity Support; Building Products and Materials; Furniture, Architectural, and Interior Products Materials; Thermal Comfort, Lighting; Connection to Nature; and Acoustic Performance. These crosswalks offer opportunities for an organization to pursue LEED certification and receive the WELL credits for the requirements incorporated into the crosswalk. 

The LEED and WELL certifications are opportunities for organizations to establish a healthy building culture, create economic value, and improve human health and performance.  For organizations not quite ready for a certification process, the guidelines from the LEED and WELL rating systems, along with the crosswalks, can serve as a true north for setting and achieving small incremental goals toward a healthy building culture and improving human health and performance. 

Author Susan Whitmer: Susan Whitmer, Principal Consultant at Susan Whitmer Studios, WELL AP. Her focus is on creating human-centered experiences that are inclusive and equitable, and promote well-being. Susan has written and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed white papers, articles, and book chapters on inclusive design and learning spaces, including Open House International, National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, International Perspectives on Higher Education Research (Vol. 12), SCUP’s Planning for Higher Education Journal, and Current Issues in Education Journal. In addition, she serves an Advisory role at the FLEXspace community, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI™) and Learning Spaces Collaboratory.