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Healthy buildings and healthy people: The next generation of green building

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The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing. Credit: Pedronet via Flickr
The 2nd Ring Road in Beijing. Credit: Pedronet via Flickr

Remarks delivered by USGBC COO Mahesh Ramanujam at the Tenth International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building & New Technologies and Products Expo in Beijing on March 28.

Good afternoon. My name is Mahesh Ramanujam, and I am president of the Green Building Certification Institute and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Green Building Council. It is an honor to be standing here with you at the Tenth International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building & New Technologies and Products Expo.

Twenty years ago, the green building movement began with a simple mission: promote sustainability in the building and construction industries. In short, it was a mission to challenge the market on how we build new buildings, how we build better buildings; buildings for a better future. From this simple mission, an entire industry blossomed, buildings became more energy efficient, and a new, multibillion-dollar market was born.

Because of the tireless work of businesses, governments and NGOS everywhere, the green building marketplace has accelerated rapidly, largely because green building is seen as a business opportunity rather than a niche market. We all share a goal of, and belief in, market transformation. As we continue to meet the market demands of today we must also begin responding to the market demands of tomorrow. Indeed, a new marketis emerging for which we all must be at the ready: buildings that promote human health.

The built environment has profound effects on human health and the world around us. At their best, our buildings and communities are powerful promoters of health and well-being. At their worst, they contribute to some of the key public health concerns of modern society, from asthma to cancer to obesity.

While health has always been at the core of green building, our world today is confronting massive health challenges that are assaulting “our complete physical, mental and social well-being,” the World Health Organization’s definition of human health. As these challenges continue to mount all of us have an obligation to be more purposeful when addressing how human health relates to our built environment.

With a human population in excess of 7 billion, we are consuming resources – and destroying them – at a rate never before seen. In the U.S.,the Centers for Disease and Prevention say that 75% of our healthcare dollars goes to the treatment of chronic diseases, not prevention. Here in China, chronic diseases are the top causes of death. Stroke is the number one cause, followed by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and ischaemic heart disease. An underlying factor within this is the increase in rates of physical inactivity – in many areas of our built environment physical activity has been consciously engineered out of our daily lives.

The deaths and lifelong disabilities caused by these preventable diseases, domestically and internationally, are global tragedies. And they are not just limited to high-income countries like ours, but are present in developing countries across the world; countries that are aiming to have economic opportunity and social well being for all.

Rapid urbanization in developed and developing economies is bringing much needed and deserved financial prosperity and stability to the world. However, pollution, caused by excessive burning of coal in these markets, is reaching egregious levels and is poised to adversely affect the health of millions of people. In fact, human-caused air pollution is tied to more than two million premature deaths around the world.

Most of these deaths are from particle pollution, the matter released into the air from burning fossil fuels. Soot, containing millions of tiny particles, air bound, heads deep into our lungs. The World Health Organization notes that in 2011, lung cancers—along with trachea and bronchus cancers—caused 1.5 million (2.7%) deaths. Diabetes caused 1.4 million (2.6%) deaths. Cardiovascular diseases killed nearly 17 million people that year as well – that is three in every ten deaths.

It’s not just our physical health that is at risk. Our emotional and social health is too. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or Typhoon Haiyan—they have not only killed thousands of people but have decimated the entire social fabrics of many established communities.

What are some of the other adverse effects buildings have on us? Consider the effect of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in office buildings on employee health, well-being, and productivity. The American Public Health Association notes that IEQ can negatively affect occupants' physical health such as increasing asthma and respiratory diseases because of poor air quality, extreme temperatures, excess humidity, and insufficient ventilation.

Studies have shown that employees with such adverse health conditions are absent more often, lose more work hours, and are less productive than employees without these conditions. In some studies, there have been 11% gains in productivity from improved ventilation and 23% gains in productivity from improved lighting design.

These global health challenges require an all hands on deck approach. We like to think of our rating system, LEED, as being one set of those hands, and we welcome the hands of 3 Star, BREAAM, and the many other green building rating systems out there that are doing amazing things.

After twenty years of work and with 20,000 LEED certified buildings worldwide, the U.S. Green Building Council has an integrated process for understanding, delivering, and monitoring energy performance. Before we launched our latest version of LEED we harvested and examined all 20,000 projects, exploring their successes and failures. We now have a body of evidence to begin developing an integration process for health, wellness, and human experience in buildings.

When we first introduced LEED fourteen years ago, we viewed each building – or building project—as a living, breathing organism. As with any living organism, each system within a building—the heating, cooling, plumbing, lighting, etc.—has a distinct role, a unique purpose, much like the human body. Today, witha LEED building, all of those systems must work together to achieve excellence in operational performance to be considered healthy.

Whereas our original version of LEED focused on limiting damage caused by a building project, our latest generation of LEED emphasizes the potential for projects to contribute positively to their communities and the planet. This is done with the introduction of new impact categories: climate change, human health, water resources, biodiversity, green economy, community and natural resources.

As I mentioned before, this movement—in order to meet market demand—will require an all hands on deck approach. The green building movement has inspired hundreds of other rating systems, all of which are unique, meaningful and market transformers. All of us need to be working together.

When we look at China, 50% of all new global construction through 2015 is set to occur right here. Beyond construction, many Chinese are moving away from rural areas to urban ones to find work and a better quality of life. By 2011 alone, more than 250 million rural Chinese residents and their dependents had relocated to urban areas to find work. And now China is pushing to move an additional 250 million people into new cities and towns over the next 12 years. Clearly, this population shift is creating an enormous need for quality building and healthy infrastructure.

China continues to be a market ripe for green building expansion – green building is in line with China’s long-term economic goals. China experienced a 25% growth in green building certifications during the first quarter of 2011, and by 2020 China aims to certify 30% of all
new construction projects as green.

Higher productivity will be critical, as input costs here continue to mount. Health problems relating to lost productivity, closed schools and businesses and environmental degradation currently add up to billions of dollars of economic damage.

It is not only green buildings, but healthy green buildings that are good for the environment. A British study last year found that the same particles that affect human health also attack city buildings and infrastructure, degrading carbon steel, limestone and copper. The deterioration of public and private urban assets will become a key concern for all stakeholders.

China’s current Five Year Plan (2011-2015) acknowledges the environmental benefits of sustainable design and construction, and aims to use green buildings as a means to reduce energy use by 16% and carbon dioxide by 17%. These plans will take dedication and will address the health of people outdoors. It is very doable.

In the not-so-distant past of the 1950s and 60s, in the United States we had rivers that were catching fire, lakes and oceans that could not be swum in, and air that was unhealthy to breathe. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act changed all of that, and we were amazed to find that the earth is amazingly resilient and capable of restoring itself. For most of the 1950s and 60s, London wrestled with what was dubbed, “The Great Smog” problem. Parliament acted and passed the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968.

But what about indoors, in the places where we spend almost 90% of our time? As with much of what we do in green building, this is not rocket science. There is no deep mystery about how to create healthier spaces. But it does require diligence and attention to detail: The key components of healthy space have everything to do with creating space not for itself, but for people.

What does this mean for us in LEED? It means more fresh air in buildings. We are not just about saving energy. In fact, we learned in the 60s that buildings that are closed up too tightly may save energy, but they also make people sick.

We ask project teams to optimize the amount of fresh air coming in to the building with energy use.   But that word “fresh” can be deceptive when the outside air is dirty. So we require filtration that reduces particulate matter when bringing dirty air in from outside. We ask that you track carbon dioxide as a way to determine if this approach to ventilation is working. We ask that you don’t smoke in buildings as we know the health impacts of tobacco.

We have completely transformed the market around the bad things that you bring in to buildings that impact your health, but we have a long way to go still. We know that formaldehyde, which is a ubiquitous adhesive in furnishings, can give off gas from a piece of furniture for years and that these fumes are not good for anyone’s health. So we credit not using formaldehyde, which has led to an entirely new market of adhesives. But do we know enough about what we’re bringing in to our spaces and surrounding ourselves with?

In our new version of LEED we are focusing on creating tools that provide information to specifiers and decision makers so they can choose alternatives that do not bring unhealthy chemicals into the building. In addition to these direct issues of health, we know that there are many other aspects of an indoor environment that gives it quality and health. These include a connection to the outdoors, daylight spaces, and controllability of systems, so you can feel like you control the temperature enough to feel comfortable. Even small features like the ability to control your own lighting through task lights can add a sense of control in space, making you feel like you are part of the place instead of ruled by it. These are all items that impact our health in spaces either directly (as in air quality and lack of pollutants) or indirectly (as in comfort and connection to outdoors).

There are so many specific things we can do to create a healthy world, both indoors and outdoors. Some have already proposed solutions. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeking better metrics to link real estate investments to public health outcomes. The American Institute of Architects has announced a 10 year initiative to advance public health through the design of the built environment. And Google has publicly stated that it intends to create workplaces that remove potentially toxic chemicals so employees may live longer.

There is one undeniable fact that rings consistently in our faces: buildings have a lot to do with our external and internal environment, and have a major impact on both our health and the health of future generations. But there is an even more important fact that we cannot evade. It is a fact that we must live with, and one we will be judged by in the future: the fact that we can do something about the quality of our space, and we can do it with little or no cost. We simply need to pay attention, and build and manage our spaces as if we care.

If exercise makes us healthy as individuals, then green building is the exercise of our time for the legacy we leave for future generations; the buildings we create for them will either make them healthy or the opposite. This is why we are here: to enhance the legacy that we leave to the future.

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    Mahesh Ramanujam made 10 contributions in the last 6 months

Mahesh Ramanujam

Chief Operating Officer U.S. Green Building Council

1 commentLeave a comment

The History, Present and Future of Green Building movement couldn't be stated in a more lucid, succinct, universal and above all inspiring manner. I am tempted to use Ayn Rand in calling your mission "A crusade and a consecration which justifies the existence of Earth"

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