Anthony Bernheim

USGBC has promoted building industry transformation as the path to improved global and human health since our organization's infancy. Research Preview: Review of Health Language in LEED comes at an important time in the history of the green building movement as the large building industry is now focusing on issues related to human health in the built environment. It clearly indicates that LEED has a longstanding history promoting improved human health, comfort and wellbeing.

While the green building movement led by the USGBC was establishing itself in the 1990s with a primary focus on energy efficiency and a concern for human health, the indoor air quality (IAQ) community at academic institutions primarily in the U.S., Northern Europe, and Japan, were focused on indoor air quality research touching on ventilation and pollutant source reduction and elimination. Early IAQ research resulted in building design, construction and operational strategies to reduce indoor volatile organic compound (VOC) concentrations and to provide appropriate ventilation with cleaner indoor air. More recently there has been a newer focus on semi-volatile organic compound emissions and exposures.

Tackling energy efficiency was a somewhat easier endeavor as energy use and reductions can be calculated and modeled in design, and can be measured throughout the life of a building. Human health related impacts are more complicated to measure as they may occur quickly (e.g. Sick Building Syndrome Symptoms) or may take years to develop (e.g. Building Related Illnesses such as cancer). Hence it has taken more time for the building industry to focus on health issues.

What is important about this research paper, is that it shows how LEED has evolved to include building strategies that promote improved physical and emotional health, and social wellbeing.  It includes the strategies that come directly from the IAQ community research as well as broader environmental strategies related to daylighting and acoustics. It is interesting to note that health related issues are promoted in every LEED category and in all of the LEED rating systems, clearly showing that sustainable building practices flow from an integrated approach where improvements in site design, energy efficiency and building product content will also support improved human health outcomes.

This research paper identifies two additional issues.  The first is the need for a more coordinated use of health terminology and language across the LEED rating systems and across the LEED reference guides. The second is the importance of framing human health issues using terminology that is more accepted by the medical and public health communities thereby improving the connection between these communities and the building community.  A broader approach to promoting improved human health in the built environment can only improve human health outcomes.  Framing the issue using commonly understood terminology is needed as is the need for a meeting of minds of these disparate communities.

The research paper also identifies that LEED for Healthcare is the strongest rating system in terms of human health.  This is valid and probably should be so since those who are ill should be cared for in the cleanest environments. However, we spend most of our time indoors at home, at work or at play.  These other environments should not make us sick, should support improved health so that we do not need to use a hospital, and this suggests that our everyday environments should also support improved human health. 

LEED has done a good job of promoting improved human health. Is this enough? Has LEED done enough to date?  We now understand that in addition to improved site conditions, energy efficiency, and improved indoor air quality, the human body is susceptible to potential health impacts through chemical inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact. This is where the next generation of LEED (launched at Greenbuild 2013) comes into play, by introducing new credits to reward building product transparency. Credit points are offered for building product life cycle assessments documented in Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and for product chemical content transparency documented in Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certifications. Thus the new version of the LEED green building rating system is building on the success of LEED’s historical health promotion for a growing market that is demanding greater transparency in materials and products used in our built environment.