Balancing Act: Finding the Right Mix of Materials for Occupants and Building Owners

For decades, one of the main goals of the building and construction industry was to use materials and technologies that would promote energy efficiency. As an industry, we have done a lot of work to optimize the building envelope to save time, money and emissions and to meet increasingly stringent building standards.

Those energy efficiency standards remain as important as ever in new construction and when retrofitting existing structures with newer technologies. Many regions, states and municipalities have laid out aggressive plans to meet net zero energy targets in the coming decade. Nationally, the Better Buildings Challenge looks to reduce energy usage by at least 20% over ten years, including in businesses, manufacturing facilities, cities, states, universities and school districts.

In short, our work is far from over when it comes to creating buildings with energy-efficient improvements. However, nowadays you can’t open an industry publication without seeing some sort of discussion about healthy buildings. It is indeed the new frontier of building design and we’re all looking for ways to balance the needs of energy-efficient buildings, healthy buildings and, most importantly, the needs of occupants.

Building Performance vs. Occupant Experience

It is widely cited that people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, a number that has likely gone higher since the beginning of the pandemic. According to the EPA, indoor concentrations of some pollutants are two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.

The government agency also says that “Indoor concentrations of some pollutants have increased in recent decades due to such factors as energy-efficient building construction (when it lacks sufficient mechanical ventilation to ensure adequate air exchange) and increased use of synthetic building materials, furnishings, personal care products, pesticides and household cleaners.”

The increase in indoor air pollutants has raised concerns about occupant health and safety with increased risk for irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer. Human interaction within structures also plays a role when it comes to infective disease transmission.

The healthy buildings concept takes aim at mitigating chronic illnesses through design improvements. The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building Report put out by Harvard University professor Joseph Allen cites the following areas of focus:

  • Ventilation;
  • Air quality;
  • Thermal health;
  • Moisture;
  • Dust and pests;
  • Safety and Security;
  • Water quality;
  • Noise; and
  • Lighting.

On the surface, it appears that the desire for building energy performance and return on investment for building owners and health and well-being are somewhat at odds with each other. But in reality, both need to be considered in building design, the selection of materials and in the development of new building technologies.

Emerging Technologies for Healthy, Efficient Buildings

While in a completely virtual environment this year, the Consumer Electronics Show in January put out a number of presentations on the future of the building and construction industry, including a session called “Healthy Buildings, Healthy Lives.” In the presentation, four panelists offered different perspectives on balancing building design and efficiencies with the human element.

They all talked about the importance of implementing sensors and other technology in existing and new structures to collect actionable data as it relates to underventilation or carbon dioxide levels. A current lack of data is the greatest barrier they saw when it comes to tracking the foundational elements of healthy buildings.

They also all agreed to one primary principle of healthy building design: putting the human element first. In short, you should not prioritize building performance over occupant health and well-being. For building owners, energy efficiency cannot be the only metric. Rather, the value of investing in healthy buildings comes from improved productivity, fewer sick days, higher rent premiums and increased lease renewal rates—among many other benefits.

Additionally, the cost of implementing data collection sensors and systems is becoming more palatable. We’re also seeing an emergence of building materials and technologies that promote healthier buildings, such as smarter ventilation systems that introduce more fresh air (versus recirculated air) into the building. Glass companies also are experimenting with conductive “anti-viral” glazing that heats glass in an effort to neutralize bacteria and viruses.

Evolving Our Understanding of Building Design

I think it’s important to remember that we are not going backward. Energy efficiency remains an important consideration when it comes to building design. However, like any technology, our understanding of buildings and their impact on people continues to evolve. I expect we’ll continue to see new, better and cost-efficient ways to balance the needs of all involved.

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