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Improving Australia’s Buildings for the Good of the People

Around Australia, the solution many office workers use to combat ‘tiredness’ in the middle of the afternoon revolves around a latte from their favourite coffee shop.

Less common are thoughts about better access to daylight, better ventilation and better thermal comfort. More broadly, whilst considerable effort has gone into improving the performance of buildings from a sustainability perspective, less attention has been given to building design from a standpoint of human health.

Yet the importance of buildings in health outcomes cannot be underestimated. In cardiovascular health, for example, the elimination of environmental pollutants such as tobacco and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) helps to avoid damage to the heart and vessels. In the immune system, use of non-toxic chemicals limits the exposure to chemicals which weaken immune function whilst water and air-filtration systems limit exposure to bacterial and viral pathogens and allergies.

That matters. Using data from 2014, information from the World Health Organization Global Expenditure database suggests that around 9.9 and 9.4 per cent of gross domestic product is being spent on healthcare annually throughout the world and in Australia respectively. With a 2001 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency suggesting that people on average spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, the potential to improve health outcomes through better indoor environments is clear.

Accordingly, a standard has been developed which enables buildings to be certified for the way in which their design facilitates positive health outcomes. Administered by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL Building Standard aims not to compete with green building ratings systems but rather to complement them.

Essentially, the standard looks at a project’s performance in terms of seven ‘concepts’ or elements of buildings which are critical to health and well-being. These are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Three types of projects can be certified: new and existing buildings, new and existing interiors and ‘core and shell’ projects (building structure, heating and cooling, window locations and glazing etc.).

Scoring is influenced by two types of criteria: preconditions and optimisations. For the new and existing building certification, there are 41 applicable preconditions and 59 available optimisations. In terms of air, for example, 12 preconditions include things like smoking bans, VOC reduction, air filtration and microbe and mold control, whilst 17 optimisation credits available include air infiltration management, humidity control, pest control and advanced air purification.

To achieve the basic Silver Certification, all preconditions must be met across each concept area. To achieve the higher Gold and Platinum certifications, 40 per cent and 80 per cent of applicable optimisations must be achieved respectively in addition to all of the preconditions.

The standard is catching on. Globally, 351 projects across 28 countries have been certified, including 26 projects in Australia. There are also 31 accredited professionals (APs) in Australia who have been assessed by the Institute to possess expertise in the standard and more than 1,000 APs worldwide.

In a presentation at the recent Green Cities event hosted by the Green Building Council of Australia, International Well Building Institute chairman and CEO Rick Fedrizzi stressed that the standard was in not intended as an alternative to Green Star or other sustainable building rating systems but rather to work alongside these systems in a complementary manner. Indeed, IBWI and GBCA have been in partnership since March last year, with both are working to promote buildings which are both healthy and sustainable. Arrangements are also in place to ensure that where Green Star and Well rating credits cross over, projects which have already been assessed for the relevant credits through Green Star will not need to be assessed for these credits again when applying for WELL certification.

Fedrizzi says the relationship between health and buildings is grounded in sound evidence. Take cognitive health, for example. In one recent study, Harvard University Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science Joseph Allen found that cognitive scores of 24 participants who spent six full work days in an environmentally controlled office space improved by 61 per cent during days in which they were exposed only to low concentrations of volatile organic compounds and by 101 per cent when high outdoor air ventilation rates and artificially elevated carbon dioxide levels of independent ventilation were added.

Fedrizzi – also a co-founder of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and who prior to his current role served as USGBC’s chief executive officer for 15 years – says that whilst gains made in sustainability have been encouraging, the impact of buildings upon health had thus far not received the level of recognition which is warranted. He says considerations relating to sustainability and those relating to building health are interrelated.

“Everybody in this room understands the impact of buildings (in terms of sustainability),” Fedrezzi told the Green Cities conference. “We understand the building, the components and the integration.

“But what about the next level? What about the human being inside those buildings? Now for the first time, we are able to look at buildings from a different standpoint and understand the human in those buildings and how all of the systems in the human body actually engage with the interface of the building and given time, (we are able to) ultimately advance the building for health and wellness.

“In the beginning (of the green building movement), people were saying sustainability is great and green building is great but what about health? Why are these two separate?”

“The truth is they are not. It is not sustainability plus health and wellness. Sustainability equals health. If you don’t have a building that respects you on every level, we are never going to get to a place in health that we want for ourselves, our co-workers, our employees and our families as well.”

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