Should our buildings ‘get outside’ more?

Hayley Wardrop Hayley Wardrop
Industry Leader, Health, Education & Research – Australia
7 March 2023
6 min read

Is it possible that whales get more fresh air than the modern human? Most Americans and Europeans spend 90 per cent of their lives indoors – that's more than some species of whale spend underwater. Almost all of our buildings are cut off from two staples for good health: clean, fresh air and sunshine. In any day and age, that isn't a good idea. Even more so in a world where our awareness of health and well-being has been heightened through the experience of a pandemic.

We know that trying to live inside a glass box or sterile bubble is not the answer. COVID-19 made us question many mindsets, including how healthy the indoor spaces we spend most of our lives in, really are. We might be shielded from inclement weather and wild animals, only to be engulfed by microscopic beasts in an unhealthy enclosure. 

Today, people are very much aware of concepts like Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and how unhealthy indoor environments can cause poor health and reduced productivity. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are released from virtually everything such as carpets, ceilings, interior paints and furniture. Black mould infestations and ash and smoke inhalation from bushfires or volcanic eruptions can cause respiratory problems and even impact our mental health. Poor indoor air quality is, in fact, the most significant indicator of an unhealthy building. 

But if today's society is structured so that people spend most of their time indoors, how do we optimise the space we live in for the sake of our health? COVID-19 won't be the last pandemic or the only unhealthy intruder into our homes, workspaces, schools and hospitals, so what can we do to future-proof our buildings for optimal health and functionality? How can we trust our buildings to keep us safe and healthy?

A breath of fresh, filtered air

The idea behind healthy buildings started in the early 1900s, when certain countries banned lead-based paint after physicians made the link to health and developmental issues. The Harvard School of Public Health has identified nine foundations of a healthy building: ventilation, air quality, thermal health, moisture, dust and pests, safety and security, noise, lighting and views, and water quality. Even minor tweaks to a building that improve air quality deliver significant improvements to higher order cognitive function such as strategic thinking, information syncing, and crisis response. 

It would seem our journey from low-tech to high-tech and the search for 'temperature control' has caused us to overlook the importance of 'air quality control', and vastly increase our energy consumption. How do we make the next evolution from high-tech to natural-tech, to mimic fresh air while providing passive temperature control? 

Historically, buildings were naturally ventilated, providing us with the fresh air we needed. But we can't just open windows as the answer anymore: opening windows alone or designing open areas for natural ventilation rarely results in the fresh air we're hoping for, due to noise and air pollution and the challenge of controlling indoor air temperature when the external environment is too cold or hot. 

Enter the Passivhaus standard which has made great strides in this area. The methodology uses passive design principles including good insulation and airtightness, paired with mechanical heat recovery ventilation systems to ensure a consistent supply of fresh, filtered air. It provides superior comfort air quality and reduces the need for cooling and heating spaces, which translates to enormous savings on energy consumption. 

While Passivhaus has long been favoured in the cooler climates of Europe and North America, utilising the methodology in warmer climates is becoming increasingly popular. The Monash Woodside Building for Technology and Design in Melbourne, Australia, is the largest Passivhaus educational facility in the world, and the largest Passivhaus building in the Southern Hemisphere. It demonstrates that it is possible to achieve higher standards of thermal comfort, energy efficiency and lower energy costs.

Although the cost of Passivhaus design has prohibited implementing its principles in the past, we expect to see designers and developers increasingly choosing to invest in these methodologies for future designs, as organisations strive to prioritise occupant health and wellness in addition to their ecological footprint. For instance, the Australian Passivhaus Association is focusing more on encouraging the adoption of the standard across education, health and residential, as well as commercial and public buildings. 

Balancing act

A building's immune system, like our own, is made up of many parts that need to work in harmony. The world's first standard to address the immunity of our built environments, the Immune Building Standard aims to redesign and re-engineer buildings for a post-COVID world and improve the immunity of office buildings against health risks. 

Similar to the LEED standard for certifying green buildings, the International WELL Building Institute has also developed a Health-Safety Rating to verify that a space is doing everything it can to keep occupants safe from viruses. It takes a holistic approach to health and well-being across behaviour, operations and design, measuring building aspects that impact occupant health in terms of seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. 

Sensors and digital twin technology make it easy to measure building performance such as CO2 levels, and enable it to be visible on digital platforms and social media. Buildings are quickly becoming climate responsive, but are also set to become community responsive.

Such standards offer a good start, although we can still level up what we consider the bare minimum when it comes to building design. Passivhaus designer Tomas Gaertner believes that 'designing at the edge of regulation may achieve the norm but not the good air quality needed by young families, the frail elderly, and homes constructed with a lot of synthetic, off-gassing materials'.

High as these standards may be, this is what we need to do to keep ourselves safe and our buildings ready for the future. But is the built environment ready to meet these standards if it becomes a requirement and not just a 'nice to have'?

The role of healthcare

Is it up to the healthcare industry to take the lead in designing healthier indoor environments? 

In the case of the world's first and only Passivhaus-certified hospital located in Frankfurt, Germany, architecture, government, and medicine put their heads together to achieve a very high standard for one of the most demanding building types.

Funded by the government of Hesse, Klinikum Frankfurt Höchst was designed with bigger patient rooms and equipped with energy-efficient devices, heating ventilation and an air ventilation system that supplies fresh air – all to provide better conditions for patients and healthcare workers. To assist other hospital projects to achieve this, the baseline study on the implementation of the Passivhaus standard is being made available to other hospitals free of charge.

Many newer hospitals have become all single patient rooms given the evidence that private rooms curb infections, encourage more rapid healing, and actually cost less to operate because you can put any patient in any room. Incorporating natural light and views to nature is also now considered essential where practicable. 

All of these additional features are in line with well-known research showing the impact that light and views have on the healing process of patients. 

So, if we are aware that air and water quality, light, views, comfort and nourishment of mind and body are essential to human health and well-being, why aren't our healthcare facilities exemplars of these attributes, as opposed to laggards? And why aren't all buildings adopting this approach?

Just as we design buildings that are good for the planet, we also need to design buildings that are good for people. With another pandemic and other adverse outdoor nasties inevitably coming indoors in our future, the health of our buildings will become as important as the people who inhabit them, with our healthcare facilities needing to step up and lead the way. 


Hayley Wardrop
Written by
Hayley Wardrop

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