Health Benefits of Green Buildings

Good Health is defined as the complete state of physical, mental and social well-being characterized by the absence of disease by the WHO (Jones, D). Total comfort in buildings considers providing shelter and security as well as promoting the well being of its occupants. 

Traditional Building Design

In the past, indigenous people have been designing their dwellings to use the elements from their local environment – sunlight, shade, natural breezes,  & natural materials. This knowledge that has been passed thru generations is what we know as ‘passive cooling’, maximizing natural light and ventilation. These strategies were part of value and belief systems and local culture, and come in the form of indigenous architecture, ‘feng shui’ or geomancy, even superstition. 

Likewise, in use of material resources, ‘leaving something for future use’ was a conscious effort and common practice. 

The Culprit

Among the negative impacts of the Industrial Revolution was that building design had to take on drastically new requirements. These include providing for more varieties of uses or functions (storage, refrigeration, mass production, etc), as well as increased density of users. Along with technological progress and pressures to meet these needs, new building practices replaced old ones. As a result, the well-being of the building occupants was compromised. Proper design left to be a matter of being learnt “as we go along”. 

One example of this is the use of air conditioning. Instead of relying on ‘nature’, Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning (HVAC) by mechanical means was used to provide thermal comfort. Only recently have the ill effects of ozone depleting substances been discovered, and steps been taken to reduce their use. However, the damage has already been done.

Another example is how building materials and construction technology have been more daring and experimental. As a result of new discoveries in chemicals, new materials were used. It brought us a lot of benefits, but this practice was not without its consequences.

Immediate Consequences

The most immediate harm to people is a condition known as “sick building syndrome” (SBS). (Jones, D.)  The term “sick building syndrome” was used because occupants of these buildings feel sick or experience discomfort. In the US, this costs around tens of billions of dollars annually in employee sick leave earnings and productivity losses as well as $1.5B in medical bills (Spiegel, R.). This is a result of poor building design, bad selection of materials and debilitating work practices.

Poor building design may come in the form of deep plans where core spaces are located too far from windows thereby having poor access to external views and natural light. Another example is buildings that have rooms without windows or without operable windows and rely totally on artificial means for lighting and ventilation. 

Bad selection of materials may come in the form of floor finishes and furnishings that emit harmful contaminants into the air. This is called poor indoor air quality (IAQ) where building users are exposed to hazardous materials. These may be gaseous pollutants, especially volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), dust and fine fibers, or even passive smoking (Edwards, B.) that may be carcinogens, or allergens. Exacerbated by poor ventilation, these indoor contaminants have little chance of being extracted. Specifically vulnerable are people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or individuals acutely affected to varying degrees by chemicals commonly found in many building products. Nausea, headaches, rashes & asthmatic attacks which can cause discomfort affecting productivity in its mildest and be life-threatening in the extreme are the possible side effects (Spiegel, R. & Trevelyan, J.)

Debilitating work practices may be work that is repetitive, sedentary and focused on the computer monitor under the conditions mentioned. Fatigue from eye-strain and carpal tunnel syndrome are examples.

Long Term Consequences

Building can cause long term consequences of environmental damage by:

1) depletion of natural resources to produce building materials, and 

2) emission of pollution, greenhouse gasses that lead to global warming, and ozone depleting substances.

Apart from the threat of exhaustion of finite resources (timber, minerals, etc), extraction of resources normally effects erosion, and destroys habitat of or causes direct harm to certain species. Pollution of soil, water, noise and air are other effects. Transportation creates air pollution that is responsible for acid rain and global warming. Ozone depleting substances like CFC’s, are also used in buildings. Skin cancer is hugely attributed to this. (Papanek, V.)

Most of the energy used in buildings is for lighting and air conditioning. Among the uses of CFC’s are in air conditioning and fire extinguishers. The production of energy at present is heavily dependent on fossil fuel and non-renewable resources. This process contributes to air pollution and global warming. Therefore buildings that consume huge amounts of energy are heavy contributors to pollution and global warming. 

The Green Design Solution

Green Architecture is the practice that deals in designing buildings that address these problems. Synonymously used is the term Ecologically Sustainable Design (ESD) or Sustainable Architecture. This was derived as a specific design strategy from the term Sustainable Development which is defined as any development that considers “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development). The key word is ‘sustainability’ since we have to continue living and using resources. The critical decision is finding out how to go about things that will not be harmful (if this is possible), or be least harmful (if this cannot be avoided). 


By going back to basics, climate responsive design uses a keen application of solar geometry – how the sun’s energy (in terms of light and heat) can affect the building by proper orientation. Benefits include providing necessary warmth without the use of heaters in cold climates, or natural daylight which can be invigorating. For tropical countries, by appropriately designed shading devices and proper window sizing and location, overheating may be avoided, yet attain sufficient daylight. Vegetation can also be incorporated for this means.

Cross-ventilation can also be achieved by proper orientation and window sizing. In so doing, thermal comfort may be achieved naturally and users need not be subjected to stale, conditioned air. The term ‘physiological cooling’ refers to the cooling effect of having moving air pass across the skin pores to aid in the evaporation of sweat. By using natural breezes or even an electric fan instead of air conditioners for some days of the year, comfort cooling can be achieved in some buildings at much lower electric bills, less exposure to stale, ‘conditioned’ air or poor quality (IAQ), and less damage to the environment.

Energy conservation is directly related to bringing down energy consumption of buildings. Reduce energy consumption, reduce greenhouse gasses, and contribute less to global warming. Another simple application is the use of compact fluorescent lamps that use only a fourth of the energy (in Watts) needed to produce the same amount of illumination as compared to incandescent bulbs. Others include proper sealing of windows and doors, and the use of insulation and climate responsive design to bring down load on air conditioning or heating.

Of course there is alternative energy from renewable sources. These include solar, wind, hydroelectric, ocean wave, ocean thermal, geothermal and biomass. Termed as environmentally-friendly energy sources, these do not emit pollution for the most part, nor contribute to pollution and global warming.

The long term consequences mentioned earlier is addressed by what is called life-cycle analysis of buildings. This covers the analysis of a building’s impact from ‘cradle’ to ‘grave and is used to guide decisions in design and choice of materials used. This means considering all the possible processes that affect the environment in one way or another from the following:

  1. the harnessing of materials from the source (mines for minerals or forests for timber),
  2. the processing of the material on site prior to transport to the plant, 
  3. the processing and packaging of the material at the plant, 
  4. transport of the finished product to the construction site, 
  5. how it is used and processed during installation, 
  6. how long it can be used and how it can affect the internal and external environments, and 
  7. its disposal after the building has outlived its usefulness.

By considering good lighting and ventilation, achieving thermal comfort with the least amount of energy consumed, by providing appropriate shading devices and other good design or ‘green design’ strategies, it is hoped that green buildings address the immediate problems (SBS) and the long term problems (by life-cycle analysis) that affect its occupants and the environment.

Examples:

Properly oriented and selectively sized windows

(small at Western side – left photo; generous at 

Eastern side) allow cross ventilation and natural

lighting at the Casanova Residence.

The Source – Organic Restaurant; over 90% of the materials used were re-used applying  the concept of ‘design for disassembly’ (DFD).

Unit 1011 Parc Chateau – a residential condo with

sliding partitions and operable translucent transoms

that maximize natural light and cross-ventilation.

References:

EDWARDS, B., Towards Sustainable Architecture: European Directives and Building Design, Butterworth Architecture, 1996

JONES, D., Architecture and the Environment: Bioclimatic Building Design, The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 1998

PAPANEK, V., The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture, Thames and Hudson, 1995.

SPIEGEL, R. & MEADOWS, D. Green Building Materials, John Wiley & Sons, 1999.

TREVELYAN, J., Holistic Home. Quintet Publishing Limited, 1998.