According to the US EPA, humans spend about 90% of their time indoors. As a result, we are exposed to toxic gases and pollutants, mold and other unhealthy conditions which affect our physical and mental well-being. Poorly constructed buildings, off-gassing from furniture, pet dander, kitchen fumes releasing carbon monoxide, and many other sources of pollutants can cause headaches, throat irritation, cancer, asthma, and a wide range of other health problems.  

Pollutants from the outside can infiltrate buildings through open doors, windows, ventilation systems, and structural cracks or penetrations. In addition, some contaminants enter the building through the foundations.

When people enter buildings, they may bring in soils and dust from the outside on their shoes and clothing and contaminants that stick to those particles.

People are now becoming aware of concepts like Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and causes of poor productivity due to unhealthy indoor environments. The first and most crucial step toward the optimal indoor environment is understanding which materials and methods result in a healthier place.    

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Indoor Air Pollutants_©

Here are some methods Architects are using to design Healthy buildings: 

1. Low-emitting Materials  

Selecting low-emitting building materials which do not off-gas and pollute the indoor air is essential for healthy indoor air. Organic compounds such as formaldehyde, benzene, acetaldehyde, and toluene, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) because they readily off-gas into the air, are among the toxins being released into homes and offices.

A plethora of VOCs we are exposed to daily can be found in manufactured wood, including composites, flooring and carpets, ceiling, wall, thermal, acoustic insulation, interior paints, interior adhesives and sealants, and furniture and upholstery. 

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Source control is the most effective technique for limiting chemical exposure and reducing indoor air pollution. This includes choosing products that have been evaluated and verified for low chemical emissions, such as GREENGUARD Gold Certified products. In addition, other products certifications like the Indoor Advantage Gold, Floor score, Green Label Plus, etc., which are tested and certified for low VOC content, can ensure healthy indoor air quality.  

Resources like Mindful Materials, The Pharos Project, Ecomedes, Spot.ul, The Red list by ILFI provide a comprehensive database to identify low-emitting products and verify product certifications.

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Designing healthy buildings_©

2. Improving Indoor Air Quality 

Poor indoor air quality is the most significant indicator of an unhealthy building. Stale indoor air can exacerbate dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores. In addition, because there is often no fresh air from the outdoors during the winter months, the indoor air quality deteriorates, trapping allergens within.

Here are some strategies to improve the indoor air quality: 

  • Design operable windows: Allow fresh air into the house by opening windows from time to time.
  • Control Humidity: Higher humidity attracts more bacteria and allergens. Poor air quality is exacerbated by practices such as overwatering office plants, incorrectly drying the floor after mopping, and failing to maintain a humidity range of 30-50 percent. Consider installing a dehumidifier to prevent mold growth.
  • Limit Indoor Plants: Indoor plants are attractive, but they can also collect and promote mold growth. Limiting indoor plants will help to control allergens.
  • Design Hardwood floors instead of Carpets: Carpets trap dust, dirt, and bacteria. On the other hand, hardwood displays dust and debris, making it challenging to adhere to dust mites or pollen.
  • Clean ducts regularly, especially during the construction phase, where it is essential to seal and cover the vents.
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Regular cleaning and maintenance_©Voyagerix/Getty Images

3. Maximize Natural Light 

Poorly lit spaces and use of artificial light affect productivity in an indoor environment. According to case studies, improved lighting design enhances individual productivity by 0.7 to 23 percent, decreases headaches and SBS symptoms by 10–25 percent, and saves annual energy loads by 27–88 percent. 

Harness natural light to reduce reliance on artificial lighting. Installing more light switches, task lights, and daylight sensors is a good idea. The internal lighting is changed by these devices to accommodate the amount of natural light. Not only does this increase worker productivity, but it also saves energy. In addition, access to outdoor views can help to improve health and wellness, especially in an office setting.

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Natural light in a workplace_© HMC Architects

5. Comfort 

Thermal comfort is another significant indicator of the good health and well-being of occupants. Thermal comfort impacts the integumentary, endocrine, and respiratory systems, which can have a variety of health consequences. By giving occupants a sense of pleasure with their thermal environment, they can avoid the tension, discomfort, and distraction of feeling excessively hot or cold in a location.

Ergonomic comfort encompasses a variety of factors of a healthy work environment, including ergonomic chairs, materials, and lighting for various workspaces (offices, hospitals, and more). In addition to ergonomic furniture, allowing and encouraging greater mobility throughout the day can ensure better comfort of the occupants. 

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Thermal Comfort_ ©

5. Rating Systems: The WELL Building Standard 

The WELL Building Standard is the first rating system that focuses solely on how buildings affect people’s health and well-being. The WELL Building Standard, thoughtfully curated by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), is a powerful instrument for improving health and well-being in buildings worldwide. WELL’s flexible framework enhances health and the human experience via design, whether in offices, schools, or other environments.

WELL program concepts such as natural light, fitness, nutrition, and ergonomics make for a significantly more enjoyable work environment, in addition to producing a healthier building environment through enhanced air quality. Global Architectural firms like Gensler, Stantec, Thornton Tomasetti, Arup, etc., are actively working on WELL certification projects and giving us stellar examples of healthy buildings.

McKesson, the healthcare leader, made a significant stride forward in 2016 when it redesigned its Richmond, VA headquarters, which was over two decades old and not at all favorable for workers or the environment. As a result, McKesson’s office pursued WELL and LEED certifications. With plenty of natural light and green and organic building elements like reclaimed wood, the new facility is a masterpiece of WELL-inspired architecture.  

McKesson’s office_ ©Eric Laignel

Our choices as building designers have a massive impact on developing a more sustainable, human-health-conducive market. The Covid-19 pandemic has become an eye-opener for Architects, Builders, Business-owners, and all other institutions to understand the importance of healthier spaces and investing in strategies that would promote good health and well-being of occupants. 


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Abhiri is an Architecture Professional and Sustainable Designer with a penchant for writing, illustrating and traveling. She is interested in educating and raising awareness about Sustainable practices and strives to be a steward of nature in her designs and daily actions. Coffee, books, watercolors,and a walk in the woods are some of the things that keep her going.

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