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Sick Building Syndrome: Is Greening Your Building a Cure?

The idea that a building could make people ill has been in the public consciousness since 1976 when Legionella pneumophila first reared its ugly bacterial head at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia. While that was an unusual and isolated case, the idea of a buildings indoor air causing illness has never gone away.

During the eighties and nineties we embraced energy efficiencies with such vigor that in some cases our buildings became airtight breeding grounds for germs and toxins and building occupants experienced symptoms of acute discomfort.

In addition, according to the EPA, we here in North America spend as much as 90 percent of our time inside our buildings — our homes included — and these buildings are responsible for 38.9 percent of the US carbon dioxide emissions.

Although the actual figure is difficult to determine, the EPA  has estimated the losses in employee absenteeism, medical costs, reduced productivity, and lower earnings due to sick building syndrome to be anywhere between $60 to as much as $ 200 billion a year.

So what causes Sick Building Syndrome, and how can sustainable and green building techniques help overcome it? From the moment tenants occupy a building, CO2 from the breathing begins to build up, but that’s not all we send into our indoor air. Old buildings with their mold and moisture are a feeding ground to most biological organisms. If your building has a leaky roof or windows that aren’t sealed, or if moisture accumulates around the drip pans of a cooling or heating system, you could have a major problem: black mold.

Even new buildings can be a potential hazard. Materials like some paints, carpets, adhesives, wallboard and other construction materials emit chemicals through a process called out-gassing. The chemicals in them escape into the air circulation of the building. And if you have a cough or cold, now billions of bacteria are airborne. So imagine some of those medical office buildings your doctor is in.

So could sustainable strategies be a cure for existing or new buildings? I think so, and so do some researchers who have concluded that the application of “green” and sustainable building and operational techniques will help reduce the incidence of SBS.

Building standards, typically based on the ASHRAE 62.1, require ventilation rates of about 20 Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM) per person to help remove those contaminants from building air and send them outside where they belong. But studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in California have shown that even higher ventilation rates resulted in fewer complaints of Sick Building Syndrome symptoms. But do we really need a lab or consultant to tell us that fresh air is good for us and our buildings? I think not.

Many people think green building is simply a way to cut energy costs, but that’s just one of the benefits. Green building techniques also create buildings that are healthier and more comfortable for their occupants, and for me the benefits and impact could not be better showcased than in healthcare.

The Green Building Approach

Fortunately, a cure for sick building syndrome does exist. New green-building architects and engineers are finding much better, cost-effective cures for sick building syndrome.

As much as you want to put the onus on your consultants,  as a developer or builder you have to do your own homework. My tip is stick to the basics and you should get more “green” for your green.

Example –

  • Enhanced natural lighting and light management systems: Natural lighting provides a healthy detoxification effect for the workspace.
  • Improved air quality and ventilation: Challenge your designers to incorporate operable windows.
  • Geothermal systems: The most renewable energy, great life cost ROI, and some attractive incentives currently exist.
  • Improved environmental management: Analysis of the environmental needs of the building and develop controls to improve the health of the environment. Smart building technologies are becoming more adaptable and affordable
  • Within reason use sustainable building materials replacing toxic artificial materials. (Note I said “within reason.”): Better quality commercial materials like sustainable carpets last longer, improve the workplace environment and cost significantly less over their product lives.
  • Plants: The beneficial effect is a subtle but complex mixture of the physiological and psychological. Plants improve humidity, reduced noise, improve air quality and reduce stress and engender a feeling of well-being in most people.

The motivation for healthcare facilities to incorporate sustainable green design, construction and operating practices is that improved indoor environmental quality improves the efficiency and productivity of the professionals, their staff and above all, the health of the patient.

Frank Deluca is CEO of DCL Equity Partners.

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3 thoughts on “Sick Building Syndrome: Is Greening Your Building a Cure?

  1. This article fails mention formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is the most commonly found residential indoor air pollutant. California Air Resources Board found formaldehyde exceeded the State’s recommended residential concentration in 98% of the homes tested. Other studies found that “green” homes had higher concentrations. One Los Altos CA home had 298 parts per billion measured in the master bedroom. That is nearly 4 times the concentration of the typical infamous FEMA trailers. This was in a home that had the 0.35 air exchanges per hour, in addition to having windows opened a crack.

    Why? Formaldehyde comes from many sources such as furniture, nick-nacks, and building materials such as: insulation, OSB, laminate flooring, glue lam beams, plywood, cabinets etc.

    Children under 5 spend nearly all their time in residential settings. The rate of cancer and asthma in this population has skyrocketed right along with the energy code. Why? There are many reasons including: Wall insulation often being a major source of formaldehyde. Then house wrap was introduced. The prevents formaldehyde from escaping to the exterior of the home, leaving more to populate the inside air. Pressure testing of exterior shells decreased the nature ventilation rate of a home thus eliminating the dilution of formaldehyde. Replacing solid wood products with manufactured wood products such as laminate flooring increases the magnitude of formaldehyde sources.

    Bottom line, is with 98% of test homes exceeding CA’s recommendation every residence should do a formaldehyde test. The Sierra Club used passive formaldehyde badges, which cost only $39 including lab analysis. People should know their home’s formaldehyde concentration.

    Of course their are other pollutants but if formaldehyde is controlled and acceptable it is likely other pollutants are also ok. The major exception to this is homes that have had retrofit windows installed using chualking, which can off-gas into the home.

  2. Frank,

    Great article and information! I would like to add that having a green cleaning program in place can greatly assist with improving and maintaining indoor air quality. Most green cleaning programs do not use most of the toxic chemicals associated with general cleaning platforms. Additionally, green cleaning programs are better equipped using tools that help remove harmful pollutants from the air and prevent cross contamination. For example, adding 10 foot matting at each entry doorway will reduce the amount of harmful particles and debris that normally enter a building by 80%. Having a green cleaning program in place can also cut water consumption in the cleaning of the facility by 75% and increase waste diversion from landfills via composting and recycling systems. I hope this adds to the value of your article! Thanks again.

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