Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Healthy Buildings by Design

Healthy School Building


Due to the fact that, as humans, we spend almost 90 percent of our time indoors, it’s only natural that minor improvements in the quality of the indoor environment can have big impacts on our health. Sustainable initiatives and rating systems have incorporated design strategies for healthy buildings for nearly two decades. Only recently, however, has the conversation elevated to a discussion around health and wellness and the impact of the built environment on its occupants. As we learned recently at an executive education course facilitated by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), although there is abundant research regarding the impact of daylighting, indoor air quality and the use of sustainable materials, there is an industry gap in the research and applications of healthy building design. The various rating systems such as LEED, CHPS, and more recently, the WELL BUILDING Standards, are evolving to recognize the impact of the built environment not only on our health, but on our wellness and the well-being of future generations.

Buildings can be responsible for the major health challenges we are facing today, including everything from obesity to asthma. Alternatively, buildings can also positively promote human health, particularly with focusing on the indoor air quality, active design strategies, natural lighting and healthy material selection. We encourage you to ask yourselves, “How might we design for human health?”

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines human health as “our complete physical state of being free from disease or injury.” Wellness, on the other hand, is the attitude one has towards their health. It is a concept that one continually works for.

indoor classroom


For buildings, how do we know when a building is healthy? How do we know if our buildings promote wellness? Research studies such as the #thecogFXstudy, led by Dr. Joseph Allen, show the impact of optimal air quality on cognitive function. Not only did participants report a perception of better indoor environmental quality, the research is a quantified study illustrating increases in occupant productivity, critical thinking skills and decision making. Applying this lesson to educational environments creates a significant benefit for students’ health, engagement and learning. Fortunately, the design of healthy buildings has become the norm instead of the exception when it comes to educational facilities. LEED and CHPS provided the early impetus while an increase in student’s performance and a greater understanding of sustainability’s value has continued the trajectory. It has been reported that daylighting is associated with a 20-percent to 26-percent faster learning rate and learning spaces with operable windows are seen to be associated with seven percent to eight percent improvement in student performance.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a major component of a healthy building. For a new project this is something that should be addressed in the planning stages to ensure the design, specifications and budget accommodate measures needed to assure IAQ. Strategies include protection of ductwork to prevent dust build up, multiple air changes to “cleanse” the building, regular cleaning, protection from moisture, use of high efficiency filtration media for mechanical units and use of low-VOC or water-based adhesives and paints.

school indoor air quality


The need to address asthma and allergy issues has also become more prevalent in today’s educational environment. Replacement of carpet with hard flooring has been a common strategy to enhance IAQ by removing those materials that trap dust and pollen. New carpet technology is being developed so the nylon fibers release the particulates rather that trap them. Better filtration is available for HVAC systems, an important component given today’s outdoor air requirements. The importance behind understanding the factors that are associated with indoor air quality can make a significant impact on the quality of health of your school environment. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), school absence due to illness such as asthma not only affects individual students, but also can affect other students who attend the same schools. There is a community responsibility that is connected to the health and wellness of the educational environment. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2013), the average age of American schools is 42 years old, as schools undergo renovations, addressing the indoor air quality is an opportunity to positively impact student well being.

Several healthy strategies can be included in a new or existing building, but there are other factors that contribute to a buildings health — especially aged buildings. Prior to working in an older building, a hazardous materials assessment should be done. Usually a third-party specialty lab is hired by the owner to survey and sample the site for dangerous materials such as asbestos and lead paint. Asbestos can be found in a multitude of products (friable and non-friable) including floor tile, mastic, pipe insulation, glazing compounds and other products. Lead paint is also prevalent in older construction and can be buried under multiple coatings that have built up over the years. Once identified it can safely be removed by specialty abatement contractors. It is absolutely critical to include the time to remove hazardous materials when a project involves existing construction and trying schedules. Recent events have exposed lead water piping as another hazardous component. If aged infrastructure is prevalent it would be prudent to test for lead and other contaminants.

healthy school building example


Mold is another obvious hazard. The rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, however in Texas, if there is more than 25 square feet of contiguous mold identified, then a mold remediation protocol must be developed and a licensed mold remediation contractor must remove. Air sampling (an industry standard) is the only way to tell if the mold is airborne; basically findings are compared to the species and concentrations of the exterior, differences are identified that will factor how the protocol is developed. The remediation is similar to asbestos; build containment, use HEPA filtration, remove in containment bags, clean and sample air. The presence of mold indicates there is a water and a food source for mold to live and propagate. It is imperative to find and fix the source of water intrusion, whether a leaky pipe or building envelope issue. In Texas a Certificate of Mold remediation damage can only be issued after remediation and the source of the mold has been fixed.

Beyond health, a focus on wellness and how design can inspire social, mental and physical health is an important aspect of healthy schools. Social environments that include open and communicative areas result in opportunities for students to experience a sense of connectedness on campus, to nature and to their community. When children socialize in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaboration skills.

Healthy school building


Design strategies that promote mental health on campus is seen mostly in the higher education market and more recently in conversations at the high school level as well. Creating spaces on campus that create happiness and the ability to cope with stress can reduce future health concerns for students. Finally, understanding an approach to design that encourages physical wellness by creating design opportunities throughout the school building or campus that encourage daily exercise; spaces to engage in in active learning, ergonomic seating and the choice to stand in a learning environment, walking trails and large central stairs that discourage the use of elevators are all strategies of active design that promote physical wellness for students on campus.

The benefits of a healthy building are too compelling to ignore. The increased benefits to students, teachers and other occupants is another example of the far reaching implications good design has on the occupants. Change design by seeing human health as a must have, not as a nice to have.

Special thanks to Denice Williams, Baer Engineering and Environmental Consulting, Inc.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .