How Healthier Buildings Mange Risk and Add Value

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Healthier buildings matter.

Healthier buildings are a risk management strategy; unhealthy buildings are a liability, and most buildings are pretty unhealthy. In previous posts, I’ve explained this from a big picture standpoint — in this article, I drill down on the specifics, and provide tools and strategies practitioners can use to advocate for healthier buildings.¹

  1. Risks to human health from a rapidly changing climate.
  2. Risks to a business’s bottom line, when employees perform below their potential (or leave).
  3. The increasing risk of liability for owning, operating and perpetuating “unhealthy” spaces.

Risk: ambiguous and evolving terms.

When “green” buildings first began to gain broad market adoption, one of the most noted risks was a lack of clarity as to what, exactly, “green building” meant. Green building certification programs, like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) helped manage this risk because they created a sort of definition, and a common language around “green buildings.”

Risk: the impacts of poor air quality.

There is an ever-increasing amount of research that clearly demonstrates the negative impacts of “traditional” buildings on human performance. From a risk and liability standpoint, it is important to note that this research also shows that even relatively minor (and inexpensive) improvements to the quality of indoor spaces can significantly improve the health and performance of the humans who inhabit those spaces.

  1. When researchers reduced the levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), one of the most common indoor pollutants, cognitive scores increased by 61%.
  2. When the VOC levels were reduced, and ventilation rates increased (i.e. more fresh air was brought in), these scores increased by 101%.
Summary of the results of the COGfx study.

Risk: sterile environments that are void of natural elements.

As humans, we have an innate affinity for the natural world — we crave nature and are drawn to natural elements (including symbols and images). This is why many people vacation and recreate in the mountains or near the ocean, why properties with views are so valuable, and why many people say a wood accent wall is “warm and inviting.”

Even images of natural elements have been shown to have positive impacts.
An increasing volume of research can create a sort of domino effect.

Risk: design elements that fail to support all users.

The research demonstrates that diverse teams perform better.³ If a company wants to get the very best out of its people, it will hire a diverse group of folks, and create a safe and inclusive space where they can all excel.

Photo of a sticker commonly found on the door of local businesses. This example comes from Bend, Oregon.
  • “More than half (59%) of respondents avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience.”
  • “Nearly one-third (32%) of respondents limited the amount that they ate and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year.”
  • “Eight percent (8%) reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or another kidney-related problem in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms.”⁶

Environments that are distracting and uncomfortable.

Two key aspects of healthier buildings that are often overlooked are thermal and acoustic comfort. These two aspects are critical to occupant wellness and a company’s bottom line, because, if not properly addressed, they result in distracted employees.

Inaccessible environments are simply unacceptable.

A building is not “healthy” if only certain groups of users have access to it — and others are excluded. Yet this happens all the time and in a variety of ways. This topic could (and should) be the subject of a much larger conversation, and is beyond the scope of this article, but I at least want to raise a few points.

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Nicole DeNamur

Nicole DeNamur

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Attorney + sustainability consultant. I write about how we can drive deep green innovation at scale. https://www.sustainablestrategiespllc.com