Should we be afraid that our offices are making us sick?
How a visiting Harvard professor made business editor Nikki Mandow fear going to work
Harvard scholar Dr. Joseph Allen has this strange thought experiment. Take your age and multiply it by 0.9 – that’s the part of your life you’ve lived inside, he says.
“We are an interior species.”
For me, it’s 50 years on the inside.
What do you think? Click here to comment.
Playing around with other numbers, I realized that I had spent almost 11 of those 50 years in an office or educational institution – mostly an office. That’s over a decade – 96,000 hours – spent in a space where the atmospheric conditions are pretty much someone else’s control. The air I breathe, the chemicals in the paint and the carpets, the heat, the lighting.
It had never occurred to me to worry about this until I heard Allen talking to Green Property Summit.
Now I can’t understand how I’ve been so jaded for so long.
Start your day with
a curation of our top
stories in your inbox
Start your day with a curation of
our best stories to your inbox
Joseph Allen is Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard and Associate Professor at the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard. Prior to Harvard, he worked in the private sector and his job was to investigate “indoor environmental quality” issues – primarily air quality, but also temperature, lighting, chemicals and heat. noise.
He thinks buildings can make you sick – or they can keep you healthy.
Yet, as he says, most of the air quality regulations we have apply outdoors.
“In the United States, we have national ambient air quality standards. We have no corollary for the indoor environment. “
Neither does New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Allen says, the messages we send about living well – exercise, good food, not smoking, avoiding pollution – don’t focus on where we spend most of our time. – inside.
“It’s a glaring hole in our understanding of lifestyle,” says Allen.
Of course, Covid made us think a lot more about being inside.
Suddenly, in 2020, we realized that indoor spaces, especially public indoor spaces – offices, shops, churches, cruise ships, buses, bars, hotels – can be deadly.
The more we understood the pandemic, the more we achieved infection comes from bad air and not from infected surfaces, Allen said.
Think of the Pullman Hotel group and the cleaner who got sick on an empty plane where the air conditioning was turned off.
One way we try to make the inside healthy is to make the inside as much as possible outside. Opening windows, improving filtration and ventilation systems.
But bugs aren’t the only risk. The air in our offices could interfere with our work.
In 2015, his Healthy Buildings team tested the cognitive function of employees in certified green and non-certified green buildings and discovered what countless office workers had long suspected: Indoor air quality influences performance at home. job.
“People who work in green buildings think better in the office and sleep better when they get home,” he added in 2016. Guardian report in study found.
“Research indicates that better ventilation, better lighting and better heat control improve worker performance and could increase their productivity by thousands of dollars per year. It also suggests that more subjective aspects, like beautiful design, can make workers happier and more productive. “
Like humans, buildings need to breathe, Allen told the sold-out crowd at the Green Property Summit in a windowless room on the ground floor of Auckland’s Aotea Center. But starting in the 1970s, as we became increasingly concerned about energy efficiency, the people who construct and manage our large buildings increasingly tried to seal them to save energy.
“We set our ventilation rates for energy, not human health,” Allen said at the summit.
Even without coronavirus to make us sick, there are apparently a lot of other potentially bad things in our office buildings.
Such as cleaning products, deodorants, flame retardants and stain resistant chemicals in building materials (including insulation and paint) and in upholstery such as sofas and rugs.
Allen calls these “forever chemicals” because of their lifespan and how slowly they can seep into the environment and make us sick – even sterile.
He talks about dust in offices that is “hormonally active” because of these harmful chemicals.
I don’t know what hormonally active dust is, but it doesn’t sound good.
The good news is that New Zealand’s office buildings could be healthier. Figures from the New Zealand Green Building Council show Green Star certifications have gone from 10 buildings in FY 2018 to 16 in FY 2019 and 20 so far this year – possibly 22 to the end of June.
“Looking at the records, we think we could certify more Green Star buildings than ever before,” says Niall Bennett, Senior Strategy Advisor.
Scott Pritchard, managing director of Precinct Properties, says the company has been involved in a $ 1.5 billion real estate investment over the past five years, including the development of Commercial Bay in Auckland, and tenants are demanding sustainable and healthy office spaces.
“There is a huge demand from the occupants. If you had to build a new building now, you’d be crazy to build poor quality, ”he says.
And that essentially means ignoring our “still in its infancy” building code for sustainable construction, says Pritchard.
“You are looking to surpass your peers and deliver something better.”
– Scott Pritchard
“If you can double the amount of fresh air over what’s prescribed in the building code, that will make a big difference.
“The building code sets minimum standards, but the commercial real estate market absolutely emphasizes more sustainable buildings.
“You are looking to surpass your peers and deliver something better.”
Kiwibank moved its Auckland headquarters to a new building in October 2020. The block has Six Green Star certification – the highest rating available – and its specifications include “low environmental impact applied coatings, no depleting refrigerants. ozone layer, good daylight levels in the office. low VOC surfaces and floor coverings, applied coatings, adhesives, sealants and ceiling tiles ”.
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are special annoyances associated with Sick Building Syndrome. These include formaldehyde, benzene and acetone and get released into the air by building materials, paints and carpets.
Julia Jackson, Kiwibank’s chief sustainability officer, said designing the new space isn’t just about avoiding things that could make staff sick. It was also about incorporating good things.
“We were looking for as many connections to the outside world as possible for as many people as possible,” she says. The building has a large atrium across all floors and the offices and collaboration spaces are outside, near the windows, which overlook Victoria Park.
Jackson says it’s too early to know if people are taking fewer sick days and are more productive in the new building, especially because disruptions in people’s work habits due to Covid will skew the results. But anecdotal evidence suggests that employee satisfaction will be higher.
“What we really noticed was that connection to nature – that floor-to-ceiling view of Victoria Park, where you have a line of trees.
“People say that the ability to step away from the screen, look outside and feel a connection to the natural world has benefits for their mental well-being, for their ability to focus, to have quality conversations and stress management.
“This is an unintended consequence of our moving to a green building. We focused on the technology inside the building, including efficient air circulation, but one of the biggest benefits is the ability to monitor trees. “
Allen’s research suggests that companies located in green buildings don’t just save money on energy costs, there is also a monetary value around workers’ health and climate change. Allen says Harvard’s Healthy Buildings team introduced a wide range of sustainability and health metrics to their own campus between 2008 and 2016, then calculated the dollar value of the benefits.
The largest savings were in energy – $ 165.9 million – but there were also $ 24 million in health benefits and $ 20 million in climate benefits.
“It greatly expands the value proposition. These buildings performed better in terms of market performance, ”says Allen.
All this talk about financial performance was calming. I could put my business journalism hat back on, stop worrying about being killed by the office carpet.
But then Allen went back.
“We are on a precipice here. We are facing a global pandemic; we have a climate crisis right on our doorstep. And buildings are at the heart of that solution, so much so that the decisions we make today about our buildings will determine our collective health now and for generations. “
Damn, I might just go out for a walk.