A few years ago, Green building expert Rachel Hodgdon was visiting a new high school in DeKalb County, Georgia, when she asked teachers how they liked their new building. They loved it. The best part, they told him, was that they no longer came home every afternoon with the “2:30 headache.”
Hodgdon asked them what they meant. “They said to me, ‘This is the term we coined to explain how sick we feel after a full day at school,” she says.
At the time, Hodgdon was the director of the Center for Green Schools. As she traveled to meet students and teachers who were moving out of older buildings into greener buildings, she gathered all kinds of similar stories. The cough is gone. Improved attention. Absenteeism rates have plummeted.
Hodgdon had stumbled upon an idea that architects and public health researchers were also beginning to recognize. Improvements to buildings in the name of sustainability – things like oversized windows and new, quieter HVAC systems – were beneficial to the health of the people inside these buildings. The achievement helped spur a movement in architecture commonly referred to as “healthy buildings”. Just as structures can be designed for the health of the planet, they can also be designed for the health of their inhabitants.
In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked renewed interest in the role indoor environments – where we spend 90% of our time, even in a normal year – play in our health. Suddenly, developers and CEOs realize that integrating health concerns into a building’s design is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
“People are really asking, ‘Are these spaces safe? Are they in good health? How could I improve them? Says Rick Cook, founding partner of the New York architectural firm COOKFOX.
Cook and other architects have worked with the International WELL Building Institute, an organization that develops standards for healthy buildings and is now led by Hodgdon. Since the pandemic, the Institute has registered more than one million square feet of real estate every day in its certification program, putting buildings on the path to wellness.
“It’s been like a stick growing moment for us,” Hodgdon says.
Our buildings, ourselves
In our current reality, when we think about staying healthy inside, our mind immediately turns to social distancing and plexiglass barriers and then to factors like ventilation and air quality. But the latter two will remain critical even beyond the pandemic. Not only does fresh air help prevent the spread of flu and colds, studies have shown that it also improves attention and increases cognitive test scores.
Research has shown that many other indoor environmental factors have quantifiable health effects. Our immune system and general well-being are shaped by where we spend most of our time. Even things that we might think of as simple trouble – the buzz of an officer’s phone conversation, the light that keeps flashing – have an impact on our health. There is a reason they are boring.
Cook argues that while modern conveniences like fluorescent lighting and air conditioning make up for some of nature’s drawbacks, getting away from our natural habitat has made us more miserable indoors. Studies have consistently shown that environments that mimic or allow access to the natural world lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, improve focus, and strengthen the immune system. “Just look at nature – 3.8 billion years of evolution. We should probably be paying attention, ”says Cook.
Take something like lighting. When we don’t get enough bright light – or when we get too many of the wrong types of light – during the day, our circadian rhythms are shaken. We don’t sleep well at night. In the long run, this increases the risk of cancer. “We now know that not stimulating our circadian rhythm properly is actually a carcinogen,” says Mara Baum, head of health and wellness at design firm HOK.