During the Future of Cities Deep Dive, Professor Joseph Allen of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shared with ALI Fellows how buildings impact the health of cities. Allen also discussed strategies to boost human and business performance through the design and operation of buildings, and the use of building materials. In the face of rapid urbanization and population growth, he explained that cities’ decisions about buildings would determine the collective health of their citizens in the present and for generations to come.
Allen began by explaining the important connections between indoor health and economic health. People spend 90% of their time indoors and the indoor environment has a huge impact on cognitive function and, thereby, economic performance. Allen led forensic investigations of “sick buildings” and learned that the amount of air brought into a space impacts the health of people in that space. Unfortunately, many modern buildings had stagnant air and met only the basic metrics for acceptable indoor air quality.
Allen’s research showed that higher ventilation rates in buildings saw tremendous positive benefits on higher order decision-making processes. People who spent time in an optimized air-quality environment had significantly higher cognitive functioning scores as compared to when they spent time in traditional office spaces. Increasing ventilation in buildings was inexpensive and could have serious benefits to companies and individuals—his research showed a $6,500 increase per person per year for companies and an eight percentile increase in decision-making performance for individuals.
Equally as important as air flow, the materials used in buildings had a significant impact on the health of individuals. Allen explained that more than 80,000 manmade chemicals were used in the U.S., that only 300 of those were tested for safety, and that less than 20 were controlled through regulation. To complicate matters, manufacturers often worked around regulations by slightly modifying the chemicals used in their building materials. “They are playing chemical whack-a-mole,” Allen explained, “As soon as one chemical is regulated, another pop ups.”
Allen and his colleagues at Harvard were working to reduce the negative impact of chemicals in building materials. He helped create the Harvard Healthier Building Materials Academy in order to empower buyers to influence the problem of “chemical whack-a-mole.” He added, “We have enough large corporate buyers on board who have the ability to influence suppliers.”
Allen also cited the importance of green buildings to promote public health. Energy efficient buildings reduce dependence on the grid, which in turn reduces the amount of pollutants released by energy providers, but there are also co-benefits associated with green buildings. Allen’s research indicated that for every $1 saved on energy, green buildings saved an additional 77 cents through health benefits to individuals. “Green buildings lead to better energy performance, better market performance, better occupant performance, and come with significant social benefit,” he added.
Concluding his remarks, Allen explained that due to urbanization, the decisions we make regarding our buildings have determining effects on our health. “Buildings represent one of the greatest public health and business opportunities we’ve ever had,” he said. The ultimate challenge was convincing people to take action on the construction of healthy buildings.