Utility Management: Health is an Inside Job
Health is a hot topic these days. From insurance to lifestyle to diet, it’s anyone’s guess as to the best path to a long and healthy life. Still, what if health had just as much to do with where you spend your days as it does with your behavior?
Even though time spent outdoors has more than doubled since the 1960s, the average American still spends 93 percent of his life indoors—87 percent in buildings and 6 percent in the car, likely moving from building to building, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While scientists (and parents) have long suggested that getting outside for some fresh air is good for us, there has been little study on how “these four walls” impact health, how well we function and our feeling of well being until now.
A recent Harvard study was the first to show that working in green-certified buildings can improve productivity.* When looking at the impact of lighting and temperature on office workers, researchers found that occupants in green-certified offices scored 26 percent higher on cognitive tests. Thirty percent had fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, and 6 percent had higher sleep quality scores than those working in non-certified buildings. Optimizing indoor temperature had a significant impact, with workers scoring 5.4 percent better for cognitive function. Brighter, blue-enriched lighting (emulating daylight) was associated with better sleep quality at night, which, in turn, led to better cognitive performance the following day. A higher contrast between day and night exposure to light regulates the release of melatonin, the hormone responsible for inducing sleep and supporting one’s circadian rhythm.
Circadian dysfunction is a predictive factor in Alzheimer’s disease
The National Institute of Health recommends indoor lighting that closely replicates sunlight. The optic nerve’s ability to elevate hormones connected to mental acuity and circadian rhythm responds best to this light, which may also stave off a host of illnesses. In the demographic of 50 years of age or older, particularly those spending much of their time indoors, 4 hours a day of exposure to the right type of light has shown a correlation with preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia. The number of Americans living with this disease is expected to climb to 13.5 million by 2050, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Our built environment will double over the next century,” said Paul Scialla, founder of International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), headquartered in New York. “So it’s critical to understand just how our buildings affect the health and well-being of our population. Relatively low and no cost solutions could have great implications to the country’s most expensive health care issues of our time.”
Last year Scialla spoke at the J. R. Terwilliger’s Housing America’s Families Forum in Dallas, Texas, and at the RealPage Energy Summit in Washington, D.C. He says that incoming data is beginning to prove a correlation between building operation, maintenance, and cleaning protocols, and our national health.
“Start with the room you are sitting in right now,” said Scialla at the Energy Summit. “Think about its potential impact on your health—your cardiovascular health, your immune health, and even how well you think. Consider how the light impacts your optic nerve and circadian rhythm. It can help boost or suppress your mental acuity. It can determine how well you function, how well you feel, and even how deeply you sleep tonight.”
Five years ago, IWBI introduced the WELL Building Standard. WELL complements the work of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). USGBC, an affiliate of the American Institute of Architects, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and developer of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building rating system.
At the time of WELL’s introduction, Scialla sought to merge medical science and building science with the goal of bettering the human condition. While a nascent field at the time, it has since been filled with an abundance of research and data supporting the correlation of certain building features, many of which are identified through WELL with healthier occupants. Such data has also attracted and initiated research from stakeholders in health outcomes like the Mayo Clinic.
WELL sets performance standards in seven concepts: air, light, water, nourishment, fitness, comfort, and mind. These protocols inform structural elements like air and water quality, acoustics, thermal comfort and lighting. Other operational standards include maintenance and cleaning protocols. The service or operational component is as much a part of the story as the built environment itself.
“Incoming data is fueling the drive toward healthy buildings, both new and existing. We know that built environments can impact respiratory patterns, heart rate variability, inflammation markers, near and long term stress indicators, cognitive patterns—just about every facet of the human condition,” says Scialla. “By making small adjustments to apartment buildings in air quality, circadian-appropriate lighting, air temperature and acoustics, apartment owners and operators are in a unique position to improve the state of the nation’s health. Such data can inform policy makers and motivate apartment owners to make simple changes.”
How incentives fuel change
The IWBI administers WELL, just as LEED certification is administered by USGBC. Leading the green building movement for over 14 years, LEED certifies billions of square feet in built space, according to a building’s energy and environmental design. Fannie Mae now offers up to a 40-basis-point financing discount on green certified multifamily properties, further incentivizing the momentum toward green. “This combines environmental initiatives with housing initiatives, in order to drive policy,” said Scialla. The dawning realization that being green correlates to health outcomes only further bolsters the case for going green.
The WELL Building Standard aims to incorporate preventative, medical intentions into how we design and operate our built environment, says Scialla. And the evidence is growing. By introducing prevention into occupants’ daily lives through the buildings they use 90 percent of the time, the nation’s built environment can be a vehicle for owners and operators to impact long-term health care costs through real estate.
Editor’s note: This article was featured in the Journal of Utility Management.