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Climate Change Demands Healthier Buildings

Aug 6, 2023 | Public | 0 comments

From indoor air quality to extreme heat, buildings face difficult challenges to protect its occupants.


A critical yet often overlooked imperative is emerging — the need for buildings that are fortified for health.

As global real estate works overtime to do its part to support rapid decarbonization, such as ramping up energy efficiency solutions and other carbon-reduction strategies, another major crisis is looming. Because of an already changing climate — which just so happens to be changing much faster than scientists expected — the world is becoming increasingly more inhospitable. Exhibit A and B this summer have been the dangerous Canadian wildfire smoke sweeping down into the U.S. and record-breaking extreme heat in North America, Europe and Asia.

“We are headed wittingly into the new reality — we knew it was coming,” said Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently in The Guardian. “Things will get worse before they get better.”

Since the 1980s, Hansen has used his knowledge and platform to warn — as loud and as often as he possibly could — of the escalating dangers of climate change.

What does this all mean for buildings, all the places that, first and foremost, need to protect occupants and keep them safe? Are they ready? Are they prepared? Many buildings — of all types, all sizes and in every part of the world — will now face numerous new, unanticipated pressures, sometimes with devastating effects to property, but also to health, and even jeopardizing lives.

That’s why, taken together, the observable shifts in the climate and weather represent a major wake-up call for the building sector. Leaders from across real estate, both commercial and residential, along with leading organizations in the design, engineering and construction industries, and building owners and operators, will need to move quickly to help protect the people inside their buildings and address their health and well-being when confronted by these new (yet predictable) vulnerabilities.

Simply put, climate change demands healthier buildings. This demand to fortify buildings for health will continue to intensify as the Earth continues to heat up, which accelerates extreme weather events, rising sea levels and other disruptions to communities around the world. The relevant and very alarming footnote here being that, despite increasing global efforts and various international agreements to curb GHG emissions, these harmful global warming pollutants remain on the rise, now exceeding an annual rate of roughly 40 billion tons of CO2.

Start with IAQ

Buildings can do much more to support health and safeguard against climate-related impacts. The key lies in adopting a comprehensive approach to healthy buildings that accounts for the multifaceted health risks posed by climate change. This includes prioritizing health-resilience focus areas such as indoor air quality, water quality and management, thermal comfort, emergency planning, integrative design, healthy and sustainable materials, healthy lighting environments and food security.

One of the most compelling cases in point is the implementation of measures necessary to enhance indoor air quality. Clean indoor air — which requires a series of interdependent strategies across mechanical ventilation, air source control and filtration — are critically important when fortifying indoor environments against well-known climate impacts, including increased ground-level ozone pollution and increased smoke pollution from wildfires, which emit fine particles and in turn increase the risk of adverse chronic and acute cardiovascular and respiratory health outcomes. That’s not to mention the air quality effects from rising temperatures, more intense precipitation patterns, and increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, all of which contribute to much higher levels of some airborne allergens and then fuel associated increases in asthma episodes and other allergic illnesses.

Underscoring the importance of holistically addressing indoor air quality, the International WELL Building Institute, the leading authority on healthy buildings, details 25 strategies across 14 features in the Air Concept, one of 10 concepts in the WELL Building Standard, to help enhance indoor air quality across a building’s lifetime.

Despite the availability and recognition of these evidence-based solutions, facility managers don’t focus nearly enough on the mounting necessity for safer and healthier buildings as they experience weather conditions that only a few years ago seemed unfathomable. In other words, the first step on the critical path to climate resilience needs to be prioritizing solutions to boost health resilience in buildings, the places people spend approximately 90 percent of their lives.

Dangers of extreme heat

In a recent Washington Post article, the spotlight turned to Phoenix, which is likely to become the first major U.S. city to reach an average monthly temperature higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Not an average high. An overall average,” the article says, underscoring the staggering nature of the statistic. Are buildings in Phoenix – the homes, schools, offices, hospitals, stores, restaurants and others – ready for that level of heat?

The outlook becomes even more alarming when closely examining the impacts of extreme heat. According to statistics managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), heat kills more Americans than flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning. To date, the deadliest year from extreme heat in the U.S. was 1995, when more than 1,000 Americans died because of excessively hot weather, including many elderly isolated at home. Abroad, according to an article in The Guardian, heat-related deaths in the UK are expected to shoot up 257 percent by 2050 because of climate change. Further, another study found that climate change has made heatwaves in parts of Europe and Africa 100 times more likely.

It shows that something as seemingly innocuous as thermal comfort in people’s homes could, in the face of a heatwave, be the difference between life and death. All around the world, heatwaves are not only more likely, but also longer, more frequent and more intense. Increased heat is just one of the deadly consequences of a changing climate; worsening wildfires, droughts, flooding, heavier rainfall and storm surges are other impacts, as well.

Not only will these effects be destructive, but they will also likely be the most devastating to the most vulnerable populations. For example, going back to the case of extreme heat, Tish Harrison Warren writes in a recent New York Times piece, “Those most likely to die from heat, however, tend to be older people, migrants, those in poverty, those experiencing homelessness or inadequate housing and those who work outside, like construction workers and agricultural laborers. Dangerous heat disproportionally affects Black and Latino families.”

As these studies show, the disadvantaged and vulnerable will suffer the most from these changes.

Adverse weather endangers occupants

The message is clear: more and more adverse weather is set to pummel our environments and buildings in ways and frequencies never seen before, which will invariably come with it cascading health risks for the people inside.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines shelter as “something that covers or affords protection.”

The President and CEO at the IWBI, Rachel Hodgdon, has always recognized that, as she says, “planetary health and human health are inextricably linked.”

Based on that axiom, the deteriorating health of the planet is poised to further imperil human health. In fact, what is happening now is how an increasingly unhealthy planet is creating a multitude of new human health threats, ones that are not just knocking louder and louder on everyone’s door, but perhaps undermining the most basic function of buildings—something that affords protection.

Looking forward, everyone — including facility managers — need to take up this challenge with new urgency and work quickly and collaboratively to fortify our buildings for health.

By Jason Hartke, Contributing Writer 

Jason Hartke, Ph.D., has worked for the past 17 years to support and advance better buildings and is the executive vice president of advocacy and policy at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). 


The post "Climate Change Demands Healthier Buildings" appeared first on Building Operating & Management


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