By Pernille Berg, Science Manager, BLOXHUB
We have all had headaches leaving stifling meeting rooms, aching for fresh air and many of us have an opinion on what constitutes a good working environment. But few of us have probably imagined just how important healthy buildings would become.
So much has already been written about 2020 and the spread of a virus which now seems to be a rather constant unwanted companion. This did not keep me from reaching out to Joseph Allen, professor, Harvard and John Macomber, lecturer, Harvard. The reason was quite simple, they were releasing their book on healthy buildings, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces drive Performance and Productivity.
Furthermore, they are extremely knowledgeable when it comes to indoor climate, healthy buildings and the economics surrounding buildings. I invited both to participate in our Science Talks as part of Nordic Edge 2020 and share their research and recommendations regarding manoeuvring as safely as possible through our current pandemic.
See the full video from the BLOXHUB ‘Science Talks’ on Nordic Edge:
The conversation spins around two topics:
- A safe return to schools and work
- The role of the aerosols
Below a few highlights from our conversation. The entire Science Talks (video above) covered the science behind healthy buildings and is definitely worth a visit.
Multiply your age with 0.9
We spend an amazing amount of time indoors. But just how much? Well, multiply your age with 0.9 and there is your answer. When you are 80, you will have spent 72 years indoors.
That staggering fact leaves no one in doubt as to why healthy buildings matter and why we need to address the science behind healthy buildings.
And when we talk about healthy buildings, we talk about “air quality, dust and pests, lighting and views, moisture, noise, safety and security, thermal health, ventilation, and water quality.” (Jill, Lepore, Is Staying in Staying Safe?, The New Yorker, 7 September, 2020).
Given the fact that we spend so much time indoors, it is also important that we start addressing the issues of healthy buildings because we are able to document that healthy buildings enhance people’s well-being, health, creativity and productivity.
The importance of healthy buildings in safe returns to school and work
Based on the knowledge of healthy buildings as well as the documented research on COVID-19 Joseph Allen and his colleagues have been able to publish recommendations on returning safely to school.
The discussion and the work on ensuring as safe a return to school and word as possible are constant reminders that we can never safeguard us from life. Life is risky. But we can mitigate the risks and we can ascertain how to do what is best in the given circumstances.
The recommendations as pointed out during our conversations are not necessarily expensive, they can be applied by every school:
- Fresh air (this can be done simply by opening windows regularly)
- Social distance whenever possible
- Washing hands
- Flexible schedule to avoid crowded spaces
(For more detailed recommendations, including portable air cleaner: https://twitter.com/j_g_allen/status/1288062193737568256)
Or simply put be smart:
- Stay home when sick,
- Mask up,
- Air cleaner in every classroom,
- Refresh indoor air
- Temporary classrooms.
The pertinent point regarding reopening schools is quite simply: it is too expensive not to, it is of too high a price when it comes to the overall well-being of society; the children lose out on learning, which will impact society in the years to come, children at risk are at an even higher risk when not at school to mention just a few examples.
Joseph Allen and his colleagues at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have also published recommendations on how to return to work. Similar recommendations apply for the workspace but with some additions. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/looking-at-covid-19-through-healthy-building-eyes/)
The recommendations are also specific when it comes to ventilation and filtration because as Joseph Allen and John Macomber emphasized several times, COVID-19 is airborne. Bringing me to the next highlight:
Aerosols – the word we all have to know about
From the initial recommendations on how to reduce the risks of contamination and spread of COVID-19 we have been told to keep a distance (recommended distance varies from 1 to 2meters) and wash our hands regularly. We were told to clean surfaces and not stand near people when sneezing and coughing. With good sense. However, when we sneeze, cough, sing, shout, we share respiratory droplets. These particles, tiny particles are aerosols. And they stay airborne for hours and they also travel further than 2 meters.
And this means that we need to pay much more attention to ventilation and filtration returning to the science and research behind healthy buildings.
During our conversation, John Macomber eloquently said that this virus will not disappear and like the Genie return to the bottle. Rather, we have to learn how to keep our indoor climate as healthy and as safe as humanly possible.
When it comes to schools and workspaces this is possible today given what we know about how to ensure indoor climate. The many technologies which have been developed to monitor individual movements, the density of people, air quality (with all its parameters) etc. enable us to ensure the indoor climate.
The solutions are here
For quite some time there have been many debates on smart buildings and the ethical aspects of what smart buildings and smart cities meant to their occupants and inhabitants. The technologies are here to monitor us today and it may not be too futuristic to envision sensors that monitor our health prior to entering our workspace. Or indeed keep us updated during our daily tasks. Different monitoring systems have already been applied worldwide during 2020, so we know the technology is here. “The ability to measure is here” to quote John Macomber from our conversation.
The question is of course whether this technology is so expensive that it will not be used and to that, both Joseph Allen and John Macomber said no.
Returning to the ethical aspect posed by the fact that the technologies are now able to monitor us at an individual level and thus allow our data to be used in unwarranted ways, Joseph Allen and John Macomber pondered a bit and said that technologies do not possess a moral compass by themselves. The data they provide can be used in undemocratic ways and in democratic ways. It is up to each country, government and citizens to decide how to apply the technologies and the data.
The emerging new business models
The possibilities for democratizing the ways in which the technologies are used exist. It is in the making. One indicator of this is the ways in which buildings’ performance is now a criterion potential buyers and residents apply rather than just location location location.
The performance of buildings means more and more to the organisations and people working and spending so much of their time inside.
With the trend of a change in demand and a change in focus on what we expect of a building, it is not just this pandemic which brings John Macomber and Joseph Allen to predict that the future will most likely bring us a change when it comes to investing in property. Impact investment and the importance of healthy buildings will play a more vital role in the future. The genie as it were will not go back in the bottle and as mentioned during our conversation: the indicators to measure a building’s performance already exist and they need not be expensive. And based on that knowledge Joseph Allen and John Macomber also argue for a shift in paradigm – a transition from minimum standards to optimum standards because “what’s measured, get’s done”, John Macomber. We may witness a change in demands but that does not reduce the need for national standards and on that note, we left on a high.