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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Harvard Global Health Institute talk on Nexus of Green Building, Public Health and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals


January 31, 2018
Lucas DiLeo
Contributing writer

The Harvard Global Health Institute hosted a talk by Prof. Joseph Allen on the Nexus of Green Building, Public Health and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.  

Prof. Allen is Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and founder of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s Center for Health and Global Environment. 

The Healthy Buildings Program is pursing research on how building impact health.  They have launched a number of projects with industry to explore and quantify these impacts and potential for adapting building systems.

According to Dr. Allen, we spend 90% of our lives indoors.   Thus building managers have more impact upon our health than our doctors.

Building also account for 40% of energy consumption, and will have an increasing impact on Climate change.   At the same time, buildings can be resilient and be a refuge for people during extreme weather and increasing heat and air pollution.

Dr. Allen's institute is organizing its programs around the UN's Sustainability Goals as how they relate to buildings.  

He quoted Churchill who said "we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us" and updated it to "we share our buildings and they shape our public health".

Although we spend the majority of our time in doors, health research is focused upon outdoor air.  Moreover it is easy to measure energy consumption, but hard to measure human health.  This is what his projects are focused upon.

They are looking at noise, lighting, moisture, ventilation, air quality, dust and particles, temperature and life safety.

His lab launched the CogEffect study - of the effect of the indoor environment on cognitive functions of workers.  This study focused upon the impacts of carbon dioxide, ventilation and chemicals in the air upon cognitive function.  He reported that participants scored highest in a building with optimal building conditions and demonstrated how increased CO2 , for instance, reduced worker productivity.  Similarly higher levels of ventilation correlated with lower levels of infectious disease.   

And then the study quantified these impacts/benefits into $$ per employee.

In addition, Prof. Allen reported that people in green buildings report greater satisfaction with their environment.

Their center is now launching a 3 year global study of green buildings and their impact on how people perform over time.  This will take their previous work and expand it other markets and culture.   Sensors will be installed at worker desks to track various environmental quality and comfort metrics and how they vary with different conditions.  The study will also look at lighting and how it effects worker attitudes and productivity.


He was then  joined by Piers MacNaughton, Associate Director of the Healthy Buildings Program, who explained the evolution of the Green Building ROI that they are utilizing - energy costs, market performance, occupancy and tenant opinions.   Most studies are only focused upon lower energy usage and this study hopes to expand the metrics for quantifying impact.

Prof. Allen then went on to discuss the proliferation of chemicals in the environment and in buildings - the overwhelming majority never being studied for human impact - and how they are being incorporated into the food chain and our bodies.   And how to organize information on chemicals to help developers and managers make better decisions.  This has led to the Project on Living Lab and the Healthy Building Materials Academy for Harvard to evaluate chemicals in its own Campus.

There are many areas where chemicals become inserted into the building's environment such as stain repellent chemicals, cooking, clothing, cleaning materials, fabrics, etc.

They are seeking to learn what is the public health impact of our buildings.

Prof. Allen concluded by stating that "75% of the infrastructure we need by 2050 has not yet been built.  Decisions we make now will impact our personal and economic health for years to come."