Vivian Loftness, FAIA, is an internationally renowned researcher, author, and educator. She is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where she served as the head of the School of Architecture for a decade. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, she will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Indoor Environmental Quality. This is the second part of a two-part Q&A with Loftness about current concerns in IEQ.
Click here to see part one of our Q&A with Loftness.
Health has become a big discussion point in high-performance design, including the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) realm. How do you see this playing out going forward?
It’s a big issue. Even the insurance industry has begun to recognize that there are health costs to commercial and residential buildings, and it is beginning to give better insurance rates for green buildings. Many of those rates are related to improved indoor air quality (IAQ) and taking toxins out of the workplace. They’re seeing that we can reduce asthma and allergy issues if we reduce the toxicity in our buildings.
There are a host of other health opportunities that can be discussed. In terms of IEQ, there is ergonomics. For those of us who sit for long hours in front of a computer screen, we’re not getting enough physical movement, even if we have excellent ergonomic keyboard support and an adjustable chair. The active design guidelines are an interesting movement because having buildings get us more physically active is a great opportunity.
Health is definitely becoming a driver. If you look at systems such as the Green Guides for Healthcare, you see attention being paid to acoustics, light, thermal comfort, and air. There’s no question that mold growth and insects affect environmental quality and, ultimately, your physical health.
There are a few health variables that are emerging as important but I have not read the definitive research on them yet. One issue is stress, and how important reducing both stress and perceived stress is to our long-term health. There has been some interesting work going on that is trying to measure stress levels through sweat on a touchpad at your desk. It’s looking into cortisol production as an indicator of how stressed someone is. Other research has shown that people now are continuously under stress and have higher incidences of certain illnesses that companies should care about, from ulcers to cardiovascular problems. So, the question becomes: How can the physical environment reduce stress? This raises discussions of biophilia and the need to connect to nature, daylight, green space, and things that are relaxing.
When people think about health and buildings, they mostly think of sick building syndrome and physical health, but the mental or emotional aspect is very interesting.
If we get into the psychological aspects of it all, questions such as “Do you have a best friend at work?” come up. It ends up that if people have a best friend at work, they have less stress and tend to be more satisfied with their job. Sociological health then stretches over into the nature of collaborative work and a lot of architects are trying to figure out how to design spaces that engender better collaboration between people of different disciplines and expertise. It doesn’t directly sound like a health issue, but it translates into a sense of belonging and being part of a team that is doing something important—things that are positive contributions to your psychological and sociological health. One challenge, though, is that it gets harder and harder to quantify.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing us in terms of IEQ in the next five years or so?
A few things continue to be scary. One is the huge fluctuations in climatic events. Deluge rains and droughts can accompany very high temperatures or freezing temperatures, and this causes buildings to go through much harder environmental changes that can lead to mold, envelope degradation, and other things we haven’t had to deal with in the past. There are things happening because of climate change and they are issues that we have to address as a profession. I’m particularly worried about what I call “sealed building syndrome,” where we’re taking buildings that were once operable and sealing them with dark glass.
What’s driving that? A security concern?
It’s cheap to do, and there is a notion that the outdoors is a problem. The attitude is, “We’ll just seal the building and artificially condition it.” That worries me. Look at school buildings that have been updated: You typically take out the high ceilings and big, beautiful windows that light an entire classroom, and replace them with a half-size window with reflective glass that’s sealed shut. You drop the ceilings to install mechanical systems.
Mold is a big issue as well. None of us quite know how to deal with moisture in buildings. We don’t know where to put the vapor barrier, and can’t figure out how to super-insulate a wall without having trouble. How do you make sure that air quality is excellent and that mold doesn’t grow?
What do you think are some of the biggest opportunities for IEQ in the near term?
I have a particular bias about the importance of what I call “environmental surfing.” How many days per year can you enjoy your house without any mechanical heating or cooling? If you have a 300-day house, you’re environmentally surfing for those 300 days. It means that your house is so well designed that you could live 300 out of 365 days a year without having to turn on the heat or the air conditioning. Nature offers us free air conditioning, but we turn out back on it. With a tight house with good windows, you could environmentally surf on nature’s energy. That is a really exciting opportunity.
Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.