Our changing climate points to warmer temperatures and wetter environments outside, which will drive people indoors and make it critical to ensure good indoor environmental quality. But the complex issues that arise require forethought and balanced solutions.  “Higher humidity and excessive moisture can result in the growth of mold on building materials and furnishings with negative impacts on respiratory systems, but if manufacturers counter those impacts with chemical treatments, we are faced with more chemicals indoors,” asserts Marilyn Black, PhD, founder of Greenguard/UL Environment and the 2013 Vision 2020 chair for Indoor Environmental Quality.

The potential for flooding and extreme humidity mandate hardy building products that can get wet and properly dry out to avoid mold without warping or other damage.  “In addition, higher temperatures can cause increased VOC emissions and may cause certain heavier chemicals like phthalates (that remain inert under standard conditions) to emit from products,” Black says.

Ventilation is a significant issue. Alex Wilson, founder of the Resilient Design Institute and BuildingGreen, the 2010 recipient of the Hanley Award, and 2012 Vision 2020 co-chair for Materials + Products, points to the likelihood of more power outages in extended durations from storms, flooding, and even drought if water levels drop in lakes and rivers used for power plant cooling. “Our mechanical systems won’t function, which will be dire for many large high-rise apartment buildings without operable windows,” notes Wilson. “If we can’t bring in fresh air, our need for source control is greater so we should  eliminate VOC sources and materials like urea-formaldehyde binders, and avoid synthetic materials that have unknown impacts on health.”

Greater humidity and higher heat will also increase chemical reactions leading to more outdoor pollutants; and excessive rain and flooding can contribute to the growth of biological allergens – possibly with new strains to address. These factors place new stresses on conventional ventilation systems to provide additional cooling and cleaning of outdoor air. “It’s actually an exciting time for design as these complex issues demand holistic approaches and forward-thinking,” Wilson says. “Interestingly, all of the measures we might undertake to create buildings resilient for climate change actually make those buildings better from day one.”

Black is also concerned about the societal imbalance, as lower economic groups living in substandard multifamily housing and sensitive populations such as children and the elderly are more vulnerable to detrimental health impacts from exposure to pollution, chemicals and moisture-related problems. “We need to develop an understanding and coordinated approach to these challenges to meet the needs of everyone,” says Black. “These discussions are just beginning, and a lot of good research still needs to be done.”

For more thoughts on this topic, click here to access a 2010 report commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the effects of climate change on indoor environments.

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability.   Track our progress all year  as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.