Why Green is Good for People?

By Lynne Phipps, Taco Contributing Editor

Most people think of green building design, or sustain able design as being good for the environment. They don’t always think of green buildings as being designed to be good for people. Whether designed as a residence or an office building, green buildings are first and foremost, healthier buildings in which people can live and work.

How do green buildings differ from a standard housing or business unit in terms of the healthfulness of their environment? There are several ways. Green design makes maximum use of any building’s access to natural light and fresh air, and avoids those materials inside the building that can have an adverse effect on health by off-gassing.

Nathan Bishop School Library

Natural lighting in the library of the Nathan Bishop School in Providence, RI.

Natural lighting is not only the least expensive form of light, it is also the healthiest. On the other hand, fluorescent light, which is presently the least expensive mass produced commercial lighting, may also be the least healthy. The use of fluorescent lighting has been associated with problems such as headaches, migraines, eye strain and eye discomfort. Whenever possible, designers and architects should use as much natural light as possible, only subsidizing it with artificial light as needed. In doing so, designers offer reduced energy bills, and provide building occupants with vitamin D and serotonin, both important for health and well being.

Bringing plenty of fresh air into the indoor environment is also a vital element of green design as well as being a requirement of the LEED system. Ample fresh air is also an essential element in dealing with sick building syndrome (SBS). SBS can have several causes. Primary among them is the use of HVAC systems that are not cleaned regularly, which then circulate and recirculate dust, mold spores and other pollutants through the building. A second significant cause of SBS can be the off-gassing of interior building materials, painting and coatings, carpeting, furnishings, etc. These materials can off-gas substances, some of them carcinogenic, over a long period of time. Occupants in buildings with SBS may experience headaches, nausea, dizziness and lethargy.

Curing SBS in an existing building, or preventing it in a new building, is a priority for designers who focus on sustainable design. On any given project, this may be accomplished in a variety of ways. The first often is providing operable windows that make it easy to bring in fresh air. Maximizing natural air flow through any given space, minimizes the effects of polutants and makes for healthier and happier occupants.

Specifying interior finishes that do not pose a health risk to building occupants is another way designers can ensure that a building is a healthy place to live and work. Furnishing, carpets and building materials of natural materials, recycled or recyclable materials, are usually produced by manufacturers that are thinking about off-gassing.

The specifier must also think about the adhesives and/or underlayments that go along with the materials being specified. If a material is green, but the underlayment is not specified, the contractor/installer may not understand enough about the project to know that off-gassing is a critical concern, both for the installation process and for the end user. It is critical that the designer specify not only green materials, but a green installation.

When designers pay close attention to natural light, indoor air quality, and interior material selection, the quality of the interior environment for the end user increases significantly.

In what other ways does green building affect people? Share your insights!

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