Public health and healthy buildings

Public Health and Technology to Promote Healthy Buildings

At the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, R-Zero’s CEO, Grant Morgan, moderated a panel discussion entitled “Public Health – Tech is Coming for You.” The esteemed panel featured the following participants:

  • Dr. Joseph G. Allen, professor at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health
  • Dr. Elie F. Berbari, Chair of the Mayo Clinic Division of Infectious Disease, and 
  • Joanna Frank, Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Active Design. 

Together, the panelists discussed how the devastation of COVID-19 has accelerated much-needed change in the field of public health, with specific focus on the concepts of healthy buildings and indoor air quality.

The panel agreed that the past two years have seen a terrible crisis, but they also agreed that sometimes it takes a crisis to push a problem, and its solution, to the forefront. The COVID-19 virus and global pandemic have had a devastating impact around the world. However, COVID has encouraged innovation and refocused attention on issues of significant public concern. Public health, and the responsibilities of government entities, healthcare providers, private businesses, and individuals, have become central topics of discussion and debate on every available forum. The outcome of this public discourse is a new understanding of what must be true to move beyond the pandemic and be prepared for whatever may come next.

Public Health and Innovation Through the Years

One of the primary areas of innovation is a renewed interest in the concept of healthy buildings. The ideas behind healthy buildings have existed since the early 1900s when France, Belgium, and Austria became the first nations to ban lead-based white paint as physicians began to link health issues and developmental issues to homes where lead-based paint was present. Since then, periodic changes to statutes and regulations have happened in response to complaints and human health concerns. 

In the 1950s, injured World War II veterans confined to wheelchairs decried the status of building entrances and access to floors when only stairs were an option. With the rise in energy costs during the 1970s, the movement toward green buildings emerged and surged in the late 1990s. In 2006, the Pharos Project sought to bring greater transparency to the types of building materials used in home and commercial construction following issues such as cancer-causing asbestos materials in insulation and ceiling tiles.

Beyond concerns about the design of and materials used in structures where people live and work, interest in the impact of buildings on occupants’ health and safety has emerged. Research has shown that our indoor environment plays an important role in both our mental and physical health. Joseph Allen’s book Healthy Buildings provides an in-depth look at the nine foundations of a healthy building and the impact healthy buildings have on human health and wellbeing. Beyond just physical health, healthy buildings impact emotional and mental health as well productivity.

The Pandemic and Public Health Disruption

According to Joanna Frank, “It’s really important to kind of keep this conversation broad. This isn’t just about mitigating infectious respiratory disease. Absolutely, buildings can be used to do that. But buildings are impacting all the aspects of your health whether you know it or not.” She referred to research over the past 100 years and thousands of studies that show the value and impact of creating environments that are optimized for people, taking into account their mental health as well as their physical wellbeing.

COVID has been a driver of this renewed focus. As Dr. Berbari noted during the SXSW session, “With any major crisis there’s disruption. You can see where history is filled with that. From the Second World War to the first World War, the polio epidemic, to the AIDS pandemic; society changed from the external shocks.” COVID innovation has resulted in vaccine development in record time, rapid testing and contact tracing capabilities, and improvements in ventilator manufacturing and hand sanitizers. It has also generated an increased demand for UV-C disinfection devices.

The realization that COVID-19 and many other microbial illnesses are airborne triggered a push for immediate responses. Improved filtration and HVAC operations, air sanitizers and purifiers, face masks, and air monitors topped the lists of business response. But for people who live and work in buildings (and realistically, that’s nearly everyone), changes in shared spaces must be more sweeping.

When Dr. Berbari asked the SXSW audience how many of them had contracted COVID-19 or knew of someone who had, nearly every hand went up. He received an equally overwhelming response to the question of how many audience members knew of someone who had died from COVID.  This personalized impact of the COVID pandemic has forced every segment of humanity to take a closer look at the safety of their indoor environments.

With more than six million deaths and close to 500 million confirmed cases worldwide, COVID is earning a top spot as one of history’s most deadly illnesses. Fear, misinformation, and a reliance on disinfection procedures we’ve used for more than 100 years led to this highly infectious illness reaching nearly every location on the globe. 

Public Health and Healthy Buildings

Whether in a pandemic or not, human beings spend 90% of their lives indoors. Isn’t it time we began raising the standards for our indoor environments? Joanna Frank and her organization helped to create the Fitwel program, the world’s leading certification system for healthy buildings. She spoke about how investors are now considering the importance of healthy buildings. Using environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics, real estate investors are looking for projects that take into account the physical, mental, and emotional health of building occupants. Recent research shows that businesses with higher ESG ratings are significantly outperforming other companies. In fact, Frank says, by 2025, $50 trillion, or one third of the global economy, is going to be tied to ESG metrics.

Dr. Allen thinks we need look no further than air quality to see improvements for human beings. Minor tweaks to a building that improve air quality deliver significant improvements to higher order cognitive function such as strategic thinking, information syncing, and crisis response. He identified a stakeholder shift that is driving change. Before the pandemic, Allen said, change had to go through a facilities manager. Now, and moving forward, it’s happening because the CEO is paying attention to the real estate and to the employees, who are now not only interviewing with the company, they are interviewing their building.

While cost has always been a consideration in improving building quality, Allen has a revelation for the decision makers. “The cost to optimize ventilation, to get these productivity benefits, is on the order of $40 per person per year. That’s, like, nothing for a company. The cognitive function benefits, we estimate, are on the order of $6,000 to $7,000 per person per year.”  He continues, “When you put human health into the cost/benefit equation, it just wipes out these cost considerations.”

Why Public Health and Healthy Buildings Considerations Are Crucial Now

Of course, not every company will jump on the bandwagon immediately. Motivating stakeholders and decision makers will require data and information that ties to success. COVID has demonstrated how human health is a risk for business. Employees are driving the demand for healthier indoor environments, and the businesses that don’t acknowledge the need for indoor environments to be made safer are suffering the consequence of what’s being called “The Great Resignation.” In a recent survey, 58% of employees said that indoor air quality mattered more to them than having healthy food or fitness facilities available to them.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving indoor environments and creating healthier workplaces. Solutions need to fit the employees and the businesses enacting them. Identifying the community that’s being served by the building is a first step. Dr. Berbari recommends partnerships between universities and startups, between institutions and businesses. He urges the popularization of science as a means of furthering development and support.

All of the presenters in R-Zero’s SXSW panel agreed that the National COVID-19 Pandemic Preparedness Plan is a step in the right direction. Healthy buildings play a vital role in that document. Recently, ultraviolet disinfection was also mentioned as part of the “Let’s Clear the Air on COVID” document. UV-C technology isn’t new science. Building health has long been known to have an impact on the occupants. The pace of change to buildings, to policies, and to development of new technologies is speeding up because of demand from those who are impacted.

Public Health, Healthy Buildings, and R-Zero

During times of crisis, innovation often leaps forward driven by need and demand. Our focus at R-Zero is providing cost-effective methods for improving indoor air quality and surface disinfection. Our products are designed to assist businesses of all sizes in providing a better, healthier indoor environment for their employees, residents, and visitors. Much like the experts on this panel expressed, we believe that everyone deserves an indoor environment free of harmful microorganisms. 

As President Biden’s pandemic preparedness plan continues to evolve, we have already identified how our products can contribute to reducing the impact of Sars-CoV-2, viruses, bacteria, mold, and other harmful microorganisms. We look forward to continuing to work with partners such as Mayo Clinic and others as we not only make the indoors safer but also anticipate and counteract possible future outbreaks by bringing technology that promotes healthy buildings to the public health space. Contact us today to learn more.

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