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Building Health

Can health be built? Apparently, it can.

By Rick Reynolds

Timbered InteriorIf “your body is your temple,”* as many of us were taught as kids, buildings can be a fitting metaphor for those personal life-support systems known as “us.” But, in our increasingly contaminated world, using our own biological architecture as a metaphor for our buildings is becoming even more crucial.

The architecture of the human body creates a biological fortress and sanctuary, protecting us from harm while providing both physical (and emotional) support. How the body achieves this is complicated thanks to the slow, trial-and-error approach taken by evolution and, specifically, natural selection, over the millennia. But by using our bodies as a guide, architects can create buildings that fast track the process through intelligent design and off-the-shelf building science that takes its cue from the buildings’ inhabitants.

For example, both bodies and buildings have insides and outsides. And both survive only by permitting the outside world to enter and exit without compromising the true interior; the essential envelope itself.

The human form is a magnificent, mobile manifold that takes in sustenance and air, extracts its energy, and exhausts the spent fuel without compromising the essential envelope that protects it from biological and environmental hazards. Through absorption, filtration, and ventilation, energy is extracted while pathogens and toxins are kept at bay.

Moreover, given that our GI (gastro-intestinal) tract passes clear through us, it is considered outside the body. Topologically speaking, our bodies resemble a torus (think donut), so the outside world resides both within us and around us. This bio-physical model allows our internal systems to remain walled-off from external hazards that contact our body’s protective envelope, while at the same time, ensuring that the optimal temperatures for both health and comfort can prevail over potential life spans of a century or more.

At their best, the same holds true for our biophilic** buildings. Well-designed, healthy, “high-performance” homes and buildings must both protect and sustain their inhabitants’ physical and mental health, while doing no harm in the process. They must simultaneously guard against outdoor and indoor health threats—both natural and man-made—that run the gamut from air pollutants and toxins, to thermal fluctuations and noise. Finally, to be truly sustainable, buildings must similarly shelter themselves to remain relevant over time scales that can measure in multiple centuries.

These durable buildings can promote health, thermal comfort, (and financial) well-being by:

  • Incorporating natural, low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds), sound-dampening, biophilic materials like wood.
  • Using non-silica-based, non-friable, non-respirable, formaldehyde-free insulation like dense-pack cellulose.
  • Achieving Passive House levels of air-tightness through precision fabrication and sealing.
  • Utilizing energy-efficient Air Source Heat Pumps.
  • Adding sophisticated Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) systems that exhaust and refresh stale air with minimal energy loss.
  • Providing for plenty of natural light.
  • Deploying Open-Built® methodologies, wherein the structure and mechanical systems of a building are disentangled, so neither system compromises the other over time.

The science of “Buildingomics”—the totality of factors in buildings that influence health, well-being, and productivity—is poised to play an ever-increasing role in improving cognitive function and health. According to Building and Environment: The International Journal of Building Science and its Applications, working and learning in certifiably high-performing, green buildings has been shown to result in:

  • 26.4% higher cognitive test scores
  • 30% fewer symptoms
  • 6.4% higher sleep quality scores (a beneficial workplace effect that carries over to the home environment and is associated with higher cognitive scores)

The more we look into the parallels between ourselves and our “temples,” the more we see that, in terms of overall health, the architecture of our bodies and built environments are inextricably linked.

* Derivation: 1 Corinthians 6:19

** Biophilia: The fundamental human urge to affiliate with nature and other forms of life. Biophilic building design is informed by the innate human need for nature. (Conversely, our cities and suburbs have often been designed in ways that both degrade the environment and alienate us from nature.)