Welcome to the Healthy Buildings Movement
Get to know our hosts, Dr. Erika Eitland and Monica Kumar as they walk you through the movement that has brought us to this healthy buildings moment. They shed light on the obstacles to healthier spaces and talk to Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University. You too can use the power of design to make healthy, equitable environments for everyone.
In this episode we referred to the United Nations’ definition of health:
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The built environment impacts all of us, but it does not impact us equally. Social and environmental determinants of health are socioeconomic, demographic, cultural, and physical factors that shape our health and quality of life beyond our healthcare system. It includes buildings and the stuff around them.
Here are some readings to help understand where built environments are failing some populations:
- “The Environment That Racism Built” by Rejane Frederick
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s research focused on health disparities
- Gordon-Larsen, P., Nelson, M. C., Page, P., & Popkin, B. M. (2006). Inequality in the built environment underlies key health disparities in physical activity and obesity. Pediatrics, 117(2), 417–424. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-0058
- Gelormino, E., Melis, G., Marietta, C., & Costa, G. (2015). From built environment to health inequalities: An explanatory framework based on evidence. Preventive medicine reports, 2, 737–745. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2015.08.019
- Frumkin H. (2005). Health, equity, and the built environment. Environmental health perspectives, 113(5), A290–A291. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.113-a290
The Environmental Exposure Assessment is an important public health tool. It helps us quantify our relationship with environmental contaminants and characterize the population being exposed. Public health professionals use this tool to “diagnose” a problem and understand what strategies are the most effective. It may seem technical, but this powerful tool will change the way you see your built environment. It starts with just five simple questions:
- Who? Everybody – Children who are rapidly developing, elderly who may have mobility concerns, adults managing work-life stressors, or visually impaired.
- What are we exposed to? Environmental exposures come in many forms. As Paracelsus said, “Dose makes the poison,” which can include noise, dust, pest allergens, mold, moisture, daylight, water and air quality, or limited access to nature.
- How are we exposed? There are three main pathways. (1) Inhalation (breathe them in – pollutants from nearby major highway), (2) Dermal (through our skin – shower, dust), and (3) Ingestion (consume them – water or dust, and often unknowingly.
- How often? What is the frequency of exposure? It could be everyday, since we spend 90% of our life indoors.
- How much? This is different for everyone but the magnitude or duration of contact can determine your health effect. For example, a short exposure to an elevated level of noise can have adverse effects.
The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has a comprehensive list of Exposure Assessment Tools to check out!
Healthy Buildings Moment 1: 1854 John Snow
- Have your 5-8th grade students analyze patterns of cholera in an area of London, like Dr. John Snow, father of epidemiology, did in 1854
- Savvy with ArcGIS? Try this 20-minute mapping exercise.
- Want a deeper dive into the history of the infamous water pump? Boston University School of Public Health breaks it down.
- Myth or Legend? Some question how John Snow used maps to identify the source of the cholera outbreak.
Healthy Buildings Moment 2: 1859 Florence Nightingale
- Learn how Florence Nightingale’s approach to daylight could help you sleep better at night.
- There is still so much to learn from Florence Nightingale in this Guardian article.
- Check out this great history of Florence Nightingale.
Healthy Buildings Moment 3: 1889 Jacob Riis
- Learn more about the rise and reform of the NYC tenements where two-thirds of New York’s population were living at the time.
- Visit the remaining NYC tenements to get a closer look at this built environment.
- Interested in learning more about How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis? Check out this history deep dive.
Healthy Buildings Moment 4: 1973 Oil Embargo
- There are more lessons to be learned from the 1970’s energy crisis, check them out here.
- This crisis also had direct impacts on how we artificially lit our spaces.
- Want to know more about Sick Building Syndrome symptoms? This EPA fact sheet has you covered.
Healthy Buildings Moment 5: 1991 Lead & Copper Rule
Dr. Joseph G. Allen is an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, with John Macomber at Harvard Business School. He began his career conducting forensic health investigations of sick buildings in several hundred buildings across a diverse range of industries, including healthcare, biotechnology, education, commercial office real estate and manufacturing. At Harvard, Dr. Allen directs the Healthy Buildings program where he created The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building. He is also the faculty advisor to the Harvard Healthier Building Academy. He works with Fortune 500 companies on implementing Healthy Building strategies in their global portfolios and presents internationally on the topic of Healthy Buildings. His work has been featured widely in the popular press, including the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, National Geographic, Time, NPR, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Fortune and The New York Times. Dr. Allen is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology and an Associate Editor of the Journal Indoor Air. He earned his Doctor of Science (DSc) and Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees from the Boston University School of Public Health, and a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Biology from Boston College.
Useful Research & Resources from Dr. Joseph Allen’s Team
This episode featured music courtesy of Epidemic Sound:
- “Both Shoes Gone Walkin’” by Moss Harmon
- “Icy You” by Jerry Lacey
- “It’s Not Me” by Arthur Benson
Thanks to our Perkins&Will colleagues for chiming in …
- Lais Aguiar, Architect III, São Paulo
- Marc Asnis, Project Manager, Urban Design, San Francisco
- Justin Benjamin, Design Applications Manager, NYC
- David Cordell, Senior Technical Coordinator, Interiors, Washington, D.C.
- Rachael Dumas, Research Knowledge Manager, Chicago
- Marko Goodwin, Specifications Writer, NYC
- Mark Heller, Designer III, Urban Design, Boston
- Tatiana Kaida, Intermediate Designer, Architecture, Vancouver
- Jeanette Kim, Senior Interior Designer, NYC
- Tyrone Marshall, Senior Computational Designer, Atlanta
- Stephen Messinger, Senior Project Architect, Boston
- Lisa Poole, Director, Workplace Planning and Strategies, Minneapolis
- Gautam Sundaram, Practice Leader, Urban Design, Boston
- Devika Tandon, Designer III, Architecture, LA
- Brooke Trivas, Practice Leader, Architecture, Boston
- Eunice Wong, Intermediate Urban Designer, Toronto
… and for her reporting from the Atlanta BeltLine Westside Trail:
- Rishika Chaudhury, Landscape Designer II, Atlanta
Thank you especially to our gracious friends out on the Westside Trail, who took a brave, hot minute to share their ideas of the “built environment” and “healthy spaces” back in May 2021.
Inhabit Season 1 Episode 1: “Welcome to the Healthy Buildings Movement”
Erika Eitland: Inhabit is a show about power the power the power of design.
Monica Kumar: Welcome to Inhabit
Unknown Speaker: May 22. Saturday. So we are asking built environment and then healthy spaces?
Unknown Speaker: Yeah.
Unknown Speaker: We’re doing a podcast for our architecture firm … So what comes to your mind when we say the word built environment?
Unknown Speaker: Built Environment?
Unknown Speaker: Oh, I don’t know.
Unknown Speaker: Built Environment.
Unknown Speaker: Oh, fitting in with the surrounding area
Unknown Speaker: Pre planned environment, maybe.
Unknown Speaker: I don’t even really know where to go that I’m gonna be completely honest with you.
Unknown Speaker: That’s a good question built environment or built spaces.
Unknown Speaker: Oh man, I’m actually a civil engineer. So like, yeah, that’s just a term I use a lot honestly,
Unknown Speaker: I guess something that’s not natural manmade,
Unknown Speaker: a structure.
Unknown Speaker: Someone else hold on. I don’t have an answer,
Unknown Speaker: The interaction of physical buildings and then the nature around it.
Unknown Speaker: I would think a multi purpose space like housing as well as eating and shopping
Unknown Speaker: walkways in like places that have a lot of trees.
Unknown Speaker: I have no clue.
Unknown Speaker: I don’t know.
Erika Eitland: Hey, Monica.
Monica Kumar: Hey, Erika,
Erika Eitland: Have you ever been to the Beltline in Atlanta?
Monica Kumar: I did go to Atlanta once a long time ago, I was out on the east side trail of the Beltline. I think it was new back then. Apparently now there’s this whole other part called the West Side Trail. And so some of our colleagues went out there. And that’s what we just listened to.
Erika Eitland: We heard them asking people what built environment means and they sound so uncertain. But actually, they already know.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, the collection of responses was so beautiful. They were spot on. I mean, we hit human made, we hit structures and the surrounding greenspace. All of that is designed. And like the civil engineer said, our industry uses this term. A lot.
Erika Eitland: A lot, a lot.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, we use it a lot. And what’s our industry? Well, we’re at Perkins&Will, that’s a global architecture firm. And our industry is pretty much made up of people who design and construct built environments.
Erika Eitland: So we’re at this architecture firm. And we’re making this podcast about design and the built environment. And we wanted to define this term at the beginning of this show, because we want to make sure that we’re speaking the same language. So everyone can be a part of the conversation. Call it architecture built environment, it doesn’t really matter.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, Erika, I call it stuff. It’s not about the term. It’s about the fact that this stuff, the built environment, is really affecting us
Erika Eitland: More than we even realize.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, exactly. Like windows. I mean, how much daylight did you see during the day today? Well, that affects your sleep,
Erika Eitland: Or the entrance to your building, that affects who you might say hello to
Monica Kumar: Like the chair you sit in, it probably wasn’t designed for your body,
Erika Eitland: Similar to the temperature of your office. It was made for men in three piece suits. And you and I, we are not those people.
Monica Kumar: And then this one, I mean, this is the big one, right? Where you live can predict how long you live. A lot of us don’t question or challenge the spaces we inhabit.
Erika Eitland: But we’re here to tell you, you do have a voice in how your environment gets built. You can demand to know how decisions are being made, where and when they’re being made, so you know how to speak up for the built environment that works for you, and the people you care about.
Monica Kumar: Welcome to Inhabit. I’m Monica Kumar. I’m an interior designer and research assistant at Perkins&Will, and I live and practice in New York City.
Erika Eitland: And I’m Dr. Erika Eitland. I’m a public health scientist, and I lead Perkins&Will’s Human Experience Lab from the Boston studio. We’re going to give you the science and history, tell stories, we’ll give you numbers, and we’ll talk to lots of different people inside our industry and outside about how we can make the built environment better. We like to say on the show our love languages are design, policy and research. We believe that we need all three if we’re going to make lasting improvements to the built environment.
Monica Kumar: We can design better buildings.
Erika Eitland: We need research to know what better is though,
Monica Kumar: And we need policies to enforce the better for everyone. We have to do it faster. There’s no time to waste and it’s long overdue.
Erika Eitland: This season, we’re gonna start with one of my favorite topics. We’re gonna go on a journey to define healthy spaces, and how we can harness the power of design to keep our buildings from making us sick. Right now, we’re a part of an important healthy buildings moment. And thanks to COVID we all can acknowledge that our buildings truly influence us. Otherwise we would be able to return to our schools or offices. We wouldn’t be worried about taking the public transit. But this healthy buildings moment is actually a part of a larger healthy buildings movement. We know that sounds like a lot, but in the spirit of a good food metaphor, we’re gonna start with two simple pieces of pie here. One is material health, and the other is indoor air quality. These are the foundations of making our spaces healthy.
Monica Kumar: I can’t wait to get into it this season, Erika. But as long as we’re talking about health, I think it’s important we actually step back and define the term health for ourselves. It’s a word we throw around a lot, but it means a lot more than the opposite of sick. According to a definition by the World Health Organization, health is not just the absence of disease, it’s actually a total physical, mental and social well being. For example, through COVID, even if we managed to remain disease free, a lot of us didn’t really thrive mentally, or socially. So we’re here to talk about health in all of its aspects.
Erika Eitland: In this our first episode, we’re gonna get a history of the healthy buildings movement, we’ll talk to Dr. Joe Allen, a healthy buildings expert at Harvard. And we’ll point to some tools for nerding out in your love language, and taking action where it matters most to you.
Erika Eitland: Monica, in the past, you’ve said your love language was policy. And I’d love to hear a little bit more of your personal history before you join the healthy buildings movement.
Monica Kumar: So you’re right my, my past life, my love language was policy. I started my career on a path towards law school, I lived on Capitol Hill and was a paralegal at a government agency. In fact, we were focused on protecting consumers from deceptive business practices
Erika Eitland: You were in it.
Monica Kumar: Yeah.
Erika Eitland: What’s crazy, though, is you introduce yourself as an interior designer and a research assistant. So it really seems like you’re speaking all three languages design policy and research. And I’m so curious, like, why is design at the center of this for you.
Monica Kumar: I mean, I wish I could say I spoke all three at once. But design is definitely at the center. And it all comes down to my personality. I’m a little bit stubborn and very impatient. I’m a Sagittarius, I do chalk it up to astrology. I started out in policy, because I thought that was the only way to make a lasting impact, growing up in DC. That’s what I knew. It turns out that policy can make a long term impact and often does, but I personally was looking for the immediate reward of a short term impact. And design is so powerful to me, because I get to imagine a future that doesn’t exist yet. So as an interior designer, I can literally make a drawing of a space of an interior space. And then within a few months, it gets built. And then real people actually occupy that space. It’s like dreaming into reality.
Erika Eitland: I mean, you might say some people inhabit that space.
Monica Kumar: Oh, gosh. You went there.
Erika Eitland: But you know, what’s awesome about this is you’re talking about sort of two of these love languages, the power of policy, the power of design. Yeah. And yet, there’s something so central to your role, which is research, this love of it, is it typical for interior designers to have research written into a role like yours?
Monica Kumar: It’s not very typical. Yes, as a designer, I do informal research that supports the design. But what was missing for me and why I feel so fortunate to be able to have written a role like research specialist is that I missed the ability to tackle systemic issues that show up in all of our projects across the board. So for example, I engage with our Material Performance Lab to research toxic chemicals in our building products. And what excites me about that research is all of our projects can benefit from that kind of knowledge from removing toxic chemicals, not just the singular projects that I happen to be working on,
Erika Eitland: You know, that, to me is the core of public health, right? Like how actions we take can impact the many, not just the few. This is why I love what I do, because instead of being a medical doctor that treats individual patients, or in your case, individual projects, I get to be a doctor that addresses entire populations. And to me, that’s where the power of research comes.
Monica Kumar: We designers have to be talking to people like you, Erika, the public health experts, the policymakers, the tech gurus, basically researchers and other fields, we have to start going outside of our own echo chamber to see new perspectives,
Erika Eitland: Snaps to that. There is this sort of hunger for radical collaboration here at Perkins&Will, like a shared sense of urgency, and I think that’s what really drew me here.
Monica Kumar: Yeah, me too. I mean, honestly, I think it’s our secret sauce when we try to solve complex problems holistically, like the quest for healthier buildings. But you shouldn’t take our word for it. Remember how we asked all those people on the BeltLine, what they thought the built environment was? Well, we did the same thing with some of our colleagues and friends around the firm, some in our own Studios here in New York and Boston, but also in Minneapolis, Sao Paulo, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, DC…
Erika Eitland: And then we asked them to tell us what their job really is, those different points of view, highlight that collaboration is our secret sauce. Let’s have a listen. Alrighty. Fill in the blank, My work exists at the intersection of the built environment and
Unknown Speaker: Human experience. That one was really easy. For me that takes one second. Everything I feel is essential to my role is bringing back the built environment so that it’s literally attending to the human experience, because that’s what we’re fighting for
Unknown Speaker: Built environment and
Unknown Speaker: People
Unknown Speaker: Children
Unknown Speaker: Community
Unknown Speaker: Wellbeing spaces,
Unknown Speaker: Feeling sensations and quality of life,
Unknown Speaker: Human health and ecological health
Unknown Speaker: Well-being spaces, people feel good inside it, you know, you get in there and you feel safe, and you feel fine being there.
Unknown Speaker: My work exists at the intersection of built environment and
Unknown Speaker: Harmony
Unknown Speaker: Performance
Unknown Speaker: Future ready learning,
Unknown Speaker: Driving change,
Unknown Speaker: Messy, inclusive urbanism
Unknown Speaker: Design ideas that are about to take technical shape,
Unknown Speaker: Data visualization and narrative cartography,
Erika Eitland: What is narrative cartography?
Unknown Speaker: Telling stories through drawings or maps.
Monica Kumar: So other than design, what would you say you think about in your current role,
Unknown Speaker: There’s all of this kind of multi-scalar, behind the scenes work that I think goes into making good places. And I would say that my job is to like, be the person that telescopes between those multiple scales
Unknown Speaker: It’s like a thermometer, it shifts. Sometimes it’s looking at materials sometimes it’s thinking more about the look of the building shading devices form. And then lately, it’s been looking more at the human condition.
Unknown Speaker: My job. And again, I hate this word, because it’s so ambiguous, but um, my job is to innovate as a support staff such that whatever is in their head that can find its way to the computer so that other people can see it.
Unknown Speaker: Help our clients imagine a new future for their workplace. But a lot of what I do is connecting people across the firm so that they get what they need to do their job. Maybe a bit of a firm, archivist, Chief connection officer, I don’t know.
Erika Eitland: Honestly, everyone needs a chief connection officer in their life.
Monica Kumar: I also appreciate the image of Justin. He’s the digital Applications Manager, also a friend in the New York studio, taking the ideas from my head and putting them into the computer for other people to see it.
Erika Eitland: Seriously. I mean, the people who connect and help us communicate are the ones who get us to breakthroughs faster. And it’s funny, you mentioned Justin’s job description, because in our next segment, we’re gonna walk through the history of the healthy buildings movement, leading up to the healthy buildings moment that we’re in right now. In those five key dates, I think you’ll see that the art of communication and visualization through maps, diagrams, photographs, they’re just as essential as the research itself.
Monica Kumar: Okay, history in five key dates. Erika, tell us how we got to this healthy buildings moment.
Erika Eitland: I’m going to start in 1854 at a public well on Broad Street, near a cesspit, disgusting, in London, we’re cholera is raging. And Jon Snow is our first spatial epidemiologist. So basically, he’s using maps to make the connection between water waste management and disease. By talking to the community members, he finds that everyone who’s getting sick is using the same water pump on Broad Street. This is the first time we have documented research that establishes a cause and effect relationship between the built environment and our
Monica Kumar: Wow Jon Snow. Okay, what a hero.
Erika Eitland: I know not just Game of Thrones hero.
Monica Kumar: So Jon Snow. Okay, what’s our next moment?
Erika Eitland: So our next moment is happening almost at the same time and place. It’s 1859. Just across the river. Florence Nightingale starts to reimagine hospital design, including large windows for cross ventilation, abundant natural light. She’s highlighting the power of design to alleviate health conditions people are experiencing in the city. She’s also known as the mother of infographics for representing data in innovative graphs.
Monica Kumar: Okay, okay, so we’ve got 1854, 1859. And within the span of five years, we’ve established that the surfaces we touch and the air we breathe are critical to our health. That’s amazing.
Erika Eitland: Totally. Let’s jump 30 years later across the pond, and I want us to walk along the dingy, poorly lit alleyways of the New York City tenement buildings where two thirds of New York’s population has been living like sardines in a can for decades. Despite our research advances of Florence Nightingale and others, we have designed buildings that lack adequate indoor plumbing or ventilation. And this is helping tuberculosis spread like wildfire in the Lower East Side, but you know, Monica, pictures or it didn’t happen to
Monica Kumar: True, true.
Erika Eitland: So I’m zooming in on 1889 because Jacob Riis, a photo journalist come activist is using the innovation of flash photography to capture the horrendous housing conditions and the just publish how the other half lives, these photographs make the issue too real to ignore, leading to new housing designs that address for crowding, fire safety, sanitation, and even access to light and air.
Monica Kumar: What fascinates me and frustrates me is you know, at the time, researchers had been collecting data and statistics on these injustices for years, but that wasn’t enough people really needed to be shocked by the real and personal stories attached to these horrors before they could be compelled to make changes in the built environment.
Erika Eitland: No, and I think sometimes we have activists that can shock us into action, like Nightingale or Riis. But sometimes extreme events are actually the catalyst like the 1980s influenza,
Monica Kumar: Or 100 years later, we’re in a very similar position where the COVID-19 pandemic is refocusing how important indoors are to the spread of disease. And those are two events that were outside of our control.
Erika Eitland: Exactly. And I think that’s why I want to dial the clock forward here to our fourth moment where policy is driving design. It’s 1973. and Saudi Arabia has imposed a one-year oil embargo that’s leading to national energy conservation measures. And boy do our buildings reflect this, its ripple effects are seen in windowless, poorly ventilated spaces that are really aimed at reducing heating and cooling costs. But there’s a cost we hadn’t accounted for, which is human health. These measures lead to what we call sick building syndrome. The symptoms include things like headaches, fevers, chills, and muscle aches. If you’ve ever walked into a space, and you can really smell it, or you’ve gotten sleepy after sitting in a small conference room, this is a sign of poor ventilation, and you’re about to experience some sick building symptoms very soon.
Monica Kumar: Wow, Erika, I had heard of sick building syndrome, but I had no idea that it was tied to the oil embargo. It’s amazing to think that a single global event could put energy at the center of design instead of human health.
Erika Eitland: Our kids are still attending classrooms without windows 50 years later. But you know what we talked about air and light. And these are two foundations of a healthy building, for sure. But I want us to just loop back to water because beyond cholera, it’s still affecting us. And this brings us to our last key moment. 1991, a big year for me. And I won’t say why, but it’s 30 years ago, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts out the lead and copper rule, which is removing the use of heavy metals in our water pipes. What’s crazy is many of our school buildings are more than 30 years old.
Monica Kumar: Speaking of predating there are cases of lead contamination that date back to the Greek and Roman Empires. That’s over 2000 years of accumulated evidence before we enact an evidence-based policy. Remember earlier how I said I found policy to be a little too slow for me, as a designer, I can act faster than policy because I can look at the science and say, I don’t feel comfortable putting this in my clients building.
Erika Eitland: Totally. And I think that’s why coming to an architectural firm seemed like a critical next step for me as well. Because research alone can’t solve this problem. If we’re gonna make big strides in the healthy buildings movement, we need to get the research in the hands of designers faster. So we can be proactive, not just reactive.
Monica Kumar: Doing things faster is kind of what you and I are about Erika, so let’s talk to someone who’s doing exactly that.
Erika Eitland: This is where I bring in my doctoral advisor, Dr. Joe Allen. He’s the director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. I was a proud member of this lab for five years, we were all about the translation of public health science into useful, accessible tools
Monica Kumar: We reached out because it seems like we’re in another moment in this healthy buildings movement, and we wanted to get his take on where we are now. And what’s next.
Monica Kumar: Dr. Allen, a lot of our listeners are really new to this idea that there is a connection between buildings and health for them. Could you just explain a little bit about why do we need a healthy building program like the one that you run at Harvard?
Joe Allen: Yeah, well, so first, it’s really nice to join you both. And Erika can answer every single question I’m going to answer so we should start right there. But really, all right, it comes down to this you know, we really been stuck in the the sick building era. And the way I think about why healthy buildings why they matter is I often ask people to think about what they know about healthy living. So we asked this audience, hey, what constitutes healthy living, everyone’s gonna say, oh, I got to go out and walk or run today. I need exercise. They’re gonna say I need to eat a healthy meal. You know what a healthy meal is. We know what’s not people know that they know outdoor air pollution is bad for you, you know, you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, right? We know all of these things. But we know them from these great studies over decades, these huge great human epidemiological studies that have followed tens of thousands of people over time to see how they live their life and what happens to them well in all of these great studies, and they are great studies, they all neglect to look at the places where we live and work and spend our time, specifically the indoor environment. So there’s actually this glaring hole in the public’s understanding of how important the indoor environment is, largely because we have under studied it relative to other fields. And because we spend so much time, and I’ll cite the oft cited statistic 90% of our time indoors, we are an indoor species, the indoor environment is what’s driving our health. But it’s not what comes to mind first, when people think of healthy living.
Monica Kumar: So is it fair to say that there’s been a focus on our sort of individual personal choices when it comes to health, but we’re missing a piece of health?
Joe Allen: Yeah, totally. Right. We think about my decisions, my choices, which also are not just your choices, right? It’s the environment around us the social structures around us. So it’s not even just personal choices. But what we focus on, at the healthy buildings program, is the built environment, our built environmental choices, the places where we live, work, play, pray, heal all of these places. When you go on an airplane, you are an indoor environment, just like a car bus. And all of these places are influencing our health. And we just don’t stop to think about it much.
Monica Kumar: How far off do you think we are from healthy buildings being a right that people can expect?
Joe Allen: It’s a right right now. And I don’t think we’re that far off. Really, because I see the, the shift that’s happened and is accelerated by COVID, where the new norm is going to be healthy buildings, because people are demanding it. I see this new era we’re entering similar to how or related to what happened with 9/11. So after 9/11 ushered in a 20-year security-first focus, right, everything was about security. This pandemic has so changed everyone’s psyche, rightly, we’re all impacted. I think it’s going to usher in a 20-year health first era, where all of our decisions would be about this people aren’t going to go back to work in an unhealthy building, parents aren’t going to be happy with a school that’s unhealthy. People are talking to airlines and cruise ships and Broadway shows about MERV-13 filters, like this was just not in the lexicon a year ago. And now people are all hip to what’s the what kind of filtration do you have in your building? So our collective awareness has risen. And I think that’ll lead to changes to get to your question, permanent changes that impact everybody, and all aspects where it won’t just be some luxury item you pay for, you know, one fancy building in downtown Chicago is a healthy building. I don’t think that’s going to be the case.
Monica Kumar: I’m glad you said that people are starting to demand it. I believe that consumer movements are really the thing that drives the industry. And so I’m reassured to hear you say that you feel we have a 20 year window of opportunity, because sometimes I feel even now that the window of opportunity to address health is like rapidly closing even though we’re still in the pandemic. If this is a window of opportunity, what would you say is the sort of call to action to people like me, designers and architects that kind of have the power?
Joe Allen: What we can do— Well, let’s see the forces that are changing it. There’s been a democratization, data and awareness, right. So we’re in a podcast, you can’t see it. But a lot of holding up a real time indoor air quality sensor in my office, it’s not that expensive. I can bring this into my office. And now I can say, hey, you know what, I don’t really like the recording my desk, I’m going to raise awareness about it. The democratization, people are starting to measure these things. And here’s the big game changer. People are starting to share this kind of information. So you can go on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and people will unfortunately be shaming some companies and say, Hey, Company X, I’m in your store, your airplane, your cruise ship, your school, and the CO2 concentration, carbon dioxide concentrations, 2000 parts per million, that’s not safe. Well, that can motivate some real change. In our book Healthy Buildings, we have a chapter called “What’s Now and What’s Next.” And we talked about the website Glassdoor. Right? So Glassdoor is the website where people dish on their company, you know, you good and bad. Here’s my salary, here’s my title, what the culture’s like. People actually dish or talk about their building the good and the bad. And even right now, during COVID, they’re people saying, Hey, how’s my office any different from a virus infected cruise ship? Well, this kind of information now stays with these companies forever. Existing employees see this future talent comes in and sees that this is what we can all do is keep the awareness high, low-cost sensors are out there. People are going to be talking about these things and sharing information and it’s going to influence people’s decisions on the next home they buy or the apartment they rent or the next school they go to much like you’d say, what’s the neighborhood walkability score, it’s what’s the indoor air quality score in that school. And I see that as a major shift that’s coming.
Erika Eitland: I feel like there’s still something that we need to let people know about. CO2 is telling us a part of the story, that our indoor air quality is a big old soup, you know, we have these materials we have things like allergens and traffic and the siting issues, as well as I think about a K-12 school even just like body odors from young kids. So all of that is the soup. Monica is grimacing right now with the thought of that. And so I want us to think about it in a holistic way where not only are we just chasing the CO2 number, but we are holistically improving indoor air quality.
Monica Kumar: How does this knowledge influence your personal lifestyle and your personal choices?
Joe Allen: It’s interesting, I think it’s really interesting, I think most of what I do and spend my time on is trying to influence and create systemic change. So this doesn’t have to be so much about the individuals making choices or spending differently, really just working hard to make sure that this is something that’s accessible to all of us. And it actually, hopefully just goes away his decision point, of course, the product and buying itself, they don’t have to think about it. So I’d say most of my time I spend there, I try to make good choices in my own house with my own kids. But I think like everybody else, I’m at the mercy of a system that doesn’t allow us to always make that choice to take chemicals and out of couches that interfere with hormone systems. Well, I studied this for 15 years, and it still is hard for me, if I were to go buy a couch to figure out if these toxic chemicals are in there. And if they’re not, what are they replaced with some other replacement? What’s the technical chemical name? Can I look up the toxicology, so I’m trained and can do that could take hours or days, but that’s a failing of the system. So I try to make smart choices. I try to take care of the basics like in that 36 Expert Tips report. But mostly, I’m trying to figure out how to get this to be transformational change. So it doesn’t come down to what am I going to pick off the shelf and have to worry that something and whether it’s gonna be bad for the kid.
Monica Kumar: Erika, I don’t know if you could tell. But I was quietly fangirling the whole time during that interview, because I have read so many of Joe’s articles. He’s so formidable, and he was just a really cool guy to hang out with. Really what excites me though, is Joe just touched on all the points we’ve been talking about in this episode. You know, first and foremost, health is more than the absence of disease. We’re in a sick building era, because we haven’t put health first in the design of our buildings. And now thanks to COVID-19, we’re in a health first era with our built environment.
Erika Eitland: In other words, this is our sixth healthy buildings moment. And this is why our first season of Inhabit is all about health. Because the amount of air and light our buildings lead in or what makes up our couches and water pipes. They are design decisions, things that we must choose to value over profit and act upon faster than policy. We want to be really clear about our stance on this: design is a public health intervention. I’ll say one more time everybody: design is a public health intervention. But I want to go back to something Joe said about creating systemic change, personal choice shouldn’t be our only healthy building strategy, we should just be able to trust that our environment is healthy. And so when we say intervention, we really mean systemic change.
Monica Kumar: We’re gonna ease into the interventions you can make by working through design, research, and policy.
Erika Eitland: Yes, which one is your love language? And how do you want to make change,
Monica Kumar: If design of your physical space excites you? Here’s something small you can do. Invest in a welcome mat and a shoe station at your front door. I know it sounds silly, but think of it this way: If you stepped on it on the sidewalk, then it’s coming home with you. So by leaving your shoes at the door, right, you can reduce the amount of harmful dust, road salts, oils, metals, all that stuff you track in. If you’re a design professional, we have a resource you should consider tapping for your next project. Perkins&Will collaborated with the federal government to create the sustainable facilities tool. It’s a free, designer friendly, interactive guide that is full of healthy strategies from site selection to construction pollution control to acoustic comfort,
Erika Eitland: This is gonna be my Friday night reading, I can feel it. If research makes your heart happy, then I really want you to check out this online dashboard called City Health Dashboard, which pulls data from the EPA and CDC and allows you to see environment and health concerns in your community. And I think this would make Jon Snow very proud.
Monica Kumar: If policy is where you think the magic happens. The National Center for Healthy housing has a primer for you to identify policies at the national and local level that relate to healthy homes. They even have a healthy housing factsheet that goes state by state so you can quickly learn the biggest issues that are affecting your community and your state.
Erika Eitland: So Monica, what’s next on Inahbit?
Monica Kumar: Let’s say we just baked our healthy buildings pie. We just pulled it out of the oven. We’re looking at it. In our next episode, we get to eat a slice of that pie and it’s called material health.
Erika Eitland: It’s gonna be so tasty.
Monica Kumar: Inhabit is a production of Perkins&Will, I’m Monica Kumar
Erika Eitland: and I’m Erika Eitland. Check out our show page at inhabit.perkinswill.com for the show notes, music and links to all the resources we mentioned.
Monica Kumar: Lauren Neefe is our executive producer and edits the show, and Anna Wissler is our art director and assistant producer. Mixing and sound editing by Threaded Films. Music courtesy of Epidemic Sound, a special thank you to Rishika Chaudhury in the Atlanta studio and to Julio Brenes for the illustrations you see on our website.
Erika Eitland: Thanks to my former advisor Dr. Joseph Allen for coming on the show, thanks to our advisory board: Casey Jones, Angela Miller, Pat Bosch, Yehia Madkour, Kimberly Seigel, Christine Dansereau, Jessica Flores, Kate Nation, and Rachel Rose. Also to Ned Kramer and Chee Perlman.