Episode 01 Extra
In the Room With Dr. Joseph Allen
Listen to the first installment of “In the Room With,” where we share the full interviews with our thought-provoking guests. Following on the heels of our first episode, we’re taking you into the room for the longer conversation with Dr. Joe Allen at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Plus, hear an introduction from Yehia Madkour, innovation director in Perkins&Will’s Vancouver studio.
The COGfx Study: The impact of green buildings on cognitive function
Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity (Harvard University Press, 2020)
Energy Grid Study, from Reconstructing the Public Health Burden of Energy During the Last Decade in the U.S. – 3 Key Takeaways for Energy and Climate Policymaking.
[Clock winding, ticking]
Erika Eitland and Monica Kumar in unison: Inhabit is a show about power, the power, the power
Many voices: of design
Yehia Madkour: Hi there, Inhabit Listeners, My name is Yehia Madkour. I’m the innovation director in PerkinsWill’s Vancouver Studio, and I’m a proud member of the Inhabit advisory board. It is my pleasure to introduce this first ever installment of “In the Room With,” where we share the full interviews with our thought-provoking guests. Following on the heels of the launch of our first episode, we’re taking you into the room for the longer conversation with Dr. Joe Allen at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. As a futurist and change maker, let me first share the three things that inspire me about what Dr. Allen shared with us. I’m going to break it down into our Inhabit Love Languages: research, design, and policy: Number 1: Research—Healthy buildings evidence exists, but it’s time to make this knowledge influential. Listen for Dr. Allen’s idea of a globally understood Indoor Air Quality score, and the role of sensors technology to bring awareness of the data and make it accessible to humans. Number 2: Design—The idea of functional beauty, where function is human-centric and the design process is truly holistic. It is time to integrate deep expertise in public health and environmental science into the design process. Number 3: Policy—This is an opportunity to influence systematic change and chart what Dr. Allen calls a “health first” era. Policymakers need to create healthy buildings standards, and a system for building products to be checked before they get to consumers. There’s plenty more to get inspired about in this conversation. So without further ado, here’s the interview.
Monica Kumar: So I think I’m gonna, I’m gonna kick us off. So, so Dr. Allen, as we’ve explained, Erika, and I are, you know, familiar with healthy buildings, her more so than I am. And we know that you’re a celebrity in this space, I have to pretend that I’m not fangirling right now, because I’ve read so many of your articles. But, you know, as we said, a lot of our listeners are really new to this idea that there is a connection between buildings and health. So 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?
Dr. 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. So but really, all right, it comes down to this, you know, we really been stuck in the sick building era. For a long—too long, we’ve kind of neglected these places where we spend all of our time. And the way I think about you know, why healthy buildings, why they matter. Because I often ask people to think about what they know about healthy living. So if we asked this audience, hey, what constitutes healthy living? Everyone’s gonna say, I got to go out and walk or run today, I need exercise. They’re gonna say I need to eat a healthy meal. We were talking earlier about what we ate for lunch. We 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 10s of 1000s of people over time to see how they lived 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 understudied it relative to other fields. And because we spend so much time, and I’ll cite the often used 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: 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?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, totally. Right. We think, right, all the things I just mentioned, oh, what 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 in the Healthy Buildings Program is the built environment, our built environment choices, the places where we live, work, play, pray, heal. All of these plays, when you go on an airplane, you are an indoor environment, just like a car bus. And all of these places are influence influencing our health. And we just don’t stop to think about it much right. I think most people don’t. Although I think the past year with COVID-19 has changed that a bit. People are starting to recognize that the indoor environments impactful to our health.
Erika Eitland: Yeah, but Joe I want take a quick moment, what is a healthy building to you the team? I know that we know I’ve talked about this a lot. I’d love to hear your sort of short answer.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, there’s two parts of it right. And we’re right in. We think a lot about right now disease avoidance, absence of diseases, health, well, that’s half of health, the other half is well-being and flourishing and mental health and productivity. And the indoor environment is actually influencing us across all of those dimensions. One, if it’s designed and operated Well, it can protect us from diseases, it can also promote good health and well-being the other side, the positive side of health. The problem has been, I think one way to think about why healthy buildings are important is to understand how we’re in this sick building era, what is the problem we’re trying to correct? If we have all the buildings we had were health, hey, I’d be out of business, I’d be very happy. But the reality is, we’ve been in a sick building era, because we haven’t put health at the forefront of our decision making in terms of our buildings. So we now have buildings where cancer clusters happen, where disease outbreaks happen, where people are tired and sleepy, their eyes itch. They report malaise, right? All of these places that are just not functioning right. And it’s the building. It’s not us. It’s the building. And so we need a paradigm shift here to think about how do we flip this script and not go from bad building to bad building, but actually get to buildings that nurture our health? Not just take away from it.
Erika: Well this is what gets me so feisty, not only is there 30 years of research that tells us indoor air quality is bad for us. But then we have 1918 Spanish flu, we realize it’s bad, then we have the turn of the 19th century going back, and we have tuberculosis in the tenement buildings, that brings about this huge shift in our thinking, in terms of, okay, we need an urban planning department, we need environmental health, we got to get everybody in the room. And somehow how after this last century, we’ve drifted into a place where we still don’t have indoor air quality standards. Outdoors, there’s, you know, lots of discussion about our, you know, sick cities study from Harvard, which we’re very proud of, but also, you know, report after report talking about particulate matter and all of these other types of pollutants. But what is holding us back from really making indoor air quality standards beyond sort of ASHRAE, which are not health metrics, but actually getting deeper.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, like that you brought in the history here. We have lost our way, when we think about how we’ve designed operating maintain our buildings, he brought him some of that great history, you can go back even further, Florence Nightingale talked about infectious disease in buildings. She said, open windows, the only defense of true nurse either asks or needs. Well, you know, here we are in a pandemic, 160 years later, and we’re still trying to figure out and remember that we need to bring in a bit more outdoor air. In fact, we got to interview Dr. Fauci and he was at Harvard over the summer. And it was with Sanjay Gupta. And Dr. Fauci says, we’re telling me we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m saying open up your open up your windows. Yeah, I’m telling you open up your windows. Like, really, it’s time to get back to some of these basics here. And we’ve lost our way where we’ve moved away from these health-based benchmarks and buildings, you design them around health and infectious disease 100 years ago, we’ve lost that. We’ve so tightened them up that the build-up of indoor pollutants is such that indoor pollution, exposure to indoor pollution, is much higher than your exposure, even outdoor air pollution indoors. I think a lot of people will find that shocking.
Erika: Say it one more time, just so everyone can hear it. Say it one more time.
Dr. Allen: [laughing] Right indoor pollution can be 3, 5, 10, 20 times higher than outdoor air pollution. And here’s the other thing you think about outdoor air pollution, outdoor air pollution penetrates indoors. The majority of your exposure to outdoor air pollution occurs indoors. Let that one sink in for a second: the majority of your exposure to outdoor air pollution occurs indoors. This air pollution penetrates inside, we spend the majority of our time inside. So even if the building is mitigating some of that outdoor air pollution, still, your exposure is higher, the amount you breathe in is higher. So it’s really comes down to the decisions we’ve made really over the past 40 years or so to prioritize things that aren’t about human health in our building. So you mentioned ASHRAE standard setting body for ventilation has prioritized energy, really important in buildings, but has prioritize it over and above health. That’s a big mistake. It’s no wonder we have sick buildings, we’ve really lost our way. And some of this gets down to, look, I’m thrilled Erika, a former student now thriving at a great company like this, that values public health expertise in a design firm. That’s new and different. I remember being at some design charettes around buildings and people saying what does a public health person doing at this table? Well, public health always needs to be at the table in these design decisions. And they haven’t been, we haven’t been! I think that’s been a problem. I think that’s led to some of the reason why we we’ve lost our way here.
Erika: This is our moment, I can feel it.
Monica: I think you hit on this Joe, but I did want to ask that question. You know, you said our indoor air quality standards are not based on health, which is shocking, like you said, and I did not know that. So there what are they based on? You mentioned energy efficiency, is that primarily it?
Dr. Allen: Uh, yeah, I mean, well, let’s break it down by the different types of things we’re concerned about. So let’s talk about air quality first, right, or ventilation, how much air comes in and out? Well, we always talk about this standard that governs ventilation rates indoors, it’s called the standard for acceptable indoor air quality. Who wants acceptable indoor air quality? Not me, I want healthy air quality or optimal air quality. But the group that sets that standard has debated with itself for 40 years, are we a health-based standard, are we an energy standard? They can’t agree. And imagine trying to write a standard where you don’t agree what your goal is, it leads to a problem. And the problem is we now have a standard that’s too low. And it goes against what the science is an optimal or healthy level of indoor air quality. There are other aspects of healthy buildings that we don’t even pay attention to it all. We don’t even have any standards around, that’s the healthy materials, the materials you put in your in purchase and put in our buildings. So in some ways, we have standards that are not designed for health. And in other areas, we just don’t, it’s the Wild West, we just don’t have anything governing health or health-based standards. So you know, it really this is you can hear it, I talk about I get very frustrated, we just really need a shift in our mindset to say, hey, everything from how we operate our mechanical systems, ventilation, acoustics, lighting, and even the materials we choose for our spaces, we really need to flip it and say, let’s put health first in our decision making. Then we can make really good decisions.
Monica: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so we’ve been talking about standards and policy. And so you know, while on the one hand, the government bears a responsibility for setting some of those metrics. Let’s flip the lens a little bit and look at industry. You’re regularly featured on CNN, New York Times, your research on green buildings has repeatedly shown that better air quality improves performance. For example, the COGFX study, I know it’s celebrating its five year anniversary, but it’s still a you know, great example of accessible research. And you’ve basically quantified that when ventilation was increased, you saw a better decision making in employees, that was equal to $6,500 per year. So now you’re speaking language that employers can actually understand. That’s, that’s dollars. So I imagine I’m hearing that, and everybody’s running out next and revamping their mechanical systems. Is that what happens?
Dr. Allen: Well, it is actually happening. You know, there are leading companies who, who have seen that research and other research, right? Our work is not the only work out there. That shows really basically, when you make these investments in a building, you improve people’s health, improved productivity, and we quantified that it’s like you said the benefit’s $6-7,000 per person per year, the cost’s 10s of dollars per person per year. And so it’s overwhelming anytime you include health in that cost benefit analysis. But here was the key is that we get it to the business community, they get that number right away. Right, I talked to one CEO of a major company who said to me, if you’re off by two orders of magnitude, it’s still worth it for me to do this. I said, ‘You’re right. And we’re not off by two orders of magnitude on the math,’ right. We’re confident in the study. But that’s the point. He said, you know, ‘Look, I did the back of the envelope calculation as you gave your presentation. It’s a no brainer,’ and immediately, they changed what they did that next week. That’s the power and speed at which industry and businesses can move, right? Government has to do its job, the standard setting bodies have to. That’s true. But we can really make a difference when public health works with business because the business leaders can make that move, you know, Monday morning. They hear that and say, oh, we’re gonna make a change on Monday. That makes a lot of sense to me. It’s not an accident. We’ve been really intentional in our work over the past couple of years, Erika was part of this, where we purposely started working with leaders in the business community, a colleague, John McCumber, at the Harvard Business School, real estate finance expert, to start making the business case for healthy buildings knowing that that’s what could move the needle. Right, we talk about all the time, academic journals are where great research goes to die. A friend of ours said that Erika, and so, we have to, we’re responsible, we have a responsibility to get this out of these journals and into the hands of decision makers and business leaders in terms and in places they read and in terms that are common to them. Otherwise, we’ve really failed in our public health mission. So we’re totally committed to that. And the business case is airtight on healthy buildings.
Erika: No pun intended, I’m sure.
Dr: Allen: Oh, come on, Erika. [Laughter] You know me better.
Erika: So I like something that you’re talking about, which I think is very much about process, and I think that’s what makes indoor air quality sexy, which is this idea that it is something that impacts all of us. And it is sort of the role of a researcher to kind of reach out both hands and say, let me explain this to you and share in it with you. And I wonder if that’s where this last 30 years of us doing the good indoor air quality research has just maybe not had the impact that we would like? And I guess the question for you is, is that thinking about people who are maybe hungry for the information on the other side? If we’re not going to wait for the researchers to come to us, what is sort of your kind of helpful tips to having people be able to access that information?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, it’s a great question. And you know, and be fair, right, our industry or field has made gains in indoor air quality for a long time, even thinking about some of the basics right, alerting to the hazards of smoking indoors. That used to be a thing, which is seems wild to think about right in the U.S. Basics of mold and radon, kind of like classic indoor air quality issues. And now we’re kind of advancing that to go beyond, let’s say, these like gross hazards, right, these obvious and big hazards and the more subtle ones. I think a lot of people thought maybe we solved all the problems. But that’s not the case. We’re still seeing that. But yeah, you know, I don’t think it’s up to everybody to kind of read all the academic journals and try to translate this and figure it out. I think that’s our job is to read it, understand the science and then translate it. So where do we write this stuff? Well, for the business community, we’ve been writing in Harvard Business Review, written 35 op-eds in the past year trying to get this information out into the New York Times, Washington Post, was on CNN was on Fox, trying to hit every audience on every channel we can think of. I think these are some of the places where, you know, typical person thinking about how do I have a healthier home? Well, you know, our project at Harvard, Erick, you were part of this, we have a project called “36 Expert Tips for a Healthier Home,” really simplified 36 things everyone can kind of do or think about in their homes, doesn’t have to be expensive or that crazy. But those kind of resources are out there. I think we’re a trusted resource. There are others out there too, right? So look for your trusted resources and avoid the snake oil and the traps out there. And just start to make step by step minor improvements to your indoor space. And over time, it’ll really pay off.
Erika: I think for us, it’s very much the science of the invisible. So if you didn’t know CO2 was the thing, causing you to have differences in your cognitive function. I think people wouldn’t be able to connect the two. And I think what’s so important right now, is the fact that there are people, low income communities, communities of color, others that are disproportionately impacted by poor indoor air quality. So as much as there’s an outdoor environmental justice crisis, there’s definitely an indoor environmental justice crisis. And I’m wondering that, you know, from this work that you’ve done with these innovators, and pioneers from workplace who are adopting these strategies, what gives you real hope that it’s going to trickle down and make an impact for those at risk populations?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I think what gives me hope is the fact that we’re even talking about this where a lot of times we haven’t been. I mean, nowhere is that indoor disparity more extreme than in the schools, right? So take this ventilation topic we’re talking about of air quality. Well, we know that higher ventilation rates are good for student health, student thinking, and student performance, right? And what we see that all schools across The U.S. are under ventilated, chronically under ventilated. But the disparity is such that in communities of color, they’re even less ventilated. And low income schools, defined as a higher percentage of people with free and reduced lunch, students on free and reduced lunch, also have lower ventilation rates. So this is extreme and exacerbated. And it and we see it everywhere, we see this in affordable housing. We see it in schools, clearly. We see it in office buildings. And so what gives me hope is that one, we’re talking about it acknowledging that there’s a problem. And two, we’re talking about solutions for everybody. Right, that healthy building movement is not a movement for, you know, the shiny new building in the world’s big cities, right, that’s only attainable for a couple people. If that’s be that’s where it ends, we have all failed miserably. I’m confident that’s not where it’s going to end. But these strategies we’re talking about, are for everybody. And they don’t have to be expensive. Right? We’re talking about focusing on some of the basics here. Air Quality, water quality, lighting, acoustics, all the things actually your firm does really well. This is what is so key to being able to, to address these, these disparities across income and across race. So I guess that’s what gives me—You asked me what gives me hope. And that gives me hope that at least this conversation is happening, where I don’t think it was always happening, or certainly not so widespread.
Monica: So I have a follow up question on that. For our listeners, we did not pay you to plug our firm, but thank you very much. The gonna be a bit of a bit of a tough one. But uh, you so you know, you mentioned students’ performance, right? And we can’t necessarily quantify that with dollar signs in the way that we would quantify that for our workers. So where is the business case there? And where I’m going with this question is, who bears the moral responsibility for some of these areas where we know we need work for air quality outside of the business sector?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, that’s great. I’d say, first, we all bear that responsibility. And I agree that, you know, the business case in commercial real estate is different than schools and our goals are different. I also think we can make a business case in schools, you could do things like teacher absenteeism, there’s a cost to that, right? And so that’s a link similar to worker absenteeism in an office building. So that translates. I think we have to make a broader case beyond you know, ROI in terms of dollars here, when we think about student health reductions and asthma attacks, which actually, you can quantify into dollar per dollar if you really want to, or need to. Increase in performance on test scores around reading comprehension and math scores. So we can quantify this really well. And I think, where becomes important, it’s less about trying to convince you know, a superintendent to spend more money because there’s some ROI for their business, but it’s about convincing communities and superintendents that schools are a good investment, because they’re a good investment for learning. But also the school building is a good investment, because it leads to all of those benefits. I mean, that’s why we have kids in school, right? This is what we’re trying to do, keep them healthy, keep them active, have them learn. What not a lot of people realize that the building has a role in all of them. Right? We think I am a I’m a parent, I have three kids, oh, what’s the teacher going to be like? What’s their recess and extracurriculars? You know, what about the building? What’s the air quality in the building where my kid is learning? I don’t think many people think that that is actually going to have as big an impact—well not have as big an impact as your teacher, let’s be clear—but it has a big impact on learning and health. So all of these factors matter. Maybe it’s just making that case, to those who make the decisions that the school building infrastructures is an investment worth making, because it’s investment in your staff, teachers, and the students.
Erika: Well, I think you know, something, I mean, even though we’re focused on say, just indoor air quality in terms of pollutants, but if we think about temperature, you can have the best students, the best teachers in that building. But if it is too hot, or if it’s stuffy, we have study after study showing that everybody is negatively impacted. That teachers are unable to make sort of better decisions, that we have vocal strain, and all of these other issues based on just fighting with the ventilation system that might be outdated. There’s one question that our designers kinda have kept pinging me of like, Okay, how do we do this? And I think you’re the right person to answer it. How do we have both healthy and green? Because when we talk about even things like COVID, we know, we got to increase our ventilation or filtration—that has an energy cost associated with it. And so if we’re gonna think about the future of climate change, and all of this, how do we get to both, where we’re doing healthy and green buildings?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, this is where the magic has to happen. And we can have both right, we have to actually have both. We can’t have super energy efficient buildings where everyone’s sick inside, and we can’t have these super healthy buildings and ignore our responsibilities to the global climate crisis. So here’s how I think about that, a couple different levels. First, we have to full on be focused on a green energy grid, right, let’s start outside the building. That is something that has to happen. And that’s, of course, beyond the school or beyond the building. But that has to happen. And if we don’t solve that, none, not much else is going to matter, to be honest. Within the building, more energy efficient technologies. There are technologies that lets you bring in more outdoor air provide better thermal comfort with using less energy. We’re also going to get a lot smarter about where and how and when we provide, say fresh air into the building. A lot of places we just dump it in the building waste, a lot of heat, waste a lot of energy. And we’d get a lot smarter with that. It’s really the merging of green building movement, healthy building movement, right in the middle, that middle is that smart building movement. It’s like, hey, let’s connect up these smart sensor technologies. Let’s hink about better technology in terms of energy efficient systems. And then we can have both, right, we can we can have wins for both energy and health. So I think there’s a lot of different ways we should be thinking about this, we should be thinking about new construction buildings, think about things like embodied carbon, accounting for the energy we put into our buildings that stay with it for the 100 year lifespan of the building. So I think we have to think about it across multiple levels. And here’s what’s really interesting, and maybe different, is that our team at Harvard just put out a study last week, where we looked at the changing nature of the energy grid in the U.S. A 10 year drop away from coal has led to immense health benefits. But it has highlighted something that maybe is surprising that the onsite fossil fuel combustion, so things like boilers on site, will be the leading cause of health effects and contributions to a changing climate as the grid gets cleaner. So it’s not just cleanup the grid, we also have to clean up what’s happening in our buildings. And it’s not just operational energy, it’s embodied carbon.
Erika: So yeah, bring it back for our listener real quick, which is we talked about that outdoor air quality is coming indoors. So when you have things like coal down the road, from you, or fracking sites, that is actually contributing to that outdoor air that is coming in, that is not having just a health impact when you’re outside, but also indoors. So we got to think about how do we reduce those asthma cases and all of that by thinking about greening the grid.
Dr. Allen: Right, it’s all related and turns back into environmental justice issue. Where are we siting our schools? Are we near these energy and pollution sources? Are we right near roadways with higher levels of pollution? Then you can’t have your windows open because you’re bringing in more of this outdoor air pollution? So it’s all wrapped up. And we can’t disentangle the racial and environmental justice issue from the climate issue from the indoor health issue from the COVID crisis, right? All of these crises are really intertwined. So we really need to think holistically about this. I’m glad you brought that up.
Monica: How far off then do you think we are from healthy buildings being a luxury that only a few can afford, to being, should we say a right that people can expect?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, so 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. They’re demanding it now and I just don’t think it goes away. I, I 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 you know, what’s what kind of filtration do you have in your building? I mean this is great, so 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. 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 gonna be the case.
Monica: I’m glad you said that, you know, this notion of people are starting to demand it, because I, you know, it gets back to that age old debate of how much can an individual consumer really change the market, especially, you know, think about climate change, and you start to feel a little powerless, but, but 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. So 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?
Dr. Allen: Yeah, I think I like your comment and question there. What we can do—well, let’s see the forces that are changing it. There’s been a democratization of data and awareness, right. So we’re in a podcast, so you can’t see it, but what I’m holding up is 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 I’m not beholden to somebody telling me it’s good air quality, I can say, ‘Hey, you know what, I don’t really like the air quality my desk, I’m going to raise awareness about it.’ I showed this on CNN a couple months ago, and the company sold out of these quickly. And I don’t have a stake in this company. [Laughter] But my point is that 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, good and bad, here’s my salary is my title, what culture’s like. People actually dish or talk about their building, the good and the bad. And even right now, during COVID, there are 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. So you know, 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: I think that’s kind of the direction that we all need to go is that accessibility. But I feel like there’s still something that we need to let people know about. Our indoor air quality is a big old soup, you know, we have just materials, 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. All of that is the soup. And Monica is grimacing right now with the thought of that. But, with that in mind, CO2 is telling us a part of the story. But I think we all have always been our own little sensors of knowing when something is off, smelling the musty classroom when there is mold and moisture. And so I wonder, you know, are there other things other than sensors that can you know, work at the human level and the behaviors we take, all the way up to beyond sort of those engineering systems, but maybe policies or other pieces, because I want us to think about it in a holistic way where everybody feels like, not only are we just chasing the CO2 number, but we are holistically improving indoor air quality.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that, right. So I like CO2 as a proxy for indoor air quality, but there’s a million other things we have to pay attention to indoors. And I love that you said, right, the best sensor is our own senses, right better than any instrument out there any scientific instrument. So and I’ve done these sick building investigations for a long time. The first thing you got to do is talk to people and they know exactly what the problem is because they’re living it right? That’s what everybody can do, right? Trust your eyes, trust your ears, trust your senses, the smells. You’ll know, if something changes at this time of day or there’s construction happening, I’m starting to see you know, a fine layer of dust, or I see water standing up on that ceiling tiles, potential water leak, and mold. Right, these are the things we should be paying attention to is the basics. And then we can bring in the, you know, the scientific support teams that are necessary to say, periodically, we should do comprehensive indoor environmental quality surveys, let’s test the water, test the air quality, by professional. Include the real time cheaper sensors too, but really think more holistically about all of these factors that influence indoor environmental quality. But yeah, trust our senses, I have to say in doing this sick building work for years is that people are often dismissed as complainers. If they report something, and that needs to change, right, in my experience, people are not complainers at all. And they’re, they’re spot on in terms of what’s happening. But they’re often dismissed, ‘Oh, that person is a complainer, they just, that smell that’s fake that’s in their head.’ And it’s not it’s really not, so we can’t dismiss people. And I think if we were aware of what’s happening our environment and report on it and talk about it that can raise the awareness of these issues in schools and offices and everywhere else. So everybody collectively starts paying more attention to it.
Monica: Yeah, I think you know that’s why it’s so important for Erika and I to have this show because we want to flip the script from complaining to accountability. And we know that the onus falls on us, the individuals, to raise that awareness, and that accountability. And like you said, we’re living in the golden era of corporate accountability. I said it. [Laughter] So, and I imagine, you know, Erika, you were getting at kind of like, the, you know, put the sensor aside, like this is approachable to everyone. So Joe, you mentioned the 36 Tips for a Healthy Home, we’ll link to that in our show notes, and I imagine that will really kind of illustrate some of the points you were mentioning. So I wanted to ask now that you know you know the impact of mold, and, and carbon dioxide or all of these things. How does this knowledge influence your personal lifestyle and your personal choices?
Dr. Allen: Oh, what a really good question. 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 as a decision point. Of course what I’m buying is healthy, of course the product I’m buying is healthy, I 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. Take chemicals in 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, right? I’m calling myself an expert in this field right? That would take me a day to figure out if even a couch is safe and think about product after product that you purchase right down to food decisions and everything else. 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 how to get this to be transformational change so it doesn’t come down to so much, you know, what am I going to pick off the shelf and have to worry that something there’s gonna be bad for my kid.
Erika: Joe, thank you so so much. This was really wonderful. We really appreciate the time.
Dr. Allen: Yeah, thanks. I really like talking with you. Both of you are doing great work over there, so I’m glad you’re doing this podcast to raise awareness. So thanks for having me on
Monica: Thank you so much.
Dr. Allen: Thanks for having me.
Yehia Madkour: Dr. Joseph Allen is the Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the author, with John Macomber, of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, from Harvard University Press. Go to forhealth.org to learn more about the Healthy Buildings Program. And that’s it for the first edition of “In the Room With”! You’re listening to Inhabit, Perkins&Will’s brand-new podcast about the power of design. Again, you can catch Dr. Allen in our first episode wherever you listen to podcasts. And look out for a very special Valentine’s Day episode about our love affair with PFAS chemicals. You’ll have to listen to find out what those are.
[Music fades into hand claps]
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, and follow us on insta @perkinswill.
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, and a special thank you 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, and Rachel Rose.
Many voices: [Clapping intensifies] People, places, power, design, change now.