As an industry, green building is on pace to double every three years in large part due to the growing adoption of green building standards such as LEED, Living Building Challenge, and Well. This year’s Earth Day campaign theme is “Environmental & Climate Literacy,” and Integrated Eco Strategy is on the case to shatter a myth or two in the interest of improving understanding of how choosing healthy building materials benefit not only our environment, but can contribute immensely to the wellbeing of people.

Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors. Alarmingly, in the majority of cases the indoor air quality is far worse than it is outside. In the 1990’s a Presidential and Congressional Commission report identified indoor environmental pollution as one of the greatest risks to human health and in the same decade “Sick Building Syndrome” became a recognized health condition linked directly to poor indoor environmental quality.    

What’s making us sick? In a nutshell: toxic chemicals in building materials and furnishings (i.e. paint, carpet, office furniture) that off-gas volatile organic compounds that our bodies absorb through into the air we breathe and surfaces we touch. Unsurprisingly, these same chemicals also have negative environmental impacts during manufacturing and/or at end-of-life stages. In the Living Building Challenge program these chemicals of concern are called “Red List” ingredients, and are – with limited exceptions – banned from inclusion in any building product or material.

Will it Cost More?

So, common sense says that if you examine every single product going into a new building for harmful ingredients, and buy only the healthiest items available, it will cost more, right?

Well, yes. And no. Yes, if only the base costs of materials are considered. No, if the health and productivity of the building’s occupants are entered into the equation. The question we think building owners should be asking is: is it worth saving on initial construction costs if it means sacrificing the health and productivity of employees?

An industry rule of thumb is known as “2/20/200”: the annual cost of energy for a building per square foot is $2; constructing a building costs $20 per square foot annually (with sourcing healthy materials a relatively small percentage of that); and the yearly cost of salaries and staff of people who work in the building is $200 per square foot. The big building bucks are in people.

Our specialty at Integrated Eco Strategy is helping Living Building Challenge projects overcome one of the largest hurdles in the design and certification process: researching and selecting building materials that are Red List free, a tedious process in an industry where transparency about product ingredients is not the status quo.

Building to green standards like the Living Building Challenge does raise up-front costs. However, the payback on these investments are substantial, and provide a staggering array of benefits to the wellbeing of the building’s occupants, which translates into increased cognitive function and overall physical and mental health.   

The COGfx Study, MacNaughton P, Allen J, Satish U, Laurent J, Flanigan S, Vallarino J, Coull B, Spengler. 2016. The Impact of Working in a Green Certified Building on Cognitive Function and Health. Building and Environment DOI:10.1016/j.buildenv.2016.11.041

In a study from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, results showed that average cognitive performance of management-level employees were between 61% and 101% higher in green buildings. The British newspaper, The Guardian, reported similar findings in  a green building workplace the UK in which a study documented a 40% fall in sick leave, 11% gain in typing speeds and 10% to 20% reductions in headaches, colds and flu, fatigue and concentration difficulty. An estimated 6.2% improvement in productivity of employees equated to $300,000 in salary cost.

Green buildings are not only better for the environment, but can help occupants to be happier, healthier, and more productive. Similar findings abound – the increased initial construction costs of green buildings can pay huge dividends in the long term, benefitting people, profit, AND planet.