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The Importance of Air Quality: Health, Performance and Human-Centered Design

Allison McKenzie

Across the country, warm summer weather often comes with air quality alerts. While many notices include directions to help reduce the air emissions that contribute to pollution, they fail to note that outdoor pollution can impact indoor air as well, and what that means for our well-being.

Yet, it is well known that air quality—indoor and outdoor—can affect our health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, airborne pollutants, chemicals and debris can all have negative impacts on health, ranging from short-term ailments like skin and eye irritation, headaches and dizziness, to long-term effects like respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer.

Most conversations around air quality surround outdoor pollutants like car emissions, factory waste and other factors. But recently, it’s become apparent that there’s more we can do to improve indoor air quality. People spend more time inside than outside, so it’s critical to consider how the built environment impacts occupants. While indoor environments can never truly replicate the benefits of spending time outdoors, more can be done to improve indoor conditions. The rise of the WELL Building Standard, which includes 30 air-related features, is a perfect example.

As the focus on indoor air quality has increased, it’s become clear that good air quality can impact more than just our health.

Good air quality effects

A recent study from Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment showed that indoor environments with good air quality—defined by low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and carbon dioxide—lead to increased cognitive function. According to the study, scores were better in green building conditions compared to the conventional building conditions in a variety of areas, including crisis response, strategy and focused activity level. Participants also reported fewer health symptoms, which could help limit the amount of time employees spend out of the office due to illness.

Enhanced ventilation systems to control VOCs and carbon dioxide levels are an important method for maximizing indoor air quality. However, there are other strategies architects and designers can implement to improve air quality in the built environment.

How biophilic design impacts air quality

Biophilic design seeks to impact occupants’ psychological and physiological well-being by incorporating natural elements into the built environment. The design philosophy is based on the idea that humans derive positive health benefits from being in nature. Multiple studies have shown that being in nature or around natural elements can reduce stress. One study measured multiple physiological symptoms including stress hormones, respiration, heart rate and sweating, and found that short doses of exposure to nature—or even pictures of the natural world—can calm people and sharpen performance.

For example, biophilic design’s emphasis on plant life has a direct impact on a building’s air quality. Plants are natural air purifiers—turning carbon dioxide into oxygen—so increasing the amount of plant life in an environment improves air quality. Many biophilic designs find creative ways to incorporate plants, such as living walls, in addition to potted plants. Another way biophilic design elements can impact air quality is through material choices. Using natural or environmentally-friendly, biodegradable materials such as wood or bamboo prevent off-gassing—the release of chemicals from materials—that can introduce VOCs to an environment.

One third of respondents said the design of an office would affect their decision to work for a company. 

There are many ways biophilic elements can be incorporated into a space depending on the environment. Some strategies focus on the idea that humans simply appreciate and enjoy natural or natural-looking elements while other strategies, like increased plant life, have tangible, measurable benefits.

Despite the mental, physical and environmental benefits of biophilic design, a global workplace study found that 47 percent of office workers have no natural light and 58 percent have no plants in their space. One third of respondents said the design of an office would affect their decision to work for a company. That means a majority of offices around the world are missing an opportunity to improve employee well-being and air quality.

This oversight has implications for employers as well: one third of respondents said the design of an office would affect their decision to work for a company. With attraction and retention being a top concern for employers, incorporating wellness-focused designs to attract employees should be a high priority.

Air quality and human-centered design

Human-centered design approaches, like the WELL Building Standard and biophilic design, emphasize strategies impacting air quality because air quality plays an important role in humans’ mental and physical well-being. In addition, many of these strategies have the dual-benefit of increasing enjoyment in a space.

As biophilic design and other human-centered design approaches become more popular, built environments will become more enjoyable places to be, increasing productivity and limiting negative health impacts. While indoor spaces will never replace the benefits of fresh outdoor air and natural surroundings, bringing these elements indoors is a start.

Allison McKenzie is a project architect and Director of Sustainability at SHP, where she uses her passion for sustainable design to help create green environments for SHP’s clients. She can be reached at amckenzie@shp.com.

Photo by Alvin Engler on Unsplash

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