Highlights from the ASBP’s Healthy Buildings Conference

by Hattie Hartman, Sustainability Editor, The Architects’ Journal

Over 160 delegates gathered at UCL on February 15 for the ASBP’s first all-day exhibition and conference, entitled Healthy Buildings: Products, People, Planet.  The enthusiastic reception of the conference’s varied and interesting content, and the knowledge exchange and networking enabled by the day set a precedent for what will now become an annual event. This builds on some 50 events organized by the ASBP since it was founded in 2012.

Of particular note amongst the exhibitors was a UCL stand promoting its new MSc Sustainable Resources which is launching its first cohort and will hold a Virtual Open Day at 14:00 GMT on March 1st.

The ASPB’s mission-driven agenda structured the day’s programme. After a welcome from Gary Newman, Simon Corbey gave a brief overview of the definition of a healthy product. The challenge is source control by reducing exposure to VOCs as well as ensuring appropriate, but not excessive, ventilation levels.

Simon noted that until recently, London’s serious external air pollution was largely ignored, while now it’s everywhere. The same consciousness-raising must take place with indoor air quality.  The Royal College of Physicians publication Every Breath we Take (Feb 2016) was the catalyst for this change. It recommends greater vigilance on IAQ and novel hazards. And The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is commencing a 2-year development of best practice guidance on the subject.

While the chemistry of indoor air quality is highly complex, monitoring IAQ is straightforward.  More widespread monitoring will drive awareness, particularly as IAQ apps become more widely available on smartphones.

Signs of change in the industry are numerous. In France, all products must have an IAQ rating. Founded in 2000, the Healthy Building Network in America now includes some 2600 products on its database, while in Austria the IBO’s Baubook database (presented later in the day by  Caroline Thurner) lists almost 3500 products. Amongst architects, Perkins  & Will has pioneered research into healthy material specification.

The key to driving transformation in the UK is inclusion of IAQ testing in Building Regulations and then subsequent enforcement. While Part F already includes guidance on VOCs, currently little actual measuring takes place.

Following Simon, Dr Jannik Giesekam of the University of Leeds gave a rapid fire overview of global resource use, carbon emissions and the effect of climate change on human health. Available on the ASPB website, Jannik’s PPT contains many informative facts and figures about the state of the planet and current policy initiatives, including the increasingly important role of embodied carbon which is directly relevant to healthy materials. The UKGBC will launch Embodied Carbon for Clients at Ecobuild.

Jannik concluded forcefully, noting that ‘We can’t wait for perfect data to take action.’  The French, Dutch, Swedes, Norwegians and Australians are ramping up on these issues.

A video presentation by Jerker Ligthart of Chemsec, the Swedish International Chemical Secretariat (founded in 2002), followed.  Jerker described SIN, Substitute it Now, a listing of substances which should be banned, which is currently one of ChemSec’s major initiatives.  The SIN list includes carcinogenic, mutagenic, and reproductive toxins as well as endocrine disruptors.  An ASPB workstream plans to study SIN over the next year and establish its relevance to the UK construction industry.

Amena Warner of Allergy UK, the final speaker of the introductory session, cited many alarming statistics about the increase in allergy rates in the UK and highlighted the critical importance of IAQ and ventilation.  Allergy UK operates an informative helpline and its website hosts over 140 fact sheets. FUN FACT: To kill house dust mites, you must wash bedding at 60° C.

Product manufacturers ranging from global French manufacturer St Gobain to Cornwall’s own Clayworks described various healthy building initiatives. Mark Allen of St. Gobain noted that today most people spend 90% of their time indoors so that getting indoor air quality right is critical.  Together with Associated Architects, St Gobain has recently completed a new sports buildings for King’s School in Worcester which is currently undergoing 24 months of monitoring with more than 2,000 sensors embedded in the building fabric.

Mark predicts that ‘health and well-being will be massive in the next 10 years.’ St Gobain launched a Health and Well Being division three years ago. Today the company receives 20 times more queries on the subject than it did three years ago. The initial driver is commercial buildings, but Mark is confident that the same issues will filter through to the domestic market.

Tim Robinson of Waverton Analytics described approaches to testing for formaldehyde. The primary culprits are OSB, laminate flooring, plywood, bamboo-laminate flooring, carpet, upholstery and drapes.  Tim recently measured levels of formaldehyde 10X greater than WHO guidelines in a school in the northwest where students complained of health problems.

Caroline Thurner of Austria’s IBO presented an informative overview of Baubook, a database for green building materials and evaluation. Caroline noted that EPDs have too many variables for most professionals to grapple with and that the IBO database attempts to pare back to the essentials that a specifier  needs to know in order to make a choice.  Another ASPB workstream for coming months is to assess the possibility of adapting the IBO’s Baubook to the UK.

Professor and author Tom Woolley, who has been championing healthy materials for more than 25 years, bemoaned the industry’s myopic focus on saving energy and its ongoing lack of concern about toxic materials. Other sessions covered topics such the Well Building Standard and the circular economy.

A concluding panel highlighted the following issues as critical to moving the healthy buildings agenda forward.

  • Industry-wide collaboration
  • Awareness raising among professinals and the public
  • Greater transparency of information coming from suppliers
  • Need for best-practice exemplars.

All in all, it was an informative and thought-provoking day.

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