Healthy Buildings 2022 conference report by Hattie Hartman

Author: Hattie Hartman, AJ sustainability editor and host, Climate Champions podcast

The annual ASBP Healthy Building conference is always wide-ranging, featuring a mix of voices from academia, practice and industry who are pushing the boundaries of sustainable innovation on different fronts.  This year’s 6th annual conference, delivered virtually, was no exception.

Two speakers from York University kicked off the day, sharing research on indoor air quality and new materials. Nicola Carslaw of the Department of Environment and Geography described her work on the critical health impacts of indoor air quality. Highlighting relevant behavioural trends in recent decades, Nic cited more time spent indoors (up to 90%), increasingly airtight buildings and dramatic increases in consumption patterns, a combination of factors which result in more off-gassing of VOCs and other hazardous substances in all our buildings. These trends have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Nic shared her research on off-gassing from building products and furnishings, noting that they emit more VOCs when new and this gradually tails off. She explained that once released primary VOCs can stick to carpets and soft furnishings, causing secondary VOCs which last much longer than primary VOCs.

VOCs from building materials are significant because they often contain carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde, and also acetaldehyde, toluene and xylenes. Paints are problematic because of the extent of painted surfaces in interior environments.

Nic described a study that examined ozone deposits in a typical 3-bedroom apartment onto surfaces such as carpets, painted walls, soft and hard furnishings and wood floors which demonstrated that ozone likes to stick to carpets because of its many fibres.  Because of their extent, painted walls and ceilings comprise almost 60% of secondary ozone emissions. Outdoor pollution must also be considered because it impacts indoor air quality.

In summary, Nic concluded that while painted surfaces are clearly the biggest emitters, data is patchy and further research is needed into deposition rates on different surfaces.

She also warned that while the market share of green products is growing, green claims are often based on reduced emissions from the manufacturing process without improving VOCs emissions.

Before moving on to the next speaker, Simon Corbey provided a quick rundown of the ASBP’s current workstreams:

  • A new working group on healthy paints and finishes which will develop a code of conduct and agree on consistent messaging
  • A Timber Accelerator Hub led by ACAN’s Joe Giddings that is looking at ways to mitigate restrictions on mass timber post-Grenfell, particularly insurance and liability constraints
  • Grant funding for further work on eliminating plastic packaging in construction.

Simon shared a short ASBP video on this topic – well worth a watch here – which explains the need to involve many stakeholders in the supply chain to tackle this issue: clients, designers, manufacturers, contractors and waste management companies. This working group is developing a best practice manual with relevant case studies in partnership with Morgan Sindall and Cullinan Studio

  • Ongoing work on natural fibre insulation, embodied carbon, especially promoting the use of EPDs, and circular economy and reuse
  • A project supported by Interreg looking at the reuse of waste bedding as insulation

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Next up was Avtar Matharu of the University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence who presented four case studies of building materials and products that use bioresources to enable healthier outcomes and promote greater circularity, reducing waste to landfill:

  • bio boards made of straw with non-toxic binders made from food waste as an alternative to chipboard and MDF which often contain formaldehyde and other carcinogens
  • carpet tiles, currently largely derived from petrochemicals, with a switchable non-toxic adhesive layer made of waste starch between the base layer and the face fibre
  • PVC and phthalate-free vinyl flooring made from waste starch and waste oil
  • Adhesive made from waste paper charred through pyrolysis

Biorenewable alternatives to MDF and chipboard are particularly important because of their widespread use in the UK.

To scale up these prototypes, Avtar explained that it’s easier to supply low volume niche products; high volume is a challenge.

Andy Tugby of Human Nature (HN), a campaigning organisation founded in 2015 that grew out of Beyond Green, described the proposed Phoenix project, the redevelopment of a 7-hectare brownfield site in Lewes with a new 650-unit community that will be ‘net positive and fuel a new social imagination.’

Based on HN’s ‘circle of impact’ principles and the notion of ‘exponential sustainability’, the Phoenix exemplifies people-first urbanism with 5-minute walkability, a variety of housing types and tenures, including shared, compact, self-build and an infrastructure of shared facilities and activities intended to engender ‘catalytic conversations’. The premise of the Phoenix is that ‘by changing where we live, we can change how we live.’

Three heritage ironworks and an office block on the site will be refurbished. The buildings earmarked for demolition will undergo a thorough audit and be dismantled and documented in a sourcebook for architects so that materials can be stockpiled and reused where possible.

The first phase of the project includes courtyard blocks based on Jan Gehl precedents comprised of CLT and glulam structure infilled with wall cassette panels made of Sussex timber and fabricated in a factory near the site. New construction will utilise a palette of robust materials, including natural materials such as hempcrete, chalk and flint, which can be left ‘raw’ or unfinished.

Tugworth concluded by explaining that planning consent (a June submission is planned) is the Phoenix’s current challenge with onsite parking requirements a subject of ongoing consultation with planners. The Phoenix is holding public consultation about the project in late April and the ASBP plans to arrange a visit to the Phoenix in the coming months.

The next three presentations reflect a shift of emphasis from pioneering research and an exemplar project to driving change through new industry guidelines and top-down watchdogs.

Dave Kieft, managing director of Swansea-based EFT Energy Consultants described the genesis PAS (publicly available specification) 3003: a holistic code of practice for health and well-being in non-domestic buildings. PAS 3003 has been developed to respond to workplace employee demands and a drive by employers to attract and retain talent. Initiated before the onset of COVID and accelerated by the pandemic, PAS 3003 has been rapidly been adapted into a new British Standard 40102 (due out for consultation in the next few months) which will establish an energy savings and wellbeing performance certificate for both new and retrofitted buildings.

Dave concluded by highlighting the need to educate the industry about the need for a holistic approach to building services in order to avoid the widespread installation of heat pumps in leaky buildings. He described PAS3003 as written in an accessible manner that can also be used as a basis for the training of services engineers.

Jean Hewitt, senior inclusive design consultant at Buro Happold, described another new standard, PAS 6463 focused around neurodiversity, due to be published in mid-2022 with a targeted audience of architects, planners, FM staff and employers. Jean explained that many people who experience challenges in the built environment go undiagnosed. They may be largely neurotypical with spikes in one or two areas such as wayfinding and balance. Among those who are diagnosed, many people are hypersensitive to sound, vision, smell, touch or proximity.

PAS 6463 is structured in 16 sections linked to the RIBA Plan of Work. Extensive stakeholder engagement was undertaken to explore how to reduce stress and anxiety resulting from confusing building forms and entrances, glare, strong patterns and other environmental stimuli.

Recommended solutions centre around clarity and control: individual control over lighting and MEP, use of more natural materials, review of cleaning substances for VOCs, and provision of quiet rooms and restorative spaces in building types such as stadia, shopping centres and airports. Digital solutions such as virtual tours and previews are another approach. PAS 6463 includes extensive cross-referencing to existing standards such as BBMs.

Next up was Amanda Long, chief executive of a new NGO set up to manage the Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI) launched in March 2022 and developed in response to Grenfell and the Hackett Report. The CCPI is intended to raise standards and public trust across the industry. The ambition is to shift industry culture, similar to the Considerate Constructors Scheme, which Amanda also leads.

The code emerged from the CPA’s marketing and integrity group that undertook extensive market consultation post-Grenfell and determined the need for such a code. The code stipulates that suppliers’ information should be ‘clear, accurate, concise and up-to-date’ and all suppliers are required to establish a technical helpline ‘with competent individuals.’

Long emphasised that the code does not test, approve or recommend products. It is a 3rd party verification system that works with organisations to change their culture in order to ensure that their management systems and processes, communications channels and training qualifications meet industry standards.

Last up was Mark McKenna of Down to Earth, a Swansea-based social enterprise. Mark shared experiences from his 16 year-track record promoting healthy outcomes and social inclusion by involving extremely marginalised individuals (refugees, asylum seekers, people with mental health challenges) in on-site construction of sustainable buildings. Projects include six social rent houses for Coastal Housing Group, now complete, and a 14-acre health facility in the pipeline that will meet the Building with Nature certification.

Mark stressed the urgency of promoting sustainable construction beyond a narrow economic group and cited the importance of evidence-based design. Down to Earth has participated in to two academic research projects that demonstrated that involvement in sustainable construction can be as effective as anti-depressants in combatting anxiety and depression.

A video recording of this informative afternoon can be viewed below. We all hope that next year’s conference will enable us to meet in person!

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