Highlights from the ASBP’s Healthy Buildings Conference 2018

by Hattie Hartman, Sustainability Editor, The Architects’ Journal

The key messages emerging from ASBP’s second annual Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo were a sobering wake up call about the critical health issues resulting from poor air quality – both indoor and outdoor – and a call for built environment professionals to collaborate with medical researchers who are tackling this issue.

The most alarming statistic, cited by keynote speaker Stephen Holgate (Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton), was that male fertility rates in the UK have dropped by 40% in the last two decades. Awareness of the dangers of outdoor pollution, particularly in London, has ratcheted up in the last five years, yet indoor air quality remains seriously understudied and almost completely unregulated.

Delegates at ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference & Expo 2018

One of the strengths of the ASBP’s Healthy Buildings Conference is its mix of practitioners and academics – both on stage and in the 150-strong audience. Executive chair Gary Newman describes the ASBP as a change organisation – its ambition is to drive change by ‘reimagining the future’. The need to move industry focus from cost reduction and shifting of risk to creation of ‘value’ is ever more urgent in a period defined by the Grenfell tragedy. This makes the need to ‘measure’ critical because it is easier to value something that can be measured.

To foster best practice, the ASBP has recently launched the ASBP Awards, based on six elements of sustainable construction; technical performance, whole-life carbon, health and well-being, resource efficiency, social value, ethics and transparency.

Hosted at UCL, the jam-packed day saw 17 speakers present on a wide range of topics including:

  • building performance – the need for an evidence base
  • designing for health, in particular the role of biophilia
  • toxicity and moisture
  • procurement

Every breath we take report – RCP and RCPCH, 2016

Professor Holgate set the scene with numerous global health statistics, citing the impacts on the neonatal and very young and the recent surge in non-smoking related lung cancer. ‘Every Breath we Take‘, a 2016 study published by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), summarises findings to date. This work is starting to gain traction in the medical community with a ministerial roundtable scheduled for this month (March 2018).

The main sources of indoor air pollution are chemicals from building materials, mould and bacteria, cleaning supplies, outdoor air, and carbon monoxide. Ultrafine nanoparticles which building mechanical systems cannot filter out, referred to by Holgate as ‘Trojan horses carrying chemicals,’ are the main problem.

According to Holgate, what really needs to be studied is the ‘total body health burden’ of pollution. This is challenging because most epidemiologists only look at one pollutant at a time. The RCP has partnered with the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH ) to assess impacts on children and develop an evidence base which can drive change. Dyson has funded a literature review, but the RCP and the RCPCH have issued a call to action and are keen to find partners – particularly in the built environment sector –  to support this work and fund another £45K. Click here to find about more.

Measuring for healthy buildings: Building performance

Case study building at King’s College London’s Waterloo campus

Entitled Whole Life Performance +, Rajat Gupta’s current research at Oxford Brookes’ Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development focuses on indoor environments and workplace productivity.  Gupta explained that most productivity studies to date have used artificial laboratory environments to measure a single variable. Funded by Innovate UK and EPSRC, Gupta’s team is using actual case studies to measure the link between comfort and perceived productivity, using both self-reported surveys and measured productivity (time taken to complete specific tasks).

Julie Godefrey, Head of Sustainability Development at CIBSE, pinpointed the lack of regulatory frameworks as one of the biggest problems. Building regulations are vague: ‘there shall be adequate ventilation.’  CIBSE is currently revising TM40, its technical memorandum which sets out its approach to indoor air quality metrics and defines thresholds for pollutants.

Godefroy highlighted the ‘big misconception’ that air quality is dependent on ventilation rates, explaining that this ignores outdoor pollution.  ‘At the moment, we have too much kit and too much data, which is often poor quality, and limited information on the ‘cocktail effect’ of many pollutants,’ says Godefroy. Consumer devices, such as those being developed in China and Malaysia, will be increasingly powerful even if much of the data is currently unreliable.

As a designer, one thing you can do immediately is to use Health Product Declarations when specifying materials.

Julie also highlighted both the EU Withdrawal Bill and an upcoming Defra consultation as having potentially ‘massive impacts on environmental health.’

Wilkinson Primary School, Wolverhampton – Architype

Ben Humphries of Architype described the practices recent POE studies with Coventry University comparing four different schools where temperature, relative humidity, weather and CO2  were monitored.  Although not entirely accurate because it does not capture particulates from traffic pollution such as NO2, CO2 was used as a proxy for IAQ.

The practice is now studying the impact of VOCs in more detail and is currently initiating a study with UCL that uses ‘active sampling’ by controlling timing and looking at the contribution of materials to IAQ  by measuring emissions from cleaning  and tracking the timing of ventilation. ‘Passive sampling’ is also used to measure emissions from a range of flooring materials, comparing PVC, rubber and linoleum.

Most of Architype’s buildings take a hybrid approach so that they can operate in both natural and mechanical mode.  This ‘either/or’ strategy delivers better, especially in winter. Ben also highlighted the importance of building Soft Landings into contracts early on, which Architype is increasingly able to do.

Tim Sharpe of MEARU at the Glasgow School of Art highlighted the numerous unintended consequences of poor IAQ in airtight new construction with inadequate ventilation and repeated instances of  poorly performing mechanical extract systems. Problems include lack of design integration, unbalanced systems, lack of occupant understanding and proper maintenance regimes. Sharpe stressed that ventilation is not being properly designed because compliance is required only at design stage. Due to the fragmented nature of design and construction process, no one has a watchdog overview of ventilation.

MEARU research has also surveyed ventilation habits to look at occupant influence on IAQ. Particularly disturbing are the numbers of bedrooms with poor levels of ventilation and resultant mould, as well as problems incurred from indoor clothes drying.

In Scotland, CO2 sensors are now required by Building Regs as a proxy for effectiveness of ventilation (since 2015). There has been a massive proliferation of metering but data only tells us what, not why. MEARU has done some work comparing sophisticated sensors with low cost alternatives.  Cheaper models are often sufficient to get a broad picture and can play an important role in raising awareness.

The recently-formed Building Performance Network is seeking to harmonise approaches to measurement. To better understand the health effects of modern airtight construction, we need collaboration between health and built environment professionals. Often the focus of monitoring is on environmental factors because they are measurable. We must not discount the importance of design quality.

Designing for healthy buildings: Biophilia

Mike Roberts, Managing Director and Co-founder of HAB Housing, highlighted the important role of nature in healthy place-making as central to HAB’s approach to development. The key is ‘to get people outside more’. In one project currently in the pipeline, the design of the masterplan made it possible to add 4 hectares to an adjacent park.

The Triangle, Swindon – HAB Housing

HAB’s first project, the Triangle (2011) in Swindon, incorporated a modern take on a village green. Provision of bike storage by front doors has proven extremely effective.  Pressure to ‘do like the Jones’ means that many residents now have bicycles. Other features of the project include high ceilings at the ground floor to improve daylight, MHVR with cowls disguised as chimneys, and secure louvres on French doors for nighttime ventilation. Improved glazing technology since The Triangle makes larger windows feasible on current projects.

HAB’s approach to materials has also evolved with each project. According to Roberts, the future is in offsite. While hempcrete was used at The Triangle, on a current ‘upmarket’ project of £1.5M houses on the edge of Oxford, panelised hempcrete is being used. The houses are designed around shared courtyards which bring people together to foster a sense of community.

Also in HAB’s pipeline is a 160+ unit project in Southmead near Bristol which incorporates a green boulevard as a major feature of the masterplan, a common approach in Holland and Germany.  Roberts sees this as a way forward for UK housing. The creation of a community management company to look after common spaces is another important aspect of HAB’s approach.

Dr. Marta Santamaria, Technical Director of the Natural Capital Coalition gave an overview of the concept of natural capital and its increasing role as a way of assigning ‘value’ to natural resources.  A global coalition with more than 270 member organisations which include NGOs, consultancies, academia and the private sector (such as AECOM, ARUP, Interface, SKANSKA), the Natural Capital Coalition has developed a detailed framework for measuring and valuing the relative importance of natural resources in different sectors. To date, protocols exist for the food/beverages and the fashion/retail sectors, forest products is underway and funding is being sought for a built environment protocol.  Skanska uses the protocol to identify ‘hot spots’ on projects.

Maggie’s Centre, Newcastle – Cullinan Studio

Carol Costello, practice leader at Cullinan Studio, described the architects’ low energy retrofit of their canalside office in Islington, completed in 2012. Planters and a bench along the pavement outside the office have proven an effective way of luring staff outside and nurturing a sense of community.  Sharing recently published guidance by the Tree Action and Design Group, Carol explained how landscape design and planting are carefully integrated into all Cullinan projects such as the Centre of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and more recently Singapore Management University and Maggie’s Centre in Newcastle. Specifying the correct planting in the right location can also improve air quality, particularly important in therapeutic environments where the health benefits have been proven through evidence-based design.

Drilling down on the topic of ‘building greening’, Peter Wooton-Beard of Aberystwyth University provided a brief overview of green roofs and walls, citing some interesting stats for the UK:

  • annual growth rate of 17.1% for green roofs
  • annual UK market in extensive green roofs = £26.2M
  • 42% of green roofs in London due to planning policy
  • 7M m2 installed in UK compared to 86M m2 in Germany (2014).

Well-documented benefits include thermal comfort, improved air quality and mental health and well well-being, but it is critical to assess local conditions, be clear about what problems you are trying to solve and select appropriate plants for the desired benefits.  For example, birch trees can increase the risk of asthma. Finally, proper maintenance regimes are critical since 99% of failures are due to inadequate maintenance.

Hilson Moran’s new Manchester office certified to WELL Building standards

Chris Birch of Hilson Moran presented the Well Building Standard as a way of addressing many of the themes raised over the course of the day. Founded in America seven years ago, WELL currently has almost 600 buildings in the certification pipeline, with 71 certified to date, of which 4 are in the UK. Hilson Moran recently relocated its Manchester practice to WELL-certified premises.

Chris describes WELL as a nutritional table for a building: a design checklist based around seven concepts, with certain minimum preconditions and an ongoing process of reassessment every 3 years. With nine projects in the pipeline at Hilson Moran, Chris sees a growing appetite for WELL certification, particularly in the office retrofit sector where clients are keen to differentiate themselves.

Presenting a compelling mind map of the many components of a healthy building, sustainability consultant Susan Harris of the Anthesis Group, explained that the ‘healthy buildings’ approach is getting better buy-in from clients than ‘sustainability’. Support from the top is critical. Because there is a gain for every stakeholder in the procurement process, it is a ‘whole business conversation’ that has the potential to maximise value.

Performance specifications are the key route to success, along with supply chain seminars and early engagement of contractors.  Specifications should be clear about what outcome is required and provide examples on how the outcomes can be met. Objectives must be clear with specific guidance on solutions.

Suppliers must be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their product and back up claims with data. Clients must go for value not just the lowest cost. Aftercare, including detailed handover, careful commissioning and cultural change programmes are essential to close the performance gap.

In summary

All in all, a dense and wide-ranging set of speakers tackling healthy buildings from several angles.  The frightening statistics on indoor air quality set the scene with a rude wake up call. It is fascinating that the medical profession is honing in on this. Built environment professionals and product suppliers need to collaborate.

Talks were grouped broadly across four themes:

  • the need for measuring and monitoring to increase awareness and drive policy change
  • biophilia and the enhancement of indoor environments through greater connection with the natural environment (plants, green roofs, landscaping)
  • indoor air quality: toxicity of building materials and moisture control
  • the procurement process: reduction of embodied carbon, certifications and working with the supply chain.

The subject of healthy buildings continues to be challenging to navigate, particularly the specification process, but it is slowly gaining traction.


Please also see Kate de Selincourt’s summary article of the conference which has a focus on the speakers from the healthcare industry – asbp.org.uk/asbp-news/healthy-buildings-or-toxic-buildings.

All of the speaker presentations can be viewed here.

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