Healthy Buildings, written by John Macomber and Joseph Allen is, as the title suggests, a book about how buildings affect health. Allen is a former environmental consultant, professor of public health, and director of Harvard’s “Healthy Buildings” program. Macomber is a lecturer in finance (also at Harvard), and formerly worked in both real estate and construction.
From 2017 to 2021 I worked for a saas company that did energy monitoring for commercial buildings. Part of our pitch was what you outline as Macomber and Allen's expected benefits from "healthy" buildings. It was a tough pitch.
We were mostly selling to building management companies or REITs. The people at the companies wanted to improve air quality and reduce utility spend and etc. etc. etc., but it when the did the dollar calculations, things just never really pencilled out. Part of that is definitely the fault of my companies positioning and cost structure, but I think there were fundamental issues that made it uneconomical.
The biggest issue is that utility costs and productivity don't matter to the building owner or manager. The utility cost is passed to the tenant. Very few tenants have enough building space to make it worth worrying about indoor air quality. And if they do have enough building space they probably own the building.
There were three things that closed sales for us: the building owner/manager could reduce salary costs for building engineers by automating tenant meter readings; the building owner was getting screwed by their utility provider and we were able to identify that and save them money (this was mostly for manufacturing or other industrial); or they had teams dedicated to environmental/green initiates that had budget to spend.
The customers in the third category were the first to go when COVID hit and companies started cutting costs. As you mention, things like LEED or other similar initiatives are nice to haves but not mandatory. If the incentives structure changes, people won't participate.
I think the arguments made by Macomber and Allen would have more impact if they focused on residential spaces where the people care more about their health. I dont think about if my office has mold before i go to work, but I do think about it before I buy a house or rent and apartment. Of course its much hard to get 100 million house holds to change their behavior than to get the 100 biggest REITs to change.
In the Appendix, 5a should read “increase distance” rather than “decrease distance.”
Also in the Appendix, 19a is blank.
I didn't see you mention this, but this is quite relevant for the regulation around indoor air quality: ASHRAE Commits to Developing an IAQ Pathogen Mitigation Standard (https://www.ashrae.org/about/news/2022/ashrae-commits-to-developing-an-iaq-pathogen-mitigation-standard)
The history of aerosol transmission is quite interesting. Wells & Wells introduced the idea of “droplet nuclei” in the 1930s and 1940s, but for most of the 20th century almost no diseases were considered airborne. Tuberculosis was reluctantly reconsidered as airborne in the 1960s and measles in the 1980s. It is quite amazing that droplet vs. aerosol transmission was still a hotly debated issue in the Covid pandemic. I can recommend this article if you want to dive into the history: What were the historical reasons for the resistance to recognizing airborne transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic? (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ina.13070)
The idea that elevated CO2 reduces cognitive performance is far from convincingly proven. People spend months in submarines and space stations with high CO2 concentrations and still perform at a high level.
Many bedrooms reach at night higher concentrations then recommended for offices and we don't see any ill effects.
My parents' kitchen is poorly ventilated so I was worried and bought a CO2 meter. Despite frequent cooking the CO2 never reached dangerous levels.
Until I see strong evidence I'm going to treat this CO2 issue like just another manufactured scare. And keep my windows open throughout the summer.
Nice breakdown and confirmed what I have always been thinking. Been in the RE development industry for 12 years - LEED (and now WELL) always stunk of slick marketing and largely paper pushing exercise instead of actual performance and real results over an extended period of time. Until consumers actually have the time/ money/ care to demand these certifications up front to justify the costs it will largely remain just nice words on paper. Unless entire Building Codes change over large state/provincial level authorities there won't be much positive impact on human health.
I read and reviewed the first edition and do not know what has changed, but I loved Allen and hated Macomber. All of his economic arguments are moot; you can’t rent a building with crappy air anymore. They are see-throughs now. And they spend far too much time bashing architects and green building.
Nice, I have had this book on my radar for half a year but hadn’t bothered to read it, so it is good to get a review.
When it comes to indoor pathogen levels, what technology are Allen and Macomber most bullish on to reduce aerosols? What was your impression of in what order they would rate increased ventilation (opening windows), better HVAC systems (HEPA filters), portable air cleaners, upper-room GUV, and far-UVC?
Thanks for the great summary Brian. Definitely a long way to go in terms of catching up our actions with the damage we know they're doing.
The point on lack of info regarding building chemical use and materials was a great one, have had to write chemicals list and review SDSs recently, there's a lot of blindspots around health impacts.
Well, at least your commentary on the WELL rating system is correct.
“The solution to pollution is dilution” is not sound advice for many buildings.
“First, do no harm” is a good start.