Claire Maxfield, Director, Atelier Ten, talks about the importance of leaving behind a legacy of sustainable buildings.

Atelier Ten, an international building services and environmental consultancy firm, has been at the forefront of designing sustainable buildings in Qatar as well as other countries. They are currently working on several buildings in Doha which are targeting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold status and also GSAS ratings. The organisation has now turned its attention to ‘healthy buildings’, as they have long believed that health and sustainability are interconnected, and both must be achieved together.

“While the term healthy building has become common among the sustainable design community, it hasn’t been well defined.”

While the term healthy building has become common among the sustainable design community, it hasn’t been well defined. Following the company’s tradition, it has decided to add some rigour to this discussion, and embarked upon a year-long research project to study the literature, define its approach, and apply some creative thinking to the critical issue of health.

There are three key principles: protecting occupant health, promoting occupant wellness, and preventing environmental harm. Protecting occupant health means removing active hazards such as toxins in materials, air and water. Promoting wellness goes much further, creating spaces that are not just healthy but comfortable and delightful – spaces that support effective learning, working and playing. Preventing environmental harm underpins all of Atelier Ten’s work as it improves environmental health as much as human health by addressing on-site and off-site ecological impacts. A healthy building must also go beyond its occupants to improve the health of everyone associated with the building down the supply chain, from construction workers to product manufacturers.

“A healthy building must also go beyond its occupants to improve the health of everyone associated with the building down the supply chain.”

Seven design issues are identified as being critical for healthy buildings:
• Air quality
• Water quality
• Material assessment
• Lighting design – access to daylight
• Comfort – visual thermal, acoustic, ergonomic
• Active design

Other topics, such as material assessment, are emerging and are based on current research. New protocols are created for assessing health hazards in building materials, based on the newest scientific literature and using emerging tools such as Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and the Declare programme.

If applied correctly, a sustainably designed building enhances the wellbeing of its occupants. Daylight design is one clear example. For the last two decades, there has been a strong push for more daylight in buildings. Unfortunately, this often led to over-glazed buildings where visual comfort was neglected. Occupants therefore took it upon themselves to make their environment comfortable by putting up blinds, taped paper to the glass, and even used umbrellas as parasols to shade their workstations. These temporary alterations blocked daylight, so the artificial lighting stayed on and the original purpose of the design to provide access to daylight and lighting energy savings was compromised. Lesson learnt: you must design buildings for both energy savings and occupant wellness, or you’ll end up with neither.

It is possible to tackle these daylight and comfort challenges, which are interconnected. It requires an understanding of the interplay of space planning, building skin, interior design, lighting design and occupant behaviour. This requires the analysis of daylight access, energy savings and visual comfort with the right level of detail at each phase of design. Holistic designs where the engineers work alongside the architects and other consultants to optimise their facades, while communicating the benefits of better design to owners and occupants, are vital.

“Manufacturers often don’t know the full list of chemical compounds in their products, how they are made, or what harm they pose.”

Material assessment highlights the link between health and sustainability in a different way. Most people are shocked to learn how few chemical components of building products are regulated. In the US, of the 80,000 registered chemicals that are registered with the government, only five are restricted. Manufacturers often don’t know the full list of chemical compounds in their products, how they are made, or what harm they pose. These unregulated chemicals may pose health hazards alongside ecological problems, and no one has asked manufacturers to prove the safety of their products – neither to people, nor to the environment.

This is an environmental justice issue as well, because blue-collared communities centred on product manufacturing are continuously exposed to these health hazards. A precautionary approach is therefore warranted to endeavour to avoid chemical hazards wherever possible, and not wait for the industries to prove their harmful effects. By finding alternative materials free from ‘red list’ chemicals, chemical hazards for occupants, manufacturers and construction workers will be reduced. We should discourage the manufacturing and incentivise the responsible disposal of these chemicals, and limit their release into the natural environment.

We, as a collective group of professionals in the construction industry can do better. We can assess materials for chemical hazards and align our material choices with the values of each client. We can find alternative products, and in doing so improve the product library for each of our clients. We can use material transparency efforts to educate product manufacturers and advocate for market transformation.

Based on the work done so far, Atelier Ten is committed to improving the health of people and communities in the built environment through innovative design strategies. Introducing such strategies do not necessary cost more if it is integrated and implemented at the right point in the design process. When designing buildings and developing services strategies, engineers need to engage the participation of experts in toxicology, industrial hygiene, environmental health, building science, lighting design, environmental management and building systems engineering, which understand the relationship between the built environment and human health.

Amid the ambitious construction programmes that Qatar has embarked upon, which imposes huge demands on the teams to deliver tight programmes and budgets, we should not lose sight of the need to leave behind a legacy of healthy buildings, which will be enjoyed by its occupants now and in the years to come. Research from the US and Canada shows that buildings with green building certification have higher occupancy rates. It is too early to draw similar conclusions from research on healthy buildings, but the trend appears to be the same.

With the knowledge gained thus far and the design tools available to us, we can deliver economical solutions that protect occupant health, promote occupant wellness, and prevent environmental harm.

Claire Maxfield, Director, Atelier Ten