Sick building syndrome. What to avoid.

The World Health Organisation recognise Sick Building Syndrome as a real issue and have written a number of reports on it. With the interiors of buildings being in the news of late I thought that it was worth throwing a bit of extra light on the topic.

Most buildings are not designed for people. They are designed for profit, efficiency and style. Many buildings look great, but are in fact really awful to work or live in. So what causes this?

There have been a range of factors noted that can adversely affect the health and well being of people using / inhabiting buildings. I shall go through a few here and give some potential solutions to them:

Lack of natural light – we rely greatly on artificial light and this does not have the full spectrum that we get from the sun and so it is not what we need as humans. More natural light in buildings is essential for conditions like Seasonally Adjusted Disorder (SAD).

Solution: Increase the amount of natural light using things like sun-pipes, increased size of windows, fit LED lights rather than conventional energy saving bulbs (these have a higher colour rendering index) especially in areas where people are doing detailed work

Chemical Off gasing – many products like MDF, Foam, PVC, Paint and cleaning products give off invisible gases. Many for all of their life. This haze of chemicals (some of which are known toxins) are breathed in and then reside in our bodies as we have no natural way of processing them. This build up of artificial chemicals can lead to a range of health problems.

Solution: Use natural products like eco-paints, untreated wood, latex foam, natural cleaning products. Also have a lot of plants in rooms as these will absorb some of the pollutants

Electro Magnetic Fields (EMF) – in areas using lots of electrical equipment the wires set up a series of EMFs. No one knows for sure how this affects us (just like the effects of using mobile phones is debated) however it is noticeable that houses are no longer built under pylons. Having a large amount of EMFs in our immediate environment can therefore be an issue for some.

Solution: House electrical wiring in EMF protected conduits

Ventilation – There is often a lack of sufficient ventilation in buildings and this can exacerbate the issues with off-gassing as well as encouraging the formation of mould, spread viruses etc. So having a well ventilated space with fresh air is important. However one must bear in mind the need for energy efficiency especially in the winter months.

Solution: Build using breathable materials / structures to help to regulate relative humidity levels and also ventilate using heat recovery systems to minimise wastage of heat.

Views – Having a good view can be important, but it is also important to be able to focus on items that are far away. With much of our work based in front of computers it is necessary to give our eyes a break from close focusing, so having some interesting / pleasant things to look at in the room can help alleviate eye strain.

Solution: Give people views or at least something to focus on that will encourage people to look away from their screens every few minutes.

Social space – As social creatures we need to have interaction with others and so the ‘water cooler’ or staff area is important. Similarly we need differentiation at home. One room bedsits are not conducive to happy living as it combines social with private space and this is not what most people need or want.

Solution: Ensure that there are distinct areas of private and social space in the layout of buildings

Access to nature – having a garden or access to outdoor space is important to many people. It connects us to nature and provides a sense of place and grounded-ness for many.

Solution: Provide gardens or green space for people, even if this means importing plants into the internal space.

Large temperature swings – Having high internal temperatures changes is also sited by WHO as an issue. Whilst insulation has improved in buildings over time there is still a way to go, especially in certain environments like lightweight timber constructions.

Solution: Use insulations that have a high decrement value (this can delay the maximum temperatures from reaching the internal environment to such an extent that it becomes non-problematic).