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Key to Healthy Building Design is Not News to Occupational Environmental Medical Specialist

A building’s impact on the health and well-being of those who occupy it has been a well-understood factor in building design for some time.  According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), their members often factor healthy building design into the planning process, as they believe it has a significant impact on those who live or work in a given indoor environment.  However, the AIA believes a major piece of the puzzle appears to be missing … a survey of health professionals reveals that the concepts and effects of healthy design barely make it onto their radar screens.

A recent study by the American Institute of Architects illustrates the disparities: 63 percent of homeowners believe that products and practices they use at home affect their health, 90 percent of homeowners believe the environment in a school affects student performance and 59 percent of building owners factor occupant health into their planning. Yet only 32 percent of family doctors and just over half the pediatricians surveyed believe that buildings impact the health of their patients.

Ask most people, including health professionals, about the correlations between a building and the health of its occupants and the answer will have something to do with mold and mildew.  The indoor environment can be associated with health issues, some with potentially serious effects. However mold and mildew are just a few of the many agents or factors in the indoor environment that influence the well-being of the building’s users. Occupational Environmental Medical (OEM) Specialists are very experienced in those issues. The Architects assert that many other criteria, from the use of natural light and ventilation systems to including spaces for social interaction have been shown to be associated with positive effects on the health and well-being of the occupants.

Furthermore, if terms like “natural light” and “social interaction” sound a little touchy-feely, consider the very real business impact of a healthy environment. According to the study conducted by the AIA, “Green” buildings, which factor not only energy usage reduction but occupant health into their planning, have been shown to be associated with a positive effect on the bottom line, resulting in higher employee productivity and reduced absenteeism.  According to the AIA study, 66 percent of the companies who measure occupant well-being reported an improvement after moving to a green building.

So why is the healthcare community not on board with healthy design?  The AIA attributes the disconnect to a communication issue.  Only 15 percent of health professionals report receiving any information about the connections between a structure’s design and occupant health; however homeowners often look to their doctors for advice. So what makes the OEM Specialist different from the rest of the healthcare community? An OEM Specialist’s main focus is on hazard or exposure prevention, whereas according to the AIA, the general medical community does not appear to have the knowledge to offer the help their patients are seeking.

The study concludes that two major efforts are needed: more detailed research into the correlations between occupant health and building design, and a sustained outreach effort between the architectural and medical communities.  AIA CEO Robert Ivy says, “We look forward to furthering that dialogue with physicians and to helping support additional research into this critical public health issue.” 

Recently, Dr. Cheung, founder of Cogency Environmental, was the principle investigator of a large peer reviewed multi-facility epidemiology research, where over seven thousand occupants with environmental complaints participated from over 350 study areas. Many building related issues were researched, including outcomes related to occupant health, asthma exacerbations, occupational cancer, occupant stress, productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism.

For more information on healthy building environments or building designs and your health or occupants’ health, contact us at solutions@cogencyteam.com.

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