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Efficient vs. Healthy: A Knockout Punch for Green Building

Author: Alex Stadtner
January, 2013 Issue

A battle has been raging in the design-build community for decades. Much is at stake, yet few are paying attention. Here’s the blow-by-blow from a battle that affects everyone.
 
Ringside. Energy Efficiency vs. Healthy Building. A hush before the bell rings…
 
When “green building” is mentioned at cocktail parties, energy efficiency is usually the first thought conjured up. Minds drift to insulation, air sealing and solar panels. And when you talk about “environmental testing,” minds jump to blower doors, duct blasters and energy auditing services.
 
But isn’t a “green building” also healthy? If you have asthma or a building-related illness, your first priority is not energy efficiency. Yet energy remains the most commonly identified element of “green,” and what most fail to realize is that some energy efficiency measures can negatively affect occupant health.
 
Ding, ding, ding!
Round 1 . Efficiency almost wins by a knockout. Spurred by an energy crisis, a push for better-insulated buildings led to the rollout of urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). Energy efficiency was top priority and few considered health impacts.
 
Round 2. Healthy makes a comeback. After thousands of buildings are “upgraded” and many people get sick, scientists link UFFI to illness and the notion of “sick building syndrome” emerges from the shadows.
 
Round 3. Energy makes a startling comeback. Minimum ventilation rates are lowered for offices and classrooms. Lower ventilation rates save energy, but lead to increased buildup of contaminants indoors.
 
Round 4. Tighter buildings with less ventilation knock Healthy to the ropes. Oil prices push industry toward tighter, better-insulated buildings. The crowd roars, “Build tight!”
 
Round 5. CFL light bulbs are subsidized and sold for less than $1. They become the symbol of green. Unfortunately, they produce dirty electricity and contain mercury. Efficiency wins another round.
 
Round 6. Brownouts rock the country and hospitals lose power. Images of baby births by candlelight support a new bright idea. “SmartMeters” connected to a “smart grid” will save the day! New infrastructure is rolled out at enormous cost and without any consideration of health.
 
Round 7. Healthy sneaks in a round. Ventilation rates are increased to reduce indoor air contaminants. The “cost of sick buildings,” in terms of absenteeism and productivity losses, momentarily takes the spotlight as LEED and other green building rating systems gain momentum.
 
Round 8. Energy strikes back. Subsidized energy audits and weatherization programs are unleashed. Blower door and duct blaster tests are performed with no regard to where make-up air (outside air brought into a building through the HVAC equipment) comes from. High-VOC caulks and flame-retardant-rich foams are used to seal up buildings.
 
Round 9. Energy fans chant, “Build tight!” Healthy fans chant, “Ventilate right!” Building scientists push for airtight buildings with increased ventilation. Energy recovery ventilators (ERV/HRV) become mainstream and prove an energy-saving and healthy choice. Tied round.
 
Round 10. The fight continues…
 
A truly sustainable building isn’t one-dimensional. A green building should support energy efficiency and occupant health.
 
In all fairness, it’s impossible to separate energy efficiency from health. Building biologists frequently refer to buildings as our “third skin.” The ozone layer, directly connected to our health and influenced by energy consumption, could arguably be called our fourth skin. The enormous impact of droughts, floods, rising sea levels and more powerful and frequent storms are public health concerns. Global climate change may turn out to be the single largest threat to human health since the last ice age, but we should never ignore our present health or make the argument that we must choose between efficiency and health. They’re forever entwined.
 
Fortunately, it’s not a zero-sum game. At my company, we are energy efficiency geeks, but our considerations don’t stop there. We do blower door testing (often positively pressurized), recommend (non-toxic) air sealing and lighting upgrades (usually LED). We also do air quality testing. Good green building consultants consider the big picture and realize it’s not an either/or decision.
 
Efficiency is easier to sell. A return on investment for a new furnace can be calculated within minutes, but an honest look will show medical spending (or decreased productivity) far outweighs energy costs. It’s hard to estimate savings from lowered absenteeism or avoided asthma attacks, but the benefits are real and significant.
 
If your family suffers symptoms in a sick building, the priority is painfully clear: health over energy. To nail this point home, I borrow from the American Lung Association: “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters!”
 
Buildings can be energy efficient and healthy, but unless you ask the right questions, occupant health often ends up on the ropes and people are literally knocked out. High-performance buildings must incorporate both elements, or the green building community will remain divided.
 
So, when the bell rings at your home or office, don’t get caught in the trap. Demand both efficient and healthy buildings—and everyone will win in the tenth round!
 
 
Alex Stadtner, MS, LEED-AP, GPR, BBEC, is owner and founder of Healthy Building Science. Reach him at alex@HealthyBuidlingScience.com or (415) 785-7986.

 

 

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