The healthiest building is the one already standing

Chateau Laurier
CC BY 2.0 Rideau Canal locks next to Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa

Carl Elefante once said that The greenest building is the one already standing, and it has become a mantra among the heritage community. However a case can be made that The healthiest building is the one already standing as well.

Rick SmithLloyd Alter/ Rick Smith/CC BY 2.0

At the Heritage Canada convention in Ottawa recently, Rick Smith, co-author of Slow Death by Rubber Duck discussed the dangers of phthalates, the plasticizer that is mixed into vinyl to make it flexible, and that's found in many of the building products we use. These are indeed a problem. Studies have shown that they are endocrine disruptors, obesogens and make men's penises smaller.They even contaminate ants.

Phthalates are only the tip of the iceberg.

But they are only one of the chemicals found in new building materials that may be harmful. New buildings are often of formaldehyde, fire retardants, VOC laden finishes, or Perfluorochemicals (non-stick stain resistant chemicals). They contain a lot of foam plastics that are made with petrochemicals, and that release dioxins when burned.

Then they all get sealed up tight in a new energy-efficient envelope so that probably doesn't mix in enough fresh air, that has suspended ceilings and carpeting that grab dust and particulates.

Penn Station Lower LevelMcKim, Mead and White. Look at those glass floors over the platform./Public Domain

Light and air

People concerned about healthy buildings today demand lots of natural light, fresh air and healthier materials. Our older buildings often have terrazzo or wood floors. They have high ceilings and tall windows to bring in natural light. They were designed before air conditioning, so they don't need a lot of it. They were built from durable materials that didn't need a lot of maintenance.

years to recover© National Trust for Historic Preservation

Carbon dioxide and our planet's health

They are built to last, the single most important feature in reducing the carbon footprint of a building. That's because it can take 10 to 80 years for a new building that is 30% more efficient to overcome the impacts related to its construction.

It is true that there are some health issues inherent in old buildings, namely lead in plumbing and paints, and asbestos in insulation and other building materials. These have to be encapsulated or remediated.

parisLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Old buildings promote an active lifestyle and are found in walkable areas.

Older buildings often have attractive and central stairs, (and are under-serviced by elevators) so people tend to do a lot more walking up and down. There is even an active design movement to promote this.
More and more studies are showing that walkability is a direct indicator of health and happiness. Richard Jackson noted in Making Healthy Places:

The health threats we face cannot be countered by medical science alone, Although there are medicines to help us lose weight, they will never be as safe or as cheap as a good diet and exercise, particularly the incidental exercise that was a routine part of earlier generations' lives as they waked to shops, churches, and workplaces and climbed stairs in buildings.

New healthy buildings standards look like old buildings

When you look at new healthy building standards, like the WELL building standard that TreeHugger has covered, they promote things including:

  • limit pollutants, toxins and other environment conditions that pose immediate and long-term threats to health;
  • provide optimal light for enhancing the circadian rhythm – improving sleep and productivity;
  • passively and actively encourage greater levels of physical activity.

Those are all attributes that you can find in old buildings. It just helps make the point:

The healthiest building is the one already standing.

The healthiest building is the one already standing
Lessons from the Heritage Cananda/ National Trust Convention on how old buildings are not only green but can be healthy, too.

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