Healthy Buildings In a Time of Plague

What happens when a health expert and a real estate developer write a book together?

Healthy buildings cover

Lloyd Alter

Joseph G. Allen is known to Treehugger most recently for his work this year dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. He was one of a group of scientists and engineers who fought with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control to recognize that the virus was airborne, and that ventilation was the best way to deal with it. He teaches at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and was the lead author of the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building report of 2017.

John Macomber was a successful builder who teaches what he calls Real Estate 101, "how to finance, buy, and flip an office building" at the Harvard Business School. He and Joseph Allen have partnered to write "Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity." I was asked to review the book for the BS (Building Science) and Beer show recently.

My first surprise was paying 42 bucks for a slender volume but quickly realized that this is a business book from Harvard University Press, for a business audience that is used to paying these kinds of prices. And it gets down to business real quick, right there in the preface in classic airport business book style:

"This convergence of health science, building science, and business science is revealing what is perhaps the greatest untapped business and health opportunity of our time. As the green building movement transitions to the Healthy Building movement, savvy business leaders can capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by tapping into the science underpinning these three previously siloed disciplines."

However, you can still look at the book in terms of these silos. The content from the health science and building science disciplines is useful and informative and sensible, what you would expect from Joseph Allen. Alas, the business discipline silo got demolished by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the business side, the value proposition is that if you build a healthy building then you will have healthier and more importantly, more productive workers (fewer sick days, together with greater cognitive abilities due to more fresh air and lower carbon dioxide levels), and a more marketable and profitable property.

In its short review in a list of the best business books of the year, Fortune Magazine writes "Among the most luckily timed book releases ever, this exposé of the widespread under-ventilation and pollution inside modern buildings arrived just as shared indoor space became truly deadly."

I thought the authors were incredibly unlucky because the main argument in the book is that ventilation should be increased significantly, which every building owner is doing right now. They talk about the global mega-changes that are shaping our world but through no fault of their own, missed the biggest: the pandemic that hit just when their book did.

All the post-COVID-19 guidelines from AHSRAE and from the authorities are demanding more fresh air, more filters, more air changes. Employees are demanding it before they will consider coming back to the office. Probably half of them won't be coming back at all, now that companies realize they don't need all this expensive real estate if people are working at home so that the half that does come back will be getting twice the air per person before the systems are even touched.

The dramatic drop in the demand side of the office market means that tenants will get to be picky, and they are going to go for the buildings that have the best ventilation; developers will be competing to offer the most and cleanest fresh air, the biggest heat recovery ventilators (so that you get lots of air without lots of heating and cooling costs). Any office building that doesn't offer this stuff is going to be a see-through (a building with no tenants where you can look in one side and see right through to the other) in short order.

The whole section of the book with pro forma analysis demonstrating that increased ventilation increases profitability is moot; between when the book was published and today, the world has changed.

9 Foundations
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

When they get out of the business discipline silo and get back into the health science discipline, the book makes a valuable contribution. Not just sticking with ventilation, the authors do a great job of going through all the issues that make a healthy building; not just volume of air but also air quality, thermal health and comfort, water quality, and more, all based on the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, which anyone can download, and apply to home or office. This is important and useful stuff.

What's With All the Green Building Bashing?

The authors go on about how "the Green Building movement is giving way to the Healthy Building movement" as if they are two different things. There was a time when energy efficiency was a major preoccupation and a big part of green building programs, but it was never the only issue. The Green Building movement was never "largely built chasing monetary savings from energy savings" – developers didn't care about monetary savings, they could pass that on to tenants in the operating costs. 

In fact, Green Building proponents often fought back against those who were preoccupied with energy instead of ventilation; in an article complaining about green building titled "It's the Energy, Stupid" a well-known building scientist wrote "Don’t over-ventilate. This idea of getting green points by increasing the rates above those specified by ASHRAE Standard 62 is just madness."

The LEED certification system was also almost destroyed in a battle with the chemical industry over healthy building materials, which probably created the market opening for WELL, which is eating LEED's lunch. But it doesn't matter what you label it; it's all a continuum. 

Now the Green Movement is on the move again, worrying about carbon dioxide outside of the office, not inside. The authors do mention the climate crisis and embodied energy toward the end of the book, but then they spend a page admiring the JP Morgan Chase new headquarters, where a two-million square foot building renovated to LEED Platinum just 10 years ago is being demolished to build a bigger building – it is the poster child for an embodied energy catastrophe.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Green Building and Healthy Building are not just inseparable, they are the same thing, and they are constantly evolving, and it is the authors who are building silos now.

In the conclusion, the authors write:

"This book is aimed at the commercial real estate market in leading cities. But the lessons extend to other building decision-makers, whether for a house purchase or a courthouse or a hospital or an airport, from New York to Singapore to Lagos. Individuals, vendors, lenders, and owners make choices."

Unfortunately, the commercial real estate market is going through an existential crisis and many of the people who filled those commercial buildings are never coming back full-time and will be working from home. Every problem mentioned in the book, from poor ventilation to humidity to VOCs is writ large there. It would have been a much more useful book had it been directed at all those other decision-makers instead of a small subset who all have learned really quickly about the importance of ventilation, in no small part due to the important work by Joseph G. Allen earlier this year.

It's just such a shame that the book came out when it did. The so-called "convergence of health science, building science, and business science" never actually happens because the health science is terrific, but the business science has been trampled by current events.

I understand that the book is being revised; I hope that they address all of this. And please, edit out all the "green building" straw man stuff; healthy buildings are green buildings and vice versa.