Where Tomorrow Lives: Another Look at Health and Wellness in Building

Screen capture. Where Tomorrow Lives report cover

KB Homes with Builder Magazine call this a big business opportunity, and it is one that the green building industry ignores at their peril.

In a recent post I looked at the success of the Well Building Standard, pointing out that it is really hard to sell people on low carbon living, which is "psychologically distant." Health and wellness, on the other hand, are very close. I concluded that if the low carbon crowd doesn't get serious about health and wellness, they will be left in the flame-retardant laden dust.

Now a new report from big players in the home building industry, KB Home and Builder Magazine, Defining Health and Well-being at home, shows how pervasive this is becoming.

A new form of industry collaboration is bringing forward process innovation; re-evaluating and designing homes on the virtue of their quality of air, water, circadian lighting, noise reduction, resilience, biophilic technologies, and conduciveness to sound sleep. This represents a fundamental shift in viewpoint, the evolution of a home not just as a basic commodity, but progressing beyond the typical duty of performing as shelter to becoming a source of protection and prosperity: toward a new role as a valuable asset in terms of the resident’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
percentage willing go pay more

KB Home Where Tomorrow Lives/Screen capture

One of the problems in the green building world is that it's hard to convince people to pay much extra, and designers and builders are always trying to minimize the cost premium. But according to this study, customers are willing to shell out for wellness in ways that they were not for energy savings or carbon reductions. After noting that the drive to energy efficiency was code-driven, it notes:

It all comes down to the fine line of what consumers value, what is valuable enough to pay for, how much value it delivers to them, and, therefore, what makes sense for builders to consider. Some real estate developers are putting pencil to paper, and their initial estimates indicate that a focus on wellness drives impressive returns, resulting in up to a 35% premium for wellness-branded single-family homes. Those developers also see a 7% to 10% premium for wellness rentals and a 15% to 30% average daily rate premium for wellness-branded hotels. Not only are there price benefits, the developers also reported that these homes that benefit well-being sell more quickly than the competition.
Indoor air quality

KB Home Where Tomorrow Lives/via

People also believe that living in healthy homes will have serious (and probably overly optimistic) effects on their lives:

People see tangible and measurable benefits derived from home features and functionality that promote health and well-being, with up to 67.7% of our respondents attributing healthy homes to savings on health care and medical costs ranging from an 11% to 40% reduction of out-of-pocket expenses in health care and medical expenses.

The granite counter test

And you know things are serious when you put them up against the classic test; I have always said that given a choice, most buyers will always pick the granite counter over energy efficiency or better air quality. This apparently is changing.

Interestingly, a majority of respondents picked “noise reduction, insulating high- performance walls” over a “golf community,” indicating they value the health performance of their walls higher than a golf community. Other choices—a grow/green wall over granite countertops, net-zero energy versus a walk-in closet, and high-performance windows with a reflective coating versus an outdoor kitchen—show a growing awareness and favoring of health features over more conventional design trends.

The study looks at a number of different standards for healthy homes, the most interesting being the Hayward Healthy Home Principles set up by Bill Hayward. They include:

  • An HRV or ERV system with .35 to .6 air changes per hour
  • All interior surfaces should be cleanable
  • No major electrical runs or panels within six feet of the bed to avoid electromagnetic fields
  • "Link the kitchen range hood to the range so it turns on automatically when cooking. Plus, add makeup air kits to the range hood and dryer, in addition to using induction or electric cooking ranges. Cooking effluent is now understood to be worse than second hand smoke. Install a good, quiet range hood and a makeup air kit to make sure it draws and exhausts effectively. Electric or induction cooking produces much less aerosolized particulate."

Hayward also says we should "avoid chemically laden building materials. A less toxic environment starts with looking at the products that are the source of the most VOCs, such as OSB, cabinetry, wood floors, foam insulation, and wall-to-wall carpets and pads, and finding the right manufacturers that offer lower-emitting or nontoxic items."

The report concludes with a note that "while there always seem to be new health and wellness crazes, and the trends seem to ebb and flow and contradict what was popular a decade earlier or even just last week, the landscape is changing."

Some of these issues raised are indeed little more than crazes; I could argue that people are better served by a window letting in natural light than they are by circadian lighting systems, or that worrying about the EMF from wires in the walls is misplaced when we are bathing in wifi from connected lightbulbs, Alexa and Siri. And of course, you could get greater health benefits by walking or biking to the store from your apartment than you can driving from your healthy home.

One can also honestly say that none of this is really important, in comparison to the immense challenge we face in reducing our carbon footprints. That should be our first priority, always. But architects, designers and builders ignore this health and wellness trend at their peril; this is what people want and will pay for, especially if it is built on a foundation of comfort and efficiency.