Issue 28 Towards Healthy Homes

Accordia Cambridge by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

“The number of Britons with asthma could almost double by 2050 because the air inside homes is becoming more polluted as they become more energy efficient”

A year ago the Guardian ran an article which began The number of Britons with asthma could almost double by 2050 because the air inside homes is becoming more polluted as they become more energy efficient’. The piece was based on research by Reading University, and was reported widely in the press.

Since we spend 90% of our time indoors, and 65% of that in our homes, the effect of those homes on our health is huge and far broader than just the topical issue of air quality. As well as the obvious need for fresh air and daylight, our homes and neighbourhoods also impact upon our social interactions, our access to open space, and our ability to get involved in the community. Where we are deprived of any of these elements our mental well-being as well as our physical health and happiness can be affected. The solutions are often simple and intuitive – plenty of daylight and natural ventilation, good acoustics, access to green space and connected communities. And yet these ingredients remain elusive in a high proportion of contemporary housing.

However, some of the drivers for health in the built environment are gradually changing. It begins with the growing body of scientific research linking health conditions and building design. First some bad news:

  • poor acoustics and excessive noise cause stress, higher blood pressure and even depression;
  • poor air quality, VOC’s and humidity cause or exacerbate eczema, asthma and allergies;
  • there are excess deaths associated with overheating during heat waves, and with the cold in poorly insulated houses.

Now some good news:

  • access to green space can reduce stress, depression, and obesity;  
  • good views and daylight can improve sleep, speed up recovery from illness, and reduce sick leave at work;
  • there is an increasing body of theoretical thinking and quantitative measurement to demonstrate that buildings and neighbourhoods have the ability to lift our spirits and improve our happiness and wellbeing.

The science should be useful directly to us as designers, but it also has a trickle down effect via the media into public perception. The Guardian article is a perfect example. Middle-class western society in particular is becoming more and more health concerned; our food, our exercise, and now increasingly the environment we live in.

The UK Green Building Council’s recent report ‘Health and Wellbeing in Homes’ commissioned a consumer survey that concluded 30% of home owners and renters would be willing to pay more for a home that contributed to their health and wellbeing. The statistic is particularly interesting in comparison with BRE research that found only 20% of people would be willing to pay more for an energy efficient home.

But how would prospective buyers and renters know whether a home is going to contribute to their health and wellbeing? Is the era of ‘Greenwash’ going to be followed by ‘Healthwash’? Energy efficiency is something that we can measure and quantify, and is legislated for, yet there is still a huge performance gap between design intent and reality. How can we expect to improve health and wellbeing when its success is so hard to gauge and when the drivers are less explicit?

Now this last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is changing too. There are free apps that will give you the real-time air quality on a street where you might be thinking of buying a home, and there are low-cost sensors that will tell you the air quality inside. Coming to market are inexpensive products that plug into smart phones and reveal all sorts of information: the quality of tap water, dampness in walls, the level of chemicals in your cleaning products, the amount of pesticides in your food.  Some of these are new and untested, but they are likely to improve and mature if there is demand for the information. Housing shortages might well render this irrelevant to large sections of the commercial market, but we should still expect health and wellbeing to become part of the value equation for many of our buildings in the future.

In the meantime, as designers we should be using our knowledge to design healthier homes and buildings regardless of the market dynamics. There is a lot of knowledge available out there, and the solutions often just require extra thought rather than extra money.

Andy Macintosh

Andy is an Architect at FCBStudios, and a member of the task group that authored the UK Green Building Council’s report ’Health and Wellbeing in Homes’.

Click here to view the “Health and Wellbeing in Homes” report
Find out more about FCBStudios residential projects

Image: Accordia Cambridge housing scheme, winner of the Stirling Prize 2008