Job Opening: An Engineer For Human Health
There is a disconnect between managing a commercial building for the sake of the building and managing it for the health of the occupants.
What is the history of this discord?
Buildings were first constructed to shelter humans from the outdoor elements, but today, occupant wellbeing is often a neglected metric. This change has occurred as civilized societies view buildings as part of the accumulation of capital goods that must produce a sufficient return on investment (ROI) over years to justify the expenditure of labor and materials. All too often, these commercial considerations take priority over the health of the people who are required to spend many hours in the building.
When electricity was domesticated in the 1880s, artificial light allowed the length of the working day to be extended, prolonging the time employees were exposed to industrial indoor conditions. Electrical power also laid the foundation for humidity control; however, the primary emphasis in the ventilation and heating industry was to operate factories to decrease material losses (and therefore increase profits). Period records focus on how to improve refrigeration in ships, regulate hot air for drying tea, and control mold growth in weaving factories. There are few records indicating that human health offered a profit margin proportionally large enough to make investments desirable.
As the size and complexity of buildings continued to increase, an entire new profession of building management was created. In 1950, Sigfreid Giedion wrote Mechanization Takes Command, clearly outlining environmental design requirements based on industrial needs, not on human well-being.
The Arab oil embargo and consequent concern about the depletion of fossil fuel energy in 1973-1974 led to tighter control of building envelopes, bringing new health issues. In 1975, R. Knowles wrote in Energy and Form, “Of all factors in environmental management, humidity has been the most pestiferous, subtle, and elusive of control,” highlighting the difficulties with managing indoor air moisture.
As buildings became more complex the people using them had less and less control of their indoor environment. While individual users can often adjust conditions such as lighting, many other environment parameters such as the amount of fresh air entering the building or the indoor rh are determined by offsite managers.
Why has the health of building occupants been neglected?
The human body is adept at adapting to short-term environmental conditions, so building control systems do not have to make instantaneous changes for every odor emitted — we can hold our noses and sprint for the door. Our physiological tolerances are broad enough for survival in most indoor climates, but these tolerances are finite as well as variable, depending on our age, health, and indoor activity.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure
If there are no clear standards for the health of building occupants, we must develop sensitive ways to assess the impact of buildings on the inhabitants. We should not stretch the limits of physiological tolerance to the point of illness, but should make indoor environments fit for humans. The goal of achieving a truly healthy building must start with the collection of data to monitor and measure the health of the human inside.
A note for those interested in the ROI of healthy buildings: the costs of employees, including salaries and benefits, typically accounts for about 90% of business operating costs. Therefore, even a small improvement in employee health or productivity can have a huge financial reward for employers — one that is many times larger than most financial savings associated with building operations. ES