Editor's Letter

Sept. 22, 2017

From Sick to Healthy to Behavior-Inducing Buildings.

The term Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) seemed to arrive in the 1980s. A great deal was written about ailments like headaches, nausea, fatigue, allergies, asthma, Legionnaires’ disease and the like. The potential hazards of mold, VOCs, asbestos and off gassing were well publicized. Researchers sought to quantify the cost in absenteeism and occupant productivity. As with many new things – especially ones that are costly to remedy – SBS met with some initial skepticism but in time became widely accepted. The message: do no harm with buildings.

The next stage was healthy buildings. The focus on indoor air quality (IAQ) broadened to indoor environmental quality (IEQ). The healthy building became the well building, with daylight, ergonomics, acoustics, thermal comfort, water quality, healthy food and fitness opportunities as well as air quality.

In turn, these amenities would make workers more productive. The message: make workplaces stimulate occupant health, wellness and activity.

Is the next stage tuning buildings to induce certain occupant behaviors? A recent study found that cognitive function increased with less CO2 and higher rates of ventilation and outside air (see Facility Facts on page 50). This inevitably led to talk about the small cost of increasing air movement compared to the savings from increasing workforce productivity by a few percentage points. Researchers have also learned that light is not only illumination for vision but also a signal to our biological systems. With the seemingly unlimited ability of LED lamps to change light color and quality, manufacturers have begun to talk about lighting “recipes” that stimulate occupants, such as increasing blue light to increase alertness.

Such developments make me concoct a dystopian future where a building automation system increases air movement to 60 cfm and increases blue light levels when it detects that occupant 0010009 has not made a computer keyboard stroke for a preset period. While that scenario won’t happen, I imagine that marketing hype for behavior-altering possibilities will outpace the scientific fundamentals for years to come. In a fact sheet on healthy lighting, the DOE recently cautioned that “light as a drug is much different from light as a commodity.” 

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where this stage takes us. After all, the average person spends about 22 out of 24 hours indoors. There must be much more to learn about the impact of buildings on our nature. 

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