Several years ago, Rachel Hodgdon, an expert in green buildings, was touring a new high school in DeKalb County, Georgia, when she asked teachers how they liked their new building. They loved it. The best part, they told her, was that they no longer went home each afternoon with the “2:30 headache.”
Hodgdon asked them what they meant. “They told me, ‘That’s the term we made up for how sick we feel after a full day at school,’” she says.
At the time, Hodgdon was the director of the Center for Green Schools. As she traveled to meet students and teachers who were moving out of older buildings and into more environmentally friendly ones, she was collecting all sorts of similar stories. Coughs disappeared. Attention improved. Absentee rates dropped.
Hodgdon had stumbled across an idea that architects and public health researchers were also beginning to recognize. Building improvements made in the name of sustainability—things like oversize windows and new, quieter HVAC systems—were benefiting the health of the people inside those buildings. The realization helped spur a movement in architecture generally called “healthy buildings.” Just as structures can be designed for the health of the planet, they can also be designed for the health of their inhabitants.
Over the past several months, the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a surge of interest in the role that indoor environments—where we spend 90 percent of our time, even in a normal year—play in our health. Suddenly, developers and CEOs are realizing that incorporating health concerns in a building’s design isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.
“People are really thinking about, ‘Are these spaces safe? Are they healthy? How could I improve them?’” says Rick Cook, a founding partner of the New York-based architectural firm COOKFOX.
Cook and other architects have been working with the International WELL Building Institute, an organization that’s developing standards for healthy buildings and is now run by Hodgdon. Since the pandemic, the Institute has been registering more than a million square feet of real estate a day in its certification program, putting buildings on the path to wellness.
“That was like a hockey stick growth moment for us,” Hodgdon says.
Our Buildings, Ourselves
In our present reality, when we think about staying healthy indoors, our minds immediately go to social distancing and plexiglass barriers, then to factors like ventilation and air quality. But the latter two will remain critical even beyond the pandemic. Not only does fresh air help prevent the spread of the flu and the common cold, studies have shown it also improves attention and increases scores on cognitive tests.
Research has shown that many other indoor environmental factors have quantifiable effects on health. Our immune systems and general well-being are shaped by the places where we spend most of our time. Even things that we might think of as mere annoyances—the drone of an officemate’s phone conversation, the light that won’t stop flickering—impact our health. There’s a reason they’re annoying.
Cook argues that, while modern conveniences like fluorescent lighting and air conditioning offset some of the downsides of nature, moving further from our natural habitat has made us more miserable indoors. Studies have consistently shown that environments that mimic or allow access to the natural world lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, improve concentration, and strengthen the immune system. “Just looking at nature—3.8 billion years of evolution. We should probably be paying attention,” Cook says.
Take something like lighting. When we don’t get enough bright light—or when we get too much of the wrong types of light—during the day, our circadian rhythms are thrown off. We don’t sleep well at night. In the long term, that increases cancer risk. “We now know that not stimulating our circadian rhythm properly is actually a carcinogen,” says Mara Baum, the head of health and wellness at the design firm HOK.