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The International WELL Building Institute led a sign-on letter to the nation’s policymakers highlighting an overlooked strategy to promote the nation’s public health: our buildings. The letter, signed by six former Surgeons Generals of the United States as well as a group of executives from the leading health organizations, demonstrates that our buildings are a lot more than aesthetics and functionality. They are prescriptions for health.
Where people spend time matters for their health. In the U.S., people spend approximately 90 percent of their time inside buildings. As such, what we breathe, what we are exposed to, and what we drink all influence our health, not to mention the ways many building features can help support physical activity and healthy eating.
However, decision-makers often overlook the importance of buildings to health of individuals, particularly indoor air quality (IAQ). In an era of wildfires, outdoor air pollution often grabs our attention. It’s easy to forget that indoor air is on average 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air, with peaks as high as 100 times worse. This lack of attention on indoor environments is a dangerous blind spot in the national health policy that needs immediate attention, especially considering that, unlike outdoor air, there is no federal legislation regulating the quality of indoor air.
The impact of buildings on people’s health is also a significant economic issue. For example, addressing Sick Building Syndrome – the acute and chronic health effects stemming from prolonged exposure to adverse indoor environmental conditions such as lack of fresh air – could help the U.S. realize an estimated $200 billion in annual increased productivity. Further, another study found increased ventilation could help companies achieve increased worker productivity to the tune of up to $7,500 per person per year, showing that prioritizing health isn’t just good economics -- it’s good health policy.
The impacts of climate change will continue to raise the stakes related to our buildings’ resilience to environmental threats to health and safety. While the government is poised to invest hundreds of billions in our nation’s buildings, the challenge for policymakers is to make sure that investment in our nation’s buildings includes a focus on health and well-being.
Quite simply, policymakers must embrace a new approach when crafting building policy.
Buildings are not merely four walls and a roof; they are complex ecosystems that can significantly influence the lives of people in and around them. We need to rethink existing building policies with health as a key consideration. Policymakers at all levels – from mayors to governors and from school superintendents to Members of Congress – must start treating buildings as essential to supporting the nation’s health.
Dr. Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH, is a physician, Chief Medical Officer at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and Associate Professor at the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine. Dr. Trowbridge’s academic research focuses on the impact of architecture, urban design, and transportation planning on individual and population health.
Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, Ph.D. is a senior vice president leading research work at the International WELL Building Institute. Standing at the nexus of public health research and the places and spaces where we spend our lives, Dr. Gray has become one of the leading global voices for improving buildings and communities in ways that help people thrive. She leads research that supports best practices in building design and operations, community development and organizational policies that can contribute to improved public health for everyone, everywhere. She is the co-founder of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Health in Buildings Roundtable and an Advisory Board member at the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures and the International Academy of Health and Design. Her long-term research focusing on advancing public health through design of buildings, organizations and communities led to her induction to the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) College of Fellows, the Society’s highest honor for members.
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