Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic—which, at the time of this writing, has claimed the lives of nearly 86,000 Americans—we managed to spend the vast majority of our time indoors (93% according to one study!). Of course, pre-COVID-19, “indoors” was more likely to entail some daily combination of home, workplace, stores, restaurants, gyms, etc. Post-COVID-19, “indoors” is more likely to entail just home with an occasional run to the store that feels more like a Navy SEAL mission than shopping. This rather sudden change in our behavior—necessary to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our other fellow human beings—provokes the question of whether and to what extent our home is healthy.
Hundreds of published studies have established links between indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and human illness.[i] As such, many organizations—varying greatly in scope and methodology—have sought to improve the environmental health of our homes. For example, among its many initiatives, the International Living Future Institute publishes the “Red List,” which identifies and details the “worst-in-class materials” commonly found in building construction.[ii] The chemicals in these materials have been found to pollute the environment, reach toxic levels in organisms due to bio-accumulation up the food chain, and harm factory and construction workers.[iii] Another example, perhaps better known, is the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, which provides “a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings.”[iv] Our organization—Projects Linking Art, Community, and Environment (PLACE)—is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that literally builds upon such efforts by harnessing the science and information to create healthy homes for folks all along the income spectrum.
Among PLACE’s development principles is our commitment to designing and operating our buildings to the highest environmental standards.[v] Pursuant to this principle, PLACE has developed LEED-certified homes across the United States. Human health has always been a LEED goal, and PLACE endorses the USGBC position that “the places where we live, learn, work, and play—indoors and out—must support our overall wellness.”[vi] Although PLACE will consider and incorporate other environmental standards as appropriate, we have successfully employed the LEED framework time and again, which is proven to create healthier spaces with cleaner air, more access to daylight, and improved IEQ—and, in turn, mitigate the effects of stress, asthma, respiratory allergies, and depression and improve productivity.[vii]
PLACE is now pursuing LEED certification for Via Sol—a mixed use, mixed income community currently under construction in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota. The 217 new homes will be served by a dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS), which has been shown to provide significantly greater ventilation and better IEQ.[viii] The DOAS is an important health amenity: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established that inadequate ventilation is a primary cause of poor IEQ[ix], and, moreover, a 2015 Harvard University study found that, “in addition to eliminating [volatile organic compounds] and semi-volatile compounds in flame-retardant rugs, stain-repellant furniture, and plastics, ventilation is vital to improving occupant health.”[x] Via Sol will also provide its residents with their own urban art forest—an opportunity to encounter various art installations along a wooded, winding path. Yes, that sounds fancy, but what does it have to do with health?
Of course, there are the health benefits of being with nature. We have known for a long time that “humans are ‘hardwired’ to connect with the natural world" and that being in nature has a profoundly positive effect on human health.[xi] Connecting with nature and taking a walk in the forest (known to some as “forest bathing”) conveys significant health benefits for at least two reasons: (1) the higher concentrations of oxygen in forests; and (2) the presence of plant chemicals called phytoncides—"natural oils that are part of a plant’s defense system against bacteria, insects, and fungi.”[xii] The proven benefits are many and include:
- Less stress, anger, anxiety, and depression;
- Improved metabolic and cardiovascular health (including lower blood pressure and heart rate);
- Improved sleep, mood, focus, energy, and overall wellbeing; and
- A stronger immune system and accelerated recovery from surgery or illness.[xiii]
With immediate access to an urban art forest, Via Sol residents will be able to do as doctor and researcher Qing Li so eloquently stated, “All we have to do is accept the invitation. Mother Nature does the rest.”[xiv]
Perhaps less obvious and less well known is that the “art” portion of “urban art forest” will convey health benefits. One very robust study, known as the Nord-Trondelag Health Study, found “a definite correlation between participating in cultural activities—like creating art or attending concerts—and having increased rates of good health, satisfaction with one’s life, and lower rates of anxiety and depression in both men and women.”[xv] These benefits were realized by those consuming the art as well as those creating the art![xvi] Given that some of Via Sol’s 217 new homes will be designed specifically as live-work apartments for creatives, there will be a unique opportunity for healthy symbiosis between neighbors.
In this article, I have presented some health risks associated with an unhealthy home environment. In doing so, it is not my intent to scare anyone or to create additional anxiety in this already anxious time. Rather, my intent is to raise awareness and encourage mindfulness about how we may improve our respective IEQ. Homeowners may want to take account of the materials in their home and consider how their next home-improvement project might bring about a healthier home. Renters may want to consider additional criteria or questions for a prospective landlord or property manager when looking for an apartment. All may check to see if there is a PLACE community near them.
[i] John Manuel, “Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems: Rx for Sick Buildings,” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 111, no. 13 (Oct. 2003), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14527862.
[ii] Int’l Living Future Inst., “The Red List,” accessed May 16, 2020, https://living-future.org/declare/declare-about/red-list/.
[iv] U.S. Green Bldg. Council, “What Is LEED?,” accessed May 17, 2020, https://www.usgbc.org/help/what-leed.
[v] PLACE, “FAQ,” accessed May 17, 2020, https://www.welcometoplace.org/faq.
[vi] Heather Benjamin, “Human Health and Well-Being Through LEED,” Aug. 15, 2018, https://www.usgbc.org/articles/human-health-and-wellbeing-through-leed.
[vii] U.S. Green Bldg. Council, “Why LEED?,” accessed May 16, 2020, https://www.usgbc.org/leed/why-leed.
[viii] Michael Larrañaga, “DOAS & Humidity Control,” ASHRAE Journal, May 2008, https://www.scribd.com/document/294239717/DOAS-and-Humidity-Control-ASHRAE-Jnl-May-08-pdf; see also John Fischer and Charlene Bayer, “Failing Grade for Many Schools: Report Card on Humidity Control,” ASHRAE Journal, May 2003, http://doas-radiant.psu.edu/fischer.pdf.
[x] Lorne Bell, “Designing for Human Health Is the Next Frontier in Sustainable Building,” accessed May 16, 2020, http://plus.usgbc.org/designing-for-human-health-is-the-next-frontier-in-sustainable-building/.
[xi] Karin Evans, “Why Forest Bathing Is Good for Your Health,” Greater Good Magazine, August 20, 2018, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_forest_bathing_is_good_for_your_health.
[xiii] Evans, “Forest Bathing”; see also New York Dep't of Environmental Conservation, “Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health,” accessed May 15, 2020, https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html.
[xv] Part West Gallery, “Art and Health: The Real-World Benefits of Viewing Art,” April 15, 2019, https://www.parkwestgallery.com/art-and-health-the-benefits-of-viewing-art/.