Healthy buildings expert: ‘Homes cause hurricanes’

A school bus is struck by a fallen tree during the passage of Super Typhoon Mangkhut near Heng Fa Chuen housing estate in Hong Kong, China, 16 September 2018. [EPA-EFE]

This article is part of our special report Healthy buildings: Good for our wallets?.

At the Healthy Buildings Day (HBD) in Brussels last week (26 September), academic experts painted a vivid picture of how the edifices we spend our days in shape our lives and the planet itself.

Buildings are a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions: in Europe, they are responsible for over a third of our polluting output and, globally, a quarter of emissions come from them.

That is why Professor Fionn Stevenson of the University of Sheffield kicked off her HBD presentation by warning that our “homes cause hurricanes”, linking their emissions to the ever-present spectre of climate change and its impact on weather patterns.

Climate scientists are surprised that the predicted impacts of climate change are already manifesting themselves, including more frequent Atlantic hurricanes hitting the eastern seaboard of the United States and unseasonably hot temperatures across Europe.

In Europe especially, a dry summer this year was responsible for deadly wildfires and the agricultural sector was hard hit by the climatic conditions.

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Stevenson highlighted how buildings regularly have to deal with “unprecedented” temperatures that exceed 35 degrees Celsius, despite the fact they may have been built with lower figures in mind. She added that architects now have to make sure they are resilient to things like flooding.

Given the event was geared heavily towards the healthiness of our buildings, Stevenson explained that healthy homes and offices must maintain their energy efficiency or risk undoing the healthy aspects because of the effect of climate change.

It essentially forms a vicious circle of sorts, where the benefits of an inefficient-yet-healthy home could be cancelled out by climate-induced temperatures, pollution-caused respiratory problems or even illness, as disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes move into new climbs.

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Inhabitants first

Stevenson, an expert in sustainable design, explained that the path to an efficient and healthy home has to include the people who are going to live in the building.

“If we don’t understand the inhabitant then we can’t build healthy homes,” she told EURACTIV, adding that tools like post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) should be rolled out.

POEs are monitoring exercises carried out at various stages after people move into new homes, be it at the initial moving in stage, a few months after or even years after. An evaluation looks at things like access to light, ventilation, air quality and other health-related factors.

But it is far from standard practice in Europe. Citing the region she knows best, Stevenson said that only 3% of designers in England offer it as a service and a lowly 1% actually carry it out. No EU country or professional body has it as a requirement.

In terms of who would pay for POEs, architects and contractors are at odds over who should foot the bill and Stevenson suggested that legislation should be drawn up to clarify who is responsible.

Dr Oliver Jones of the UK’s Northumbria University warned that government policy in general should change because it is currently “short-term, naive and, quite frankly, not ethical”.

EU countries are now being asked to come up with long-term strategies to improve and renovate their building stock, as part of the now-finalised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD).

The new rules allow member states a great deal of free rein to choose how best to up the annual EU renovation rate from just over 1% and Stevenson said that POEs could play a part, given the EPBD contains specific references to indoor health.

She added that there is a real business case behind POEs as they have the potential to be a powerful risk-management tool and warned the building sector that they should “do it yourselves or it will be done to you.”

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