Green Buildings, Healthier People

Green buildings can boost productivity, well-being, and the health of workers
BY Md Sazan Rahman TIMEFebruary 14, 2022 PRINT

Most people now recognize the energy savings benefits of green buildings. These buildings use less water, energy, and other natural resources. In some cases, they can increase biodiversity, produce their own energy, and reduce the urban heat island effect.

Recent research shows that green buildings can also improve the health and productivity of those who live or work inside them. In some cases, green buildings can produce the same benefits as spending time in nature, which can benefit people living in cold climates.

Green buildings cost 5 percent to 10 percent more than conventional buildings. But detailed analyses show that the small increase in building costs has noticeable benefits on the health and wellness of those working or living inside—or even just near—such buildings.

Energy Savings

Buildings with green roofs, green walls, green interior decoration, or those surrounded by green infrastructure are all considered to be green buildings. These buildings usually contain algae, grass, herbs, vegetables, or other leafy green or micro-green plants on their interior or exterior surfaces.

Covering the roof of an uninsulated building with plants reduces the amount of energy used in heating by up to 5 percent in the winter and cooling by as much as 33 percent in the summer, which saves money. It also reduces daytime indoor temperature fluctuations in the absence of air conditioning.

Cities often have warmer air temperatures than the rural areas around them because their dark surfaces absorb the sun’s rays and radiate the heat. Green buildings can help reduce this urban heat island effect.

Computer modeling has shown that summer temperatures can be reduced by 2 Celsius if 7 percent of urban rooftops are green.

This dip in temperature comes with numerous benefits. Studies show that people working or living in areas with high proportions of green roofs have better mental health, heal more quickly after an illness, and are more productive at work.

Improved Air Quality

Indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. High levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM10 (particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less), and airborne microbes can contribute to serious respiratory illnesses.

A 20 percent increase in the surface area of green roofs and walls in downtown Toronto could meaningfully reduce the air levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and PM10 and generate a savings of $190,000 annually in terms of pollution removal.

One study shows that there were fewer mold spores and microbes in a room where houseplants covered a third of the floor space compared to a room with no house plants. Plants also increase indoor humidity levels in dry climates, reducing the likelihood of dry eyes, itchy or scratchy throat, or chapped lips.

Faster Recoveries

Recent research has also shown that plants can help hospitalized patients heal faster.

A report by the Green Building Council of Australia found that hospitals with green infrastructure, such as an ornamental green wall, plants on every balcony, and large trees around the building, were linked to an 8.5 percent reduction in average hospital stays, a 15 percent acceleration in recovery time, an 11 percent reduction in the rate of secondary infections, and a 22 percent decrease in the need for pain medication.

Not only do buildings with plants help patients heal faster, but they also energize the doctors, nurses, and other staff who work there, and they provide aesthetic, acoustic, and air quality benefits.

Lower Emissions

Interior spaces with green walls, vertical gardens, or potted plants can reduce noise levels, which helps occupants concentrate on their work. Outdoor permeable surfaces, such as soil, rock wool, and vermiculite, as well as plants on buildings’ roofs and courtyards, reduce echos.

Green workplaces meet all the criteria of the “triple bottom line,” summarized as “people, planet, and profit.” These improve the health and well-being of people, improve energy efficiency, and boost productivity.

Green infrastructure has clear pollution benefits too. A study by the Green Building Council of Australia found that by adding green walls, roofs, and other low-energy interventions, such as using LED lights, adding more windows to increase the amount of daylight, and modifying ventilation systems to recover heat rather than expelling it outside, a green-certified building produces 62 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than an average Australian building.

It’s high time green buildings became the norm to improve well-being, air quality, and carbon emissions.

 is a doctoral candidate in bioresource engineering at McGill University in Canada. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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