How giving our buildings a tune-up can make us healthier

| Deirdre Lockwood
Joe Allen at white house

Joseph Allen, director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program, will present a public lecture at the UW on November 3, sponsored by DEOHS

Joseph Allen recently spoke at the White House Summit on Indoor Air Quality. Photo: Courtesy of the White House.

As director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings Program, Joseph Allen often invites people to take their age and multiply it by 0.9.

That’s how many years they have lived indoors, on average. As a result, Allen says, “the indoor environment has an outsized impact on our health.”

During the pandemic, Allen has advocated for improving indoor air quality to curb the spread of COVID-19. Recently, at the first White House Summit on Indoor Air Quality, he spoke about how investing in making homes, schools and workplaces healthier can also improve cognitive health and address climate and equity goals.

On November 3, Allen will be the featured speaker at the 10th annual Breysse Lecture sponsored by the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences.Joe Allen headshot

We chatted with Allen this month about how the pandemic has raised awareness of indoor air quality, new technologies to “take the pulse” of building health and the importance of building standards to ensure health equity.

How do buildings influence our health?

There’s very little that buildings don’t touch in terms of our health. More indoor ventilation and filtration can protect us from COVID and toxic volatile organic chemicals—and even improve our cognitive health. There are links between better ventilation indoors and tests of higher-order cognitive function.

How has the pandemic changed the way we think about indoor air quality?

We now recognize airborne transmission as the dominant way COVID-19 spreads. The public is hyperaware of indoor air quality: people are using MERV-13 filters and air quality sensors.

The White House is talking about indoor air quality and just held a summit that was attended by many government agencies and major companies. That is a landmark shift that should not be ignored.

Now that we have the public's attention that buildings matter for COVID, we need to seize the moment and extend it to bigger conversations on all the other ways buildings influence our health, and the ways we know how to do better right now.

What are some of the latest approaches to make buildings healthier?

I’m excited about the idea of taking the pulse of buildings regularly using low-cost air quality sensors. We know buildings change over time, but oftentimes we build them and forget about them. We don't give them tune-ups like we do for our cars. The proliferation of lower-cost air sensors has made this possible. 

You spoke about at the White House Summit about disparities in housing stock and indoor environmental quality by race, ethnicity and income. What are some strategies to reduce those inequities?

We need new building standards that are health based. Right now, some organizations that are paying attention to science and have resources are starting to implement healthy building strategies. The only way to do this for all buildings everywhere is to make this the standard way to design and operate our buildings, with verification and accountability.

You’ve noted that there can be a win-win for businesses and for workers by improving indoor air quality. How does that work?

Employee expectations have changed. Now, healthy buildings are considered a recruitment and retention tool. After you've spent time and money recruiting top talent to your firm, why wouldn't you improve indoor air quality to make your employees healthy, happy, productive and sick less often?

Are there challenges for meeting climate and energy efficiency goals with increased building ventilation?

We can't have energy-efficient buildings that are terrible for people's health. And we can't have healthy buildings that ignore our responsibility to the planet. 

We have approaches to solve this: from supplying renewable energy to buildings to using energy-efficient technologies to increase ventilation and filtration. Deploying real-time air quality sensors so you can optimize for both health and energy. The solutions are right in front us. 

Newsletter

Environmental health news delivered to your inbox monthly: