Healthy homes: ‘The biggest health and business opportunity of a lifetime’

Harvard academic Joseph Allen (R) believes that the people who design and maintain buildings have a bigger impact on human health than doctors. [Photo: Velux]

Indoor environment quality and healthy homes play an ever more substantial role in human well-being, according to new research unveiled at a high-level event last week (10 October).

Last Thursday, Danish firm Velux released the fifth edition of its ‘Healthy Homes Barometer’, an in-depth look at the state of housing and other buildings, plus the effect they have on human health.

Statistics show that Europeans spend on average 90% of their lives indoors, be it at home or work, which has prompted the company to invest resources in finding out how that affects our health.

The previous edition of the barometer concluded that one in six Europeans report living in an unhealthy home and, for the first time, the research delved into the state of the continent’s workplaces.

Damp, inadequate lighting and poor insulation all pose a risk of health complaints like asthma, pneumonia and poor sleep cycle, which the report said has a knock-on effect on productivity at work.

Most of Europe’s buildings are over forty years old and are largely inefficient. Poorly insulated, leaky buildings have a real impact on inhabitant and worker health, according to the latest edition of the Healthy Homes Barometer.

2019’s barometer focused on how those factors impact on children specifically. In a set of startling results, the report concluded that one in three European children live in what can be described as an unhealthy home.

The barometer drew on EU datasets provided by SILC and Eurostat and assessed living conditions based on four primary indicators: dampness, darkness, cold and excess noise.

Finland performed the best of the 28 EU countries, though it still recorded a rate of one in five children in an unhealthy home, while Portugal was labelled the worst, with one in two.

“The primary function of a building is to keep occupants comfortable and safe. When you improve the indoor environment you significantly improve performance and productivity,” Velux CEO David Briggs told reporters at the Barometer launch event.

Indeed, an unhealthy home has a quantifiable impact on children’s performance at school, according to the report.

In terms of school days missed due to damp-related illness, Portugal reported figures more than 60% higher than the EU average. By contrast, that number was more than 60% lower in high-flying Finland.

The United Kingdom was the worst performer in that regard though, with more than 490,000 school days missed among children aged 5-15, which is more than 80% higher than the EU average.

Ingrid Reumert, a Velux VP who presented the report, acknowledged that other factors specific to countries, such as weather and temperature, play their part but insisted that the data clearly shows a pattern.

The barometer also makes bold predictions on financial input and benefits, insisting that increasing ventilation in schools and reducing exposure to damp in homes could yield gains of more than €300 billion by 2060.

Better conditions in schools would mean higher productivity and a trickle-down impact on the labour market.

Harvard academic Joseph Allen, a specialist in building health who works as an advisor to Fortune 500 companies, said “the ability to think strategically is strikingly improved by changing air quality indoors”.

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The 90%

Allen welcomed the results of the barometer and said it should push stakeholders to focus more on indoor environment.

“Why do we ignore the 90% of our lives that we spend indoors? I’ve spent 40 years of my life inside!” he told reporters, pointing out that indoor air quality is not policed nearly as stringently as outdoor air quality.

He also explained that last century’s global energy crisis was the catalyst for a trend of making buildings more efficient, which, however, largely forgot about the people who live and work inside them.

Allen said that the efficiency drive “choked off” buildings and relegated ventilation to an afterthought but warned that it is “a false dichotomy” to say that efficiency and healthy environment cannot go hand-in-hand.

On the health impacts, the Harvard professor said “the role of buildings in our understanding of human health is a glaring omission”, adding that “home health is heart health, given that we spend two-thirds of our lives at home”.

Allen added that “the people who design, build and maintain our buildings are more important to our health than doctors” as a result, insisting “that is not an exaggeration”.

The business case is quickly gathering momentum too. Data from Eurofund, an EU agency, concluded in 2016 that inadequate housing costs the bloc €194 billion every year in direct and indirect costs like healthcare and loss of productivity.

Studies estimate that if a massive investment in bringing all housing up to an acceptable level were done in one hit across the EU, the cost would be paid back completely within 18 months.

“We’re quite literally sitting on the biggest health and business opportunity of a lifetime,” Allen concluded.

In practice

But the message is yet to fully sink in with national governments and regional authorities. EU legislation on buildings, finalised last year as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, hopes to change that.

The building sector has been called a ‘sleeping giant’, given that it soaks up 40% of the EU’s energy and emits more than 30% of total emissions, mostly due to outdated and inefficient building stock.

Renovation rates currently barely exceed 1% but the EPBD’s insistence on long-term national strategies, promotion of well-being and higher standards for new buildings should all have an impact once the rules fully come into force in 2020.

France is considered a leader on the issue and French politician Marjolaine Meynier-Millefert a key player in adapting the country’s buildings to new challenges.

A member of Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party and co-chair of the national renovation committee, Meynier-Millefert told EURACTIV that it is a “vastly underestimated situation”

Asked about why France is leading the way, she replied that new rules mean at least a one-sixth of the surface of new buildings must be windows in order to increase natural light and ventilation. However, she did acknowledge that it faces legal challenges due to the cost involved.

France is indeed making renovations a priority and has pledged to invest €14 billion over five years, as well as other measures like providing free renovation roadmaps and clarifying policies.

She also said that the government is dedicating €4.8 billion to the public sector and wants to amend applicable legislation and construction codes in order to make them about more than energy efficiency.

“We have to give more leeway to professionals. For example, currently, regulations on water-savings stifle innovation. The emphasis should be on the end outcome, not how you get there,” Meynier-Millefert insisted.

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