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Can the ‘net zero’ concept be applied to health and wellbeing?

‘Net zero’ buildings are highly energy-efficient buildings that use on or off-site renewable energy to achieve net zero carbon emissions. Can the concept of ‘net zero’ be adapted for the health and wellbeing agenda? Well, I think so and here’s why…

From a health and wellbeing perspective, a ‘net zero’ management strategy would involve identifying those aspects of building user health that are detrimentally affected as a direct result of entering the building.

Probably the most obvious example of such an issue would be indoor air quality. For example, buildings with relatively high-levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulates (PM2.5, PM10), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide or ozone (O3) negatively impact on user health. Chemicals in cleaning products and soft furnishing materials, ingress of unfiltered and polluted outdoor air, and poor ventilation effectiveness are just some of the factors that can result in these indicators rising to dangerous levels in buildings.

Using language that better suits the health and wellbeing agenda

At this point, I am thinking: ‘could we adapt the terminology to better suit the health and wellbeing agenda; and, what would a definition for the concept look like?’ My attempt below:

A health neutral building is one that enables access for all and does not result in deleterious health outcomes for building users as a result of direct increases or decreases in exposure to negative or positive [respectively] determinants of health.

Armed with this definition, I have drawn up a draft list of issues that might be considered in such a health neutral building:

  • Disabled access and access to public transport
  • Indoor air quality (e.g. VOCs, PM2.5, PM10, CO2, CO, O3).
  • Noise and vibration
  • Drinking water availability and quality

Looking at this list, I think that the concept of ‘health neutrality’ could be a useful consideration when conducting a materiality assessment of health and wellbeing issues. Naturally, it’s subjective, but at the very least it could be a starting point for pulling out the most material concerns and therefore those requiring prioritisation.

Reassuringly and perhaps not surprisingly, the above list looks similar to issues covered by the WELL Standards precondition criteria – requirements that must be met in order to achieve the most basic (Silver) certification. That said, there are some WELL precondition criteria (e.g. nutrition) that are additional to my list and I might argue go beyond health neutrality and are more about boosting the health of building users.

What would a health positive building look like?

Taking the conversation to its logical next step, if one accepts the notion of a health neutral building then what would a health positive building look like? Well, that would be a building that directly supports and or encourages improvement in building user health. Amongst other strategies, such a building might:

  • support active modes of transport (e.g. cycle storage, showers), active design (e.g. accessible staircases) and provide onsite exercise facilities;
  • optimise access to daylight;
  • provide access to outdoor green space and support biophilia;
  • provide multi-purpose rooms (e.g. faith, lactation rooms); and
  • support healthy nutrition.

So, to conclude I think the concept of ‘net zero’ [and ‘net positive’] can be applied to the built environment’s health and wellbeing agenda and proves a useful way of considering the materiality of key health-related risks and opportunities.

Oliver Pye is Associate Director at EVORA.

EVORA is an independent, pan-European sustainability consultancy and software provider, specialising in the commercial real estate sector, and is a member of the UK Green Building Council.

This blog is part of EVORA’s blog series on net zero buildings for World Green Building Week 2017, and was originally published here.

WorldGBC has also been exploring the tensions between reducing carbon and promoting health & wellbeing in buildings in a new series of blogs. Read the first piece here.