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Comfortably compatible: Building features that reduce carbon & promote wellbeing

Welcome to the fourth piece in our series of blogs under the Better Places for People project. So far, we have examined two building features, lighting and indoor air quality (IAQ), under the lenses of carbon emissions and health, wellbeing and productivity, to ask if there are tensions or compatibilities.

To recap, we saw that an appropriate lighting strategy is typically a balance between daylighting and artificial lighting, with a need to examine the building holistically to reduce heat loss or gain with over-use of windows. We also discussed how enhanced ventilation rates can improve IAQ but may have energy and carbon impacts, especially when using mechanical ventilation. There is, however, evidence to show that a building with a good rating for indoor environmental quality (IEQ) can also have good energy efficiency.

These observations encapsulate how WorldGBC defines a green building: truly beneficial for people and the planet.

So this brings us to the six other features we talk about when we discuss green and healthy buildings, as seen in this graphic from our 2016 report: Building the Business Case. Here, we discuss each one briefly and consider how it makes a contribution to a green building as a whole.

Unlike the challenges posed by lighting and IAQ, these features generally have compatibility between carbon emissions and health and wellbeing; they promote health and wellbeing and they generally contribute to lower carbon emissions (or at least don’t increase them!). Below, we briefly discuss how these features provide dual benefits: lowering carbon emissions and promoting the health, wellbeing and productivity of people.

Thermal comfort

The engineer Max Fordham discussed the intersection of thermal comfort and carbon emissions in an essay from 1997. He broadly advocated for a loosening of workplace dress codes so that we can have buildings with little or no air conditioning. He explained how using night-time ventilation to cool the building in the summer and allowing people to wear “shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals” a few days a year could dramatically reduce energy requirements. This was in the UK, but could be applicable in a number of climates. Regardless, an increase of the thermostat set-point and a relaxation of traditional dress codes could reduce carbon emissions and make people more comfortable in buildings.

Look & feel

There are links between ‘look and feel’ and traditional ‘green’ building design strategies that may not be immediately obvious. For example, the choice of certain materials, in particular their colour, will affect how light is experienced: finishes that are less absorptive of light could result in lighting energy savings. Sourcing of low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) materials, which are themselves easy to clean, could reduce the need for cleaning products, limiting environmental impact. Finally, finishings that are durable and long lasting can reduce the need for retrofits, reducing waste and carbon emissions caused by frequent changes.

Interior layout & active design

With layouts of offices becoming increasingly dense, there are implications for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other energy-consuming building features, with potential for over-use. One solution to prevent over-use of HVAC systems in well-designed, new green buildings is to bring facility managers into the design phase to provide input on the green interior layout design.

Biophilia & views

Creating central courtyards or green roofs and gardens, with real trees and plants, can help absorb rain water and also help reduce a building’s cooling requirements. One building’s roof garden could be another building’s quality view, which, as well as improving feelings of wellbeing, would also increase biodiversity and reduce the urban heat island effect.

Noise & acoustics

As discussed in this article that looks at acoustics and sustainability, there is a great opportunity for “sustainable acoustics”. Most green building rating tools now have acoustics credits. But there are some cross-cutting issues: using windows for natural ventilation may reduce acoustic comfort, depending on the location and type of noise coming from the outside, and some materials that can be used to absorb heat are not good for acoustics.

Location & access to amenities

Good public transport links and features that enable cycling and walking are some of the most obvious ways to boost health, wellbeing and productivity and reduce carbon emissions. Locating buildings close to good public transport networks can allow employees to avoid commuting by car. By addressing the ‘walkability’ of a site, employers can also enhance options for fitness and leisure and on-foot amenity access and commuting.

These six factors above, along with lighting and IAQ, are central to how WorldGBC defines a green building. Research has shown that some of these features may increase energy use and carbon emissions. But we know that green buildings – as we define them or as other rating tools do – can reduce carbon emissions from the building sector overall. We can have buildings with pleasant, healthy and productive indoor environments and still reduce carbon emissions, but there’s more work to do with respect to certain features.

Join the discussion

As this series continues, we will hear from some experts in the field who will discuss broadly the tensions and compatibilities between carbon emissions and health and wellbeing – and we’re always accepting more views.

Do you want to write a blog about some of the features above that we have only covered briefly? Do you have an idea like Max Fordham’s to reduce carbon emissions and maintain thermal comfort? Let us know. We’re going to be publishing responses to our blog series over the coming weeks and we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Colin at

Colin Powell is Project Manager for Better Places for People, World Green Building Council

Read the first, second and third pieces in this blog series

Find out more about our Better Places for People project.