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The nexus of green buildings, global health & the UN Sustainable Development Goals

In the final blog in our Better Places for People series, Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science, and Augusta Williams, doctoral student, both at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, discuss the overarching role that green buildings must play in promoting global public health and achieving sustainable development.

Winston Churchill famously once declared “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” If Churchill were alive today, we hope he might have said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape…public health.”

Buildings are the places where we express our culture, share our traditions and nurture our bodies and minds. Yet, the way we design, construct and operate our buildings determines if they will be an assault on our health or promote our wellbeing.

Buildings influence the air we breathe, the water we drink, the light we see (or don’t) and other factors that determine indoor health. With a growing population and urbanisation, the demand for new buildings increases, straining our resource health. Buildings are engines of economic growth, providing employment and advancing economic health. Lastly, buildings are a major consumer of energy, 80 per cent of which comes from polluting fossil fuels, which threaten our environmental health and cause climate change, perhaps the largest public health threat.

These four focus areas for green buildings play a critical role in advancing global public health and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), developed in 2015 to promote equitable, sustainable and environmentally-conscious development in a changing world with a population set to reach 9 billion by 2050.

In our new report, The Nexus of Green Buildings, Public Health and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we explore how green buildings intersect with 11 of the 17 SDGs, through a health lens. What role do green buildings play in advancing the SDGs and addressing the challenges of rapid urbanisation, resource constraints and climate change?

Green buildings & indoor health

The World Health Organization estimates that 25 per cent of all diseases and more than 12 million deaths annually are environment-related. Reducing daily exposures to hazardous chemicals and pollution is nowhere more important than inside buildings, since by the time we reach 70 (the average lifespan in the developed world), we will have spent over 60 years indoors.

How do we address this? A robust body of research has revealed the ‘9 Foundations of a Healthy Building’: ventilation, thermal health, air quality, moisture, dust and pests, safety and security, water quality, noise, and lighting and views. Green building standards consider these, and early research suggests a positive impact: in 17 studies, green buildings had, in general, better IAQ and occupant satisfaction. As the green building movement advances and extends globally, emphasis on a wider range of IEQ factors is needed.

Green buildings & resource health

Buildings are one of the most resource-intensive products on Earth. Land for urban expansion, materials for construction, water for building operations, and waste generated inside all strain natural resources. Additionally, millions of pounds of ‘persistent organic pollutants’ from commonly-used materials have migrated into our indoor and outdoor environments.

Evidence suggests that green strategies minimise impacts on our natural systems. Recycling and reduced consumption in US green buildings have diverted 80 million tonnes of waste from landfill, this diversion is expected to grow to 540 million tonnes by 2030. Efficient fixtures and re-use can cut water waste by more than 10 per cent and building footprints that protect natural habitats can be incentivised. Revised standards are focusing on materials of concern and can go further by promoting green chemistry principles like designing for degradation.

Green buildings & economic health

The global construction market is expected to grow to US$10 trillion by 2020 and as much as 85 per cent by 2030, mostly in China, the US and India. Commercial real estate alone supports more than 6 million jobs and contributes almost $9 billion to US GDP.

Economic growth need not come at a sustainability cost, however. Green buildings minimise environmental impact while supporting construction jobs, property values and worker productivity, through fewer ‘sick building’ symptoms. Green buildings bring 3 per cent higher rent premiums, 7 per cent higher cash flow, and higher occupancy rates and transaction prices.  An estimated 1.1 million jobs and $75.6 billion will come from green construction globally by 2018, with the market growing: China has mandated that 50 per cent of new construction is green while in Singapore the goal is 80 per cent by 2030.

Green buildings & environmental health

Buildings account for 40 per cent of global energy use and thus a vast share of the fossil fuel pollution that damages Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15), and drives urgent Climate Action (SDG 13) and a shift to Clean Energy (SDG 7).

Alongside increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency in consumer products, one of the biggest opportunities comes from the building sector. Energy intensity in green buildings is typically 20-40 per cent lower than conventional buildings and this provides a societal co-benefit that has not been fully accounted for: improved public health. Our new tool – the CoBE (Co-Benefits of the Built Environment) Calculator – quantifies buildings’ environmental and social performance.

The new era: Green buildings for health

Green buildings represent a gateway into a sustainable future, but only if the definition of ‘green’ evolves. In its first 25 years of existence, our movement has edified the entire building industry with best practices in design, construction and operation, to substantially influence building codes.

Yet, the potential for green buildings to be a truly transformational public health tool has not been fully realised. To date green buildings have been defined around energy conservation. The future, however, is an enhanced definition that places health at the foundation of all buildings and ensures that green principles reach beyond developed countries. Green building presents the potential for one of the greatest public health interventions ever.

This blog post was adapted from: Allen J, Bernstein A, Eitland E, Cedeno-Laurent M, MacNaughton P, Spengler J, Williams A. The Nexus of Green Buildings, Global Health and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 2017. Available with full references at:

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We would love to hear your views on this article from Joseph Allen and Augusta Williams. Please send comments and case studies to Colin at

Read the firstsecondthird, fourthfifthsixth and seventh pieces in this blog series.

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