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Builders’ Role in Building Healthier, More Equitable Communities


If COVID-19 can be thanked for anything, it would be for spotlighting the inextricable link between human health and the built environments we inhabit. Mara Baum, principal and sustainable design leader at HOK recently delivered the “Green Building & Health: Shaping Our Future” session at the USGBC Live, in which she highlighted an opportunity for builders and designers alike to maintain this renewed focus on healthy building practices.

A historic relationship: Human health and the built environment

A look at the not-too-distant past reveals a direct connection between human health and their living spaces. In the early 1900s, for example, commodities such as clean water, fresh air, decent sewage and space were afforded almost exclusively to well-heeled urbanites, while the majority of poorer, immigrant, racial and religious minority residents were packed into overcrowded, dirty and unsafe housing. These substandard conditions proved optimal for the spread of communicable diseases, helping influenza and pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections like diphtheria become the top killers of the era.

Related: Indoor air quality and its importance to disease prevention

As medical knowledge grew, subsequent efforts to clean up urban living proved crucial to improving public health. But rather than eliminate diseases commonly associated with lifestyle, buildings contributed to a shift in different mortality threats, most of which are now chronic in nature, with heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other dementias, as well as diabetes and kidney conditions leading the modern mortality rates.

While lifestyle risks like alcohol or tobacco use, lack of exercise or poor nutrition certainly play roles in individual health outcomes, Baum maintains they’re only half the picture, citing the equal importance of “social determinants of health.” In her experience, factors like physical and social environment, neighborhood economic stability, transportation to work, along with access to health care, education and healthy food, are also key factors.

How to make the most impact on a building or community space

In addition to working to end climate change and reducing carbon emissions, Baum sees improving human health and resilience as one of the best moves industry professionals can make. Here is a brief list of the most important things architects, builders and designers should do to create healthy environments:

  • Understand the community: Look at the whole community and invite everyone into the conversation to foster a sense of identity and belonging.
  • Focus on inclusion: By including the community in the building process, you can avoid many unintentional barriers to that sense of belonging, which helps ensure mental health and well-being.
  • Ensure active transportation support: While a great deal will depend on the community’s culture, make an effort to make getting there and back easier by creating bike trails to connect facilities, providing indoor bicycle storage and designated fitness areas, and making the stairs more attractive than the elevator.
  • Provide access to fresh, healthful food choices: Before designing cafes or cafeterias, speak with the operators about the menu, and don’t be afraid to emphasize the importance of including fresh and healthier foods.
  • Offer great air quality: According to Baum, the bare minimum air quality standards no longer cut it. Clients are demanding more, so explore enhanced indoor air quality strategies, use low carbon-emitting materials; and develop a construction IA management plan.
  • Ensure clean water: Non-contaminated water and a mold-free environment are crucial. WELL v2has many resources on this topic, such as Water Quality Indicators, Basic Water Management, Drinking Water Quality and Enhanced Water Quality.
  • Remember to provide access to open space: Allowing people to experience the outdoors safely, comfortably and equitably is critical to building a healthy built environment.

What’s more, both LEED and WELL v2 offer additional resources for building healthy built environments, so take these steps now.


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