Building Fundamentals: Expanding the Concept of Health

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

My father-in-law just turned 80 and he shows no sign of slowing down. One of his favorite sayings is, “If you’ve got your health, the rest takes care of itself.” That about covers it, don’t you think? Like many truths, it’s easy to grasp and often difficult to do.

I’m sure that’s always been the case, but I wonder if it’s truer now more than ever. These days the discussion encompasses not only our own health, but the health of the planet itself. Wherever you come down in the spectrum of present environmental debates, I think that most would agree that we humans are adept at creating change, but inept at predicting the consequences of that change. Take the automobile, for example. Could anyone have imagined the effect that single invention would have on the entire planet? I’m sure it seemed like a great idea in those heady early days of its inception. No more cleaning up after your horse, and you got to wear those cool goggles and scarves, too. Now, in the heyday of the car, I’m just not sure that the convenience of sitting in traffic with everyone else twice a day to get to and from a windowless office that’s too far from your house is really worth all the pollution, expense, and shady political petroleum shenanigans. Honestly, I’d give a fortune in tree-shaped, Pina Colada air fresheners for a single decent bike lane.

I think one of our big problems is that we’ve come to confuse comfort and convenience with health. There’s no section of modern society where this malady is more prevalent than in our approach to buildings. For example, I grew up in Texas in the generation that transitioned from open windows and ceiling fans to “A/C 24-7, baby”. When the temperature was topping 100 degrees, that air conditioning sure felt great, until you walked outside and nearly fainted from the contrast. Not to mention that the net result was the adding of heat to the ambient air due to the realities of mechanical evaporative cooling. When you combine that fact with the effects of replacing plants that naturally bring air temperatures down with asphalt, concrete, and reflective skyscraper windows that have the opposite effect, what do you get?: Business men and women wearing wool suits in the summer to hazard frigid office buildings with questionable indoor air quality while the ambient temperature in the city climbs up to 10degF higher than in the surrounding countryside. (It’s called the “heat island effect” and is well documented.)

In other words, in our search for cool, we actually created heat and a questionable environment for health. If you’re not convinced, just stand in the middle of a busy city on a summer day and ask yourself if the forest that used to be there wasn’t a healthier environment. Though it’s seldom stated explicitly, I believe that the central tenet of the present green building groundswell is based on this idea. In fact, my one sentence definition of green building is “creating a healthy indoor environment without adversely affecting the outdoor environment.” If maintaining personal health is harder than it sounds, then this is even harder. I know that’s true because we, the pinnacle of evolution and the inventors of both spray cheese and the “virtual pet”, seem unable to get a handle on it. I’m here to help with some concepts that I find basic to creating buildings that support health both indoors and out.

Think Small

Here’s a riddle: how do you make the most efficient building in the world more efficient? Answer: make it smaller. That’s because though we may someday find a way to create resources or reduce pollution through our built environment, for now the simple fact is that our lives create pollution, waste, and natural resource depletion. Presently, we simply have to settle for a reduction in our adverse effects. On the physical plane, reduction means less, and less means smaller. Let’s not stop with buildings. Move closer to work to shorten your drive. Eat local to reduce transportation and packaging. Skip every other heartbeat…okay, I haven’t worked out the details on that one, but you get the idea.

Passive Then Active

In this context, passive and active represent two strategic approaches. Passive strategies interact directly with forces of nature to achieve a goal. Active strategies change a natural force into some other form to get a desired result. A sailboat is passive, setting a sail in the path of the wind to generate movement. A powerboat is active, burning organic fuels to run a motor to accomplish the same thing. Given any goal, we should always maximize passive possibilities first, then supplement that result with an active approach to reach the desired goal. In buildings, that means maximizing insulation and designing to let the sun in when we want it and keeping it out when we don’t to create the most advantageous interior temperatures first, then adding mechanical heating and cooling to tweak as needed. It means open windows before ceiling fans, and ceiling fans before air conditioners. It means water filters before chlorine and a paradigm shift to see the water leaving our buildings not as “waste water” but as “nutrient rich plant food” and all organic “waste” as useful compost. I could go on, but the point isn’t memorizing a list, but putting the concept into practice every day. Think of it as a mantra.

Do Not Poison Yourself, Your Family, or Your Friends

Let’s face it we’re awash in chemicals. The modern world is one big testing lab and we’re the mice. We mice need to band together and take over the lab. The first step is becoming aware of what’s in the things we put into our bodies and in our houses. As usual, that can be harder than it sounds and will require some level of compromise. The best strategy is to buy locally sourced stuff from local people because then we can verify quality, ingredients, and methods. If it’s not made locally, we should still buy it locally and give our merchants the following simple mandate: “We want the least toxic alternatives and we are willing to pay for them.”

Support Innovation

Let’s cut to the chase. There is no simple and no single way to create healthy indoor environments that support healthy outdoor environments. Modern life makes unique demands on buildings and every climate has its own idiosyncratic trials. In Florida, a big challenge is dealing with heat and humidity while creating good indoor air quality with minimal energy expenditure. In Michigan the analog is keeping warm with good indoor air quality and minimal energy expenditure. In our region, it’s a combination of both. There is no shortage of ideas and options, but each one represents an innovation from standard practice. The construction industry and government code system is by definition conservative and slow to change; therefore, there’s great inertial incentive to go with the flow or make minor incremental adjustments. As a result, a lot of what is labeled today as “green building” is basically rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The answer is for the consumer, i.e. you and me, to support innovation. To be a part of the solution, we all have to share responsibility and be willing to take a few chances, maybe make a few mistakes. My new bumper sticker: Ask For Innovation.

Live Outdoors

If all of this sounds complicated, don’t forget the old school approach, popular with plants and animals everywhere: be outside. Turn off the machines and go outside. I know that sounds simplistic, even preachy (especially since I’m sitting indoors typing on a computer right now), but once you get past that reaction it’s really a radical notion. Walk somewhere that you usually drive. Make outdoor cooking the default. Sleep outside. These and similar simple steps will not only improve our personal health (fresh air and exercise: duh) but, I believe, they are essential research toward understanding what ails the planet. For example, walking or riding a bike in an area colonized by cars is a transformative experience. It’s like being thrown into a tank full of sharks, only yesterday you were the shark. Your reptile brain will generate the following report: walking and bikes good, cars bad. In other words you can know something with your mind, but to understand it, you have to feel it with your body.

Oops, I see that I’ve well exceeded my monthly word ration, so it’s time to close. The point, in summary, is that a holistic concept of health has to encompass our bodies, our buildings, and our planet. As with our personal health, the key is in learning the basics and then acting responsibly. When it comes down to it, your health is my heath, our health is their health, and everyone’s health is built on the health of the planet itself. Of course, that brings us back to the same old conclusion that bears repeating until we finally get it: we’re all in this together.

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  • Passive House Institute:
  • The Living Building Standard (No credits, just prerequisites.  It’s about what you did good, rather than being about what you did less bad.):