Green Building and Indoor Air Quality

By Laura Anne Spriggs

The topic of green building has expanded outside the environmental community and has become a hot issue among mainstream building industry professionals. One of the most common discussions continues to be in regards to the costs and benefits associated with green building.

Critics charge that the costs of green building are prohibitive—often 10-20 percent more than conventional practices. They also claim that guidelines are difficult to follow and that many “certified” buildings do not perform as expected. Advocates uphold that the costs are negligible when compared to the value recaptured through water and energy savings, health benefits and environmental impacts. Proponents also cite that many of the methods and products used to create a more sustainable environment are simply matters of good design, so it’s not any more complicated to achieve.

Fortunately, statistics are proving to support the positive impacts of green building. As a result, sustainable building programs are becoming mainstream, more certified projects and products are entering the marketplace, and the public is experiencing first-hand the significant effect they can have on the environment. As more people embrace sustainability, the benefits will continue to out weigh the costs and advocacy for green building will become even more prevalent.

Direct and Indirect Benefits

Design and construction of a typical project can be completed in one to three years, while operation and maintenance continues for the lifetime of the building (approximately 15-30 years or longer if it is built with sustainable goals in mind). From a life-cycle cost perspective a building’s initial impact is a very small fraction of the overall cost when compared to the operation and maintenance. According to the Whole Building Design Guide, over a 30-year period initial building costs typically account for only two percent of the total, while operations and maintenance costs equal six percent and personnel costs account for 92 percent of the total building cost.

While this data evaluates the life-cycle costs, it helps to demonstrate that operation and maintenance play a leading role in supporting a sustainable project. Therefore it is important to focus on strategies that minimize the building’s negative impact on the outdoor environment (raw materials and natural resources) while maximizing the positive impact on the indoor environment (occupants). In particular, focusing on energy, water and indoor environmental quality can produce significant benefits because they impact not only the design and construction of the building, but the ongoing maintenance, operation and occupants.

Energy & Water Efficiency

Within the energy and water credits, there are a number of strategies that can produce direct savings during the operation of the building, and in many cases recapture any additional costs within the first few years of occupancy. From an energy standpoint, installing photovoltaic panels to collect solar power; using window shades to reduce glare, avoid heat gain and provide natural cooling; installing light sensors that automatically shut of lights when areas are not occupied; and installing EnergyStar appliances are some of the methods for achieving energy savings. Water-efficient strategies include installing low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and faucet sensors; using recycled greywater or captured rainwater; and planting native and drought-tolerant species for landscaping to save water. Regardless of the method of practice, decreased water and energy needs result in reduced costs.

Indoor Environmental Quality

While direct costs are easier to assess, indirect costs can be significant in the area of indoor environmental quality, which focuses on thermal comfort, acoustical quality, visual comfort and indoor air quality (IAQ). To start, occupant health and comfort is directly associated with operational costs in terms of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, reduced health care claims and minimized remediation. While these benefits may be more difficult to quantify than water conservation or energy efficiency in terms of cost savings, IAQ does have significant and measurable financial benefits.

One study conducted by William Fisk from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory shows the economic impacts of IAQ on health and productivity. Results showed that reducing Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) symptoms by 20-50 percent can produce estimated savings of $10 to $100 billion; reducing asthma by 8-25 percent can produce estimated savings of $1 to $4 billion; reducing other respiratory illnesses by 23-76 percent can produce estimated savings of $6 to $14 billion; and improving worker productivity by 0.5 to 5 percent can produce estimated savings of $20 to $200 billion.

Similarly, mitigation can cost millions of dollars depending on the extent of the work required and the amount of time in takes. Typically, the investigation and mitigation process involves hiring a consultant to evaluate the building occupants, the HVAC system, pollutant pathways, and contaminant sources. This is followed by multiple sampling tests to identify specific chemicals and contaminants. In many cases, occupants are removed from the affected areas during the investigation and while corrective measures are implemented. Depending on the cause and damage, work may include replacing the HVAC system, furniture, carpet, walls, ceiling tiles, and any other affected materials.

Finally, litigation as a result of poor IAQ can be astronomical and far-reaching according to the Federation of Insurance & Corporate Council. Whether triggered by health issues, mitigation or loss of lease, the range of liability can extend beyond the employer to building owners, developers, facility managers, contractors, sub-contractors, architects, engineers, and manufacturers allegedly responsible for contaminating the building. Furthermore, a building that is marked by a lawsuit for poor IAQ can be difficult to lease, resulting in additional business losses.

Fortunately, achieving better indoor air quality during design, construction and operation does not require a big investment on the front-end, but can provide significant value in the long term. Tips for improving IAQ include:

  • Selection of low-emitting building materials, finishes and furnishings
  • Compliance with ASHRAE standards
  • Using 100% outdoor ventilation during construction
  • Sequencing finish installations to avoid “sink effect”
  • Performing Clearance Testing
  • Conducting building flush-out prior to occupancy

As the popularity of green building increases, people will continue to discuss the benefits and limitations. This type of evaluation is critical to truly push the limits of sustainability to the next level. A recent report indicated that the average buyer chooses green for health benefits (42 percent) when compared to economic (17 percent) and environmental (12 percent) reasons. This demonstrates that the public does not view cost as the most important driver. Whatever the reason, more consumers are demanding green products, more builders are constructing green projects and the positive impact on the environment will prove to be the ultimate benefit.

Laura Anne Spriggs serves as GREENGUARD Environmental Institute’s (GEI) Communications Manager. She is responsible for generating awareness around indoor air quality issues by working with media, supporting GEI’s educational programs and encouraging participation in the GREENGUARD Certification Programs. By sharing advantages of green building initiatives and increasing awareness in the marketplace about GREENGUARD Certified products and buildings, GEI continues to support the public’s interest in healthy indoor air quality for working, learning and living environments.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Green Building Council is the nation’s leading coalition for the advancement of buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work. Established in 1993, the Council offers various products and services to include the LEED Green Building Rating System, an annual International Green Building Conference and Exposition, membership summits, information exchange, education, and policy advocacy.

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