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The Unintended Effect of Some Energy-Efficient Buildings That's Making People Sick


"What good is a beautifully designed building ... if the people inside are sick?"

The "green" standards many states are setting for new and existing buildings often mean requirements to fill leaky seals on windows and doors in order to save energy. But some buildings are experiencing an unintended consequence to this effort.


Photo credit: Shutterstock Photo credit: Shutterstock

Tang Lee, a University of Calgary architecture professor who focuses on environmental design, told Environment and Energy News that the 2001 renovation of the century-old Alberta Court of Appeal building in Calgary, Canada, was "beautiful." But those who worked in the building after the multimillion-dollar renovation were getting sick.

When buildings are more efficient but haven't necessarily taken the proper ventilation measures, they can become a breeding ground microorganisms, some of which may be harmful to human health. This is a relatively new issue and one that demands attention, University of Oregon researcher James Meadow told EE News.

Meadow co-authored a paper in the PLOS One journal last month in which he and fellow researchers evaluated a new building that earned LEED Silver certification and its "microbial biodiversity." They found that humans impact this "indoor microbiome" based on their use of a space but structural design decisions can affect the microbes as well.

Not all of them are necessarily bad: The study suggested that designs could be chosen to "select for an indoor microbiome that promotes our health and well-being."

Washington State University's Energy Program notes that while constructing a "tight building shell" could stop air irritants coming in from the outside, proper ventilation is key for keeping them out and mitigating other indoor issues.

"Because opening and closing windows can not always provide appropriate levels of ventilation, mechanical ventilation systems are recommended. For many homes a mechanical ventilation system may simply be a high quality bath fan. In homes with forced air heating or cooling, ventilation can be incorporated into the ductwork," the university's program document states.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also noted that humidity control needs to be considered in energy-efficiency upgrades as it can otherwise result in "thermal discomfort and mold contamination so great as to render some buildings uninhabitable."

Lee told EE News that his hope would be for regulation that would require architects take human health into account in their designs.

"But that's going to be a tough road," he said. Still, "what good is a beautifully designed building that wins all kinds of design awards if the people inside are sick?"

To Lee, retrofits of aging buildings are important, but only "as long as we understand the building science."

Featured image via meanep/Shutterstock.com.

(H/T: Gizmodo)

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