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Thoughts From the Summit

The USGBC's Summit on Green Building and Human Health aims to draw deeper connections between our buildings and our health.

By Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED Fellow

The USGBC's Summit on Green Building and Human Health aims to draw deeper connections between our buildings and our health.

The summit began with a story. Ole Fanger, the late Danish indoor air quality expert from Syracuse University, was bewildered by American parents-to-be who prepared and decorated their baby’s nursery with a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, brand new furniture from China and other VOC-emitting materials before sealing and locking the windows. What they had just done, he famously observed, is put their newborn and its tiny lungs in a perfect gas chamber.

It is a disturbing image, to be sure, but one that must be acknowledged as illustrative of the way we typically, unwittingly and dangerously expose ourselves and our children to indoor air often more harmful than outdoor air. The baby nursery/gas chamber analogy is one many have heard before, but its impact never diminishes as the strongest possible call-to-action for exploring the increasingly clear connections between building and human health. Fittingly, it was with Fanger’s observation that U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) President and CEO Rick Fedrizzi opened the Summit on Green Building and Human Health in late January 2013.

The summit, held in Washington, D.C., brought together thought leaders including building designers, constructors, owners and operators; building products manufacturers; site designers and planners; academicians and researchers; nonprofit and professional organization representatives; public health and medical practitioners; local, state and federal government officials; and USGBC staff with an ambitious agenda detailing our goals. I was honored and humbled to be in the room among the “rock stars,” as one convener called us.

“We are going to do amazing things,” Fedrizzi promised. “Health is and will be the biggest driver in the green building movement for the next 20 years. Funding from outside organizations, specifically Google and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has galvanized our thinking, our team, and shaped this ambitious agenda.”

Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health and a member of the USGBC Board of Directors, reiterated Fedrizzi’s call to action. “The green building movement has matured and is ready to grow beyond its environmental roots. This is the moment for healthy green buildings.”

With the acknowledgment that LEED has not had an explicit emphasis on human health in the past, Frumkin offered assurances of a strong commitment from the highest leadership levels of USGBC, including a specific goal in the council’s strategic plan: “Strengthen the link between green building and human health and well-being—and [create] a designated board position for a health professional.”

The conveners, a list of highly respected and well-known green building activists, listed the three main goals for the meeting, along with some issues to consider.

1. Build and support a robust nationwide movement that promotes healthy green building. In other words, we needed to depart with a shared sense that we are part of a larger movement with specific actions to accomplish. Will we be looking to start a new organization? Probably not. Will we adopt a declaration like the Precautionary Principle? It would have been premature to try to do something so ambitious in just two days, but we hope to move toward such a document relatively quickly.

2. Create and disseminate knowledge. We need to build the knowledge base on green building and human health. What do we know and what don’t we know about healthy green building? What evidence do we need? How do we need to generate that evidence? How do we need to incentivize the research funding that will help support researchers? How do we get the information out from researchers to those who need to know? Success will mean having a clear sense of the knowledge gaps and a sense of direction of what some people call “user-generated science.”

3. Build and reinforce programs in USGBC and across the industry that advance healthy building. How do we weave elements of health into LEED? How do we encourage, support and integrate efforts like the Living Building Challenge, Earthcraft, Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and other examples of good programs? How can they support each other?

In addition, the conveners provided some definitions and guidance as we broke into subgroups. We agreed to define health, as does the World Health Organization, as “a state of complete mental, physical and social well-being.” We will use the term building, not buildings, and think broadly across spatial scales about the elements of human habitats—neighborhoods, transportation systems, metropolitan areas, etc. And we will work with humility and respect to consider social justice as intrinsic to human health, to address those who have the least access to healthy habitats. PageBreak

Our style of working was defined as collaborative intelligence—a pooling of our insights and specialties, a welding together of our individual visions to achieve the greater good. We also made the commitment to value questions more than declarations, and to think holistically of the big picture to which all are committed: green, healthy, economically viable, inspiring, and beautiful places for people.

In the breakout sessions I attended, I heard very accomplished and smart people share their experiences and ideas regarding healthy building. For example, Rachel Gutter has actually built a movement as director of USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, and she shared some of the strategies she’s successfully used:

  • Maintain a singular focus on accelerating transformation. Continually ask: is this catalyzing? Is this moving us faster? Will this put us on the right path?
  • Identify the barriers and systemically address them. Test whether programs are working. Collect data.
  • Don’t lobby the faithful but rather go after those most likely to be protectors of the status quo. Instead of standing in your way, they will stand with you shoulder-to-shoulder.

Robin Guenther, a principal at Perkins+Will, reminded us that this movement needs to recognize the humanity of the people who are implementing our visions—those who construct, clean and maintain our buildings. Think, for example, of the person who applies concrete epoxy (almost entirely Bisphenol A, or BPA) but doesn’t have any respiratory protection because ventilation has been sealed during construction.

As the head of sustainability for Forbo Industries, Tim Cole told us of the two things that can cause a manufacturer to change: cost and stakeholder demand. To illustrate, he used the story of how Section 01350, known as the low-emitting materials credits in LEED, became the most recognized set of emission requirements around the world, dictated not by law but by voluntary user pressure.

Attending this summit reminded me of the work many of us did decades ago when the USGBC embarked on another mission: the development of LEED. The USGBC has grown and grown up since then, and is uniquely positioned to lead the movement connecting green building and human health. Its next steps are to encapsulate what went on here and distribute the thoughts, epiphanies, approaches, conclusions and ideas to those who will carry us forward.

Watch this space for updates, but for now, I’ll end as I began: with a story. Fedrizzi’s dad worked as an offset printer for 17 years and would occasionally bring him to work on Saturdays, where he remembers that it would take about 20 minutes for him to become dizzy from the smells of the glues and solvents. As a kid, he found that funny—but what isn’t funny is that at 53 years old, his father was diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor.

While Mr. Fedrizzi’s employers could claim ignorance back then, we no longer can. We know the harm, and we have the information. When do we say enough is enough? Clearly it is now.


Penny Bonda, FASID, LEED Fellow, works in the fields of environmental consulting and communications, and is a prominent writer and lecturer. She is the founding chair and a primary author of the LEED Commercial Interiors rating system. Her published works include Sustainability Matters, written with the General Services Administration, and Sustainable Commercial Interiors (Wiley). She is a founding partner of Ecoimpact Consulting, a collaborative offering sustainable strategies for better business.