Buildings: They shape our health and well being on a daily basis regardless of whether we talk about homes, schools, workplaces, health care facilities, universities, shopping centers, or those used for religious or recreational purposes. With a majority of our time – about 20 hours a day – spent indoors, the buildings surrounding us, both residential and non-residential, are a crucial but often overlooked determinant of health. The built environment impacts our health through a variety of factors including inadequate ventilation, poor indoor air quality, chemical contaminants from indoor or outdoor sources, by making us feel too cold or too hot, traffic noise or poor lighting.
The results are respiratory and cardiovascular diseases from indoor air pollution; illness and deaths from temperature extremes and inadequate energy access; anxiety and depression when buildings can’t provide a sense of safety; as well as discomfort from less than optimal lighting conditions or irritability from noise levels. Unhealthy buildings even result in a distinct medical condition, known as sick building syndrome (SBS).
With one in six Europeans living in homes that make them sick, unhealthy buildings are a widespread problem that need political and public attention. In addition to those direct health consequences, there is also an environmental perspective. Buildings are an important sector to tackle if we are to protect health from the impacts of climate change since they are responsible for a third of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions and consume 40% of total energy in the EU. The buildings sector has been rightly identified as one of the key sectors in need of transformation to achieve the 2020 climate targets of the European Union as well as the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming well below two degrees. Almost all existing buildings could benefit from an upgrade in order to reduce their energy demand and make them more energy efficient. Accelerated energy-efficiency measures and a shift away from fossil fuels – which still supply 82% of final energy consumption globally – are needed to achieve much needed zero-emissions buildings in the next decades.
That means the improvement of existing and new buildings are a priority in tackling climate change but equally a public health concern that requires respective social and equity priorities and that should therefore be of vital interest among policy-makers, the industry, and the public health community alike.
Our new briefing explores the state of evidence of some of those risks factors and what they mean for the health of building residents and users. It highlights buildings as a matter of both public health and climate action, as buildings are responsible for up to a third of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Recommendations for policy makers, city-level officials, the building’s sector and the public health community are made, aiming to highlight the positive impact that renovations combined with renewable energy and health considerations could make for planet and people.