The building and construction industry has made tremendous strides over the last decade in creating smarter, more efficient buildings. Overall, the trend has been toward buildings that are more energy-efficient, use less water, contribute less CO2, utilize more sustainable materials, and meet increasingly stringent building codes. It’s a positive trend that architects, specifiers, developers, and the construction industry should continue to embrace.


There’s another trend that should follow the arc of healthier buildings, and that’s an increased focus on the health of building occupants. The industry can’t lose sight of the fact that people spend the majority of their lives in the environments they create, and it has a responsibility to consider occupant health and well-being throughout all facets of the build. According to the EPA, the average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors; and those indoor environments could contain levels of some pollutants that far exceed those found outdoors.

What LEED did for buildings, WELL is doing for people, as it focuses on the built environment’s impact on human health.


According to Dodge Data & Analytics’ “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings 2016,” 67 percent of building owners said health factors were an influential factor when making design and construction decisions; but that lagged behind other factors such as cost savings (85 percent), aesthetics (74 percent), and energy performance (74 percent).

Nearly every aspect of a building has an impact on the health of occupants. Carpet, paint, furniture, construction materials, and adhesives are all off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The EPA has registered more than 80,000 chemicals for use, and listed 16,000 of those as chemicals of concern. However, only 250 of those chemicals are subject to mandatory testing.


A building’s HVAC system plays a significant role in filtering those VOCs, as well as pollen, mold, and outdoor pollutants entering the building envelope. A recent study looked at the impact of indoor air quality on 100,000 private investors. Researchers found that even a modest increase in pollutants had a significant negative impact on the subjects’ willingness to sit down and conduct their trading activity—a direct correlation between indoor air quality and productivity.

Lighting and color temperature affect people’s circadian rhythms; the right lighting can help people be more productive in the workplace; the wrong lighting can leave them overstimulated when their workday ends and leave them trying to figure out why they’re having such a hard time waking up in the morning.


As the industry puts more of an emphasis on occupant health, the challenge will be balancing this growing priority with all the other aspects of the build. If you chose the healthiest materials available—making that the overriding priority for a project—the questions then become:

  • How do these materials affect the aesthetics of the building?
  • Will this building still meet the design criteria?
  • Can it still be built within the budget?

Another challenge is measuring and comparing the relative health of building materials while balancing that with resiliency. What’s a better choice, a 100 percent bio-based organic product that lasts 4 years, or a decent product that may be petroleum-based but will last 20 years?

These questions don’t come with easy answers but need to become part of the discussion for every project as occupant health becomes more of a priority.

About the Author:

Brent Trenga, LEED AP BD+C, is building technology director for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. His background as an architect, construction manager, developer, and project owner give him a unique perspective on all facets of the construction industry. Trenga leads Kingspan North America’s material health and transparency program and Kingspan’s North American NZE 2020 program, while collaborating with the company’s global healthy building team. Trenga can be reached at
Modern Contractor Solutions, February 2018
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