However, he explains that energy efficiency is not the only reason. “Roughly a third of all energy use is associated with buildings, so you’ve seen green become associated with energy efficiency,” he explains. “But for a large employer, the largest expense is personnel.”
As a result, IAQ and occupant health and safety issues have “ratcheted up on the list of concerns and become part and parcel of green building.”
Employers want to ensure that their workforce is operating efficiently and effectively 5 days a week. One way to do that is by improving the quality of the air they breathe through green-building strategies. Roberts says failure to do that can result in diverse problems.
For example, many conventional building materials (like particle board, insulation, and binders) contain formaldehyde and other ingredients considered hazardous to human health.
Roberts notes that green building certification programs including LEED assign credits for buildings that do not have formaldehyde-based particleboard.
Another offender is phthalates, a class of plasticizers that make products soft and bendable. Products containing these chemicals include vinyl flooring and ergonomic handles.
Phthalates, which mimic naturally occurring hormones, are associated with health problems including low sperm count and increased risk of breast cancer.
BuildingGreen acknowledges that the final word is not in on the safety of these compounds, but the organization considers them “chemicals of concern.”
Ventilation and Other Issues
Another key green building issue is ventilation. Roberts believes the current ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) Standard 62 is a solid regulation.
But, he explains, “You start getting into problems when people don’t follow the standard because they’re not paying attention or because they make bad assumptions about how a building will operate once it’s designed.”
Also of concern are older buildings, especially those designed after the 1973 oil crisis when conserving energy was a top priority. Many have reduced ventilation, which can mean higher levels of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide in the air. These can make workers drowsy and unproductive and lead to bigger concerns, he adds.
Natural daylight and access to views affect worker comfort, too, says Roberts. Being able to pause to look out a window view helps employees clear their minds, feel better, and be more productive.
Roberts believes that green building strategies don’t have to cost much and can even save employers money.
He recognizes that some green buildings “pull out all the stops.” But employers who wish to make a difference can keep their workers happy and safe without the big spend.
Tactics include thoughtful purchasing decisions about cleaning and maintenance products like paint, where there is no cost premium for greener options.
Another is conducting an internal HVAC audit using free tools like EPA’s I-BEAM.