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Scientists and industry collaborate for healthy buildings

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Do you ever get a sick feeling when you go into work? It might be the building, not the job.

On November 10, the NIH hosted a conference to assess the state of research on the connections between health and buildings, and to examine how the building industry can make more use of science in the practice of building design, construction and operation. Reflecting the diverse interests that contribute to health-centered buildings, the event was co-organized by NIH's Health in Buildings Roundtable (HiBR), the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

"We all understand that our built environments can contribute to happiness, physical activity, social engagement, and, in some cases, inspiration," said Chris Pyke, USGBC's vice president for research and a keynote speaker at the event. "Everyone can also point to situations where built environments make us disoriented, frustrated, socially isolated, sedentary, or even physically sick."

Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time in buildings, according to the EPA. Research clearly establishes the link between health and indoor air quality, as well as the health hazards associated with some building materials. Emerging science suggests that building design features—lighting, acoustics and support for active lifestyles—also impact health, mood and productivity.

One of the primary barriers to healthier buildings is coping with the range of communities involved in the effort. According to Pyke, "they are divided by significant differences in philosophy, technical vocabulary and epistemology."

"We see ourselves as a clearinghouse," said Charles Blumberg, NIH architect and HiBR program manager. "We need to determine what research is out there, and translate it so that architects and designers can use it."

The conference included scientists, doctors, architects and policymakers. Participants reported that the discussion is increasingly shifted toward questions of implementation. Though some green building standards, such as USGBC's LEED, promote human health, it's not yet industry practice to include science-based health considerations alongside traditional design issues. Closer collaboration of science and industry is needed, with scientific results further informing building practice, and performance attributes of buildings fed back to the scientific community for follow-up study. The group convened by NIH also is looking at ways to use advanced-sensor systems to further involve building users after the design and construction phases.

The organizers of the conference emphasized that the goal of transforming the approach to the built environment is long term, and is going to require collaboration across agencies and sectors.

"No one person or organization can do it," said Blumberg. "It's a health problem, and we're going to solve it. It's not going to happen overnight."