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A New Study Stresses Need for Increased Awareness of the Benefits of Healthy Design Practices

By Nicole Anderson
June 27, 2014
Courtesy of McGraw Hill Construction

Sitting on a former brownfield site and rail yard in Philadelphia, the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts bears no resemblance to the dangerous, drug dealer-infested dumping ground it once was. The School District of Philadelphia selected SMP Architects an SRK Architects to transform this derelict property and design a new light-filled building, featuring green roofs, operable windows, urban agriculture, and a storm water management system, among other sustainable components. During the construction phase, special measures were taken to reduce mold and eliminate the use of potentially deleterious materials to protect the health of its future students, many of whom suffer from asthma. Today, this LEED Platinum certified school has seen a substantial increase in graduation rates, test scores, and attendance since first opening its doors four years ago.

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Kensington High School is one of four case studies included in a new report, “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings,” released this week by McGraw Hill Construction, the parent company of Green Source and Architectural Record. The school demonstrates how today’s design practices and construction can directly affect occupants’ health and well-being. While sustainability has become an increasingly significant part of the mainstream conversation about architecture, the impact of the built environment on people’s quality of life hasn’t received the same attention.

Using the results of five market research surveys, this study explores the need for both medical and design professionals to draw a stronger connection between people’s health and the spaces they inhabit, whether it is a home, office, civic building, or hospital. However, for there to be more investment in healthy design practices, practitioners must build awareness and understanding of how the physical environment can play a role in their patients’ quality of life.

"The most surprising finding was the fact that less than half of the medical professionals make the connection between health and the spaces they occupy,” says Michele A. Russo, Director of Green Content & Research Communications at McGraw Hill Construction. “It demonstrates the stark need for education among these key influencers for health-related decisions and investments, especially among homeowners.”

The data presented in the study is based on surveys conducted with over 90 doctors, 731 architects (residential and non-residential), and 344 building professionals (including contractors, homebuilders, and remodelers). According to the report, 68 percent of general practitioners do not see the connection between buildings and health. This attitude can partly be attributed to a severe lack of knowledge—the report states that few of the main resources available to medical professionals, particularly medical journals, provide relevant information on the link between design and wellbeing.

And yet, while medical professionals have less information at their fingertips, building professionals are increasingly aware and dedicated to implementing more healthy design practices. Not surprisingly, firms that do green work tend to employ healthier building solutions and products; they are also more vigilant about tracking and measuring the impact of these design decisions. Meanwhile, many building owners remain uninformed about the advantages of design that can improve occupants’ health and quality of life. “The fact that it’s hard for owners to measure benefits could be a big factor as to why more data is needed,” says Russo.

To usher in any substantial change, more information must be collected and exchanged between the medical community and the design sector. "It’s becoming clear from this initial research that doctors and other health professionals must engage with architects and the design community in a major way if we are to be successful in improving public health through design," said AIA CEO Robert Ivy in a statement.

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