Architect’s Corner: Sick Building Syndrome

Creating Healthy Student Residence Halls

by Javier Esteban, principal, KWK Architects

(Editor’s Note:  Javier Esteban, AIA, LEED® AP, is a principal with KWK Architects and has been active in student life design for more than 20 years and has managed numerous new construction and renovation projects for universities across the country.  He earned a Master of Architecture and Urban Planning Degree from the Advanced School of Architecture in Madrid, Spain, and a Master of Construction Management Degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.)

In 1984, the World Health Organization suggested that up to 30% of new and renovated buildings had excessive complaints related to indoor air quality, which was directly related to Sick Building Syndrome.  According to the EPA, Sick Building Syndrome describes situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.  While we still see cases of Sick Building Syndrome today, we have certainly come a long way from the less healthy buildings of the 1980s.  Today, designers are focused more than ever on specifying and constructing healthy buildings, including residence halls.

         So, what is a healthy building, or more specifically, what constitutes a healthy student residence hall?  There are many definitions, but in general, a healthy residence hall is architecturally designed to promote physical activity and healthy habits, while using healthy materials and building systems to provide a healthy environment.  Buildings can promote student physical activity through spaces that encourage exercise, such as a prominently located main staircase.  By creating a wide and welcoming staircase with lots of natural light where students can also hang out, students will often use it for at least the first three floors.  Another strategy is locating elevators in a secondary place behind the staircase to encourage students to use the stairs.  Special consideration must be taken to not segregate students who are in wheelchairs or are visually impaired.

         The Active Design Guidelines published by the Department of Design and Construction of New York City, New York, include multiple strategies that can be used for site planning, as well as the exterior and interior of a building to promote exercise.  This is especially important in the context of a mini city, such as a university campus, where means of transportation include bicycles, skateboards, and electric scooters, in addition to the traditional campus bus.  The opportunities to create an active campus are infinite, but it requires the common vision of all stakeholders.

         Integrated building signage can be used not only as a wayfinding tool, but also as motivation and information about healthy habits.  For example, signage can inform students how many calories they burn by climbing one flight of stairs while small signs can provide mile markers on campus walks.  Research shows that creating additional vistas to the landscape and active spaces motivates people to move. 

         Color and lighting are also very important in setting the mood of the building.  Lively colors that induce movement, as well as living walls thriving with vegetation all are part of the concept of biophilia, which is an innate tendency in humans to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.  The intent with these initiatives is not necessarily for students to start exercising in the building, but rather to make the users more active in their daily routines by using what behavioral economists call nudging, or small pushes toward changing behavior. 

         The use of healthy materials is very important in the construction of any residence hall, and it starts with understanding which materials will be selected for the design.  There are three major systems in place that help create an inventory and screening of the major components of building materials that students are surrounded by every day: Health Product Declaration®, Cradle to Cradle Certified™, and the Red List.  All three systems are used to identify and ensure compliance with LEED or Living Building Challenge requirements and help designers select materials that contain minimum amounts of, or are void of, harmful materials.

         More and more materials used in building interiors today are being made from sustainable, recycled materials such as countertops made from recycled plastic waste and carpet nylon made from recycled fishing nets harvested in the Philippines and Central Africa.  One of the established paths to achieving a healthy building is to incorporate a WELL™ building standard composed of seven concepts, including air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind, with the goal of advancing health and well-being in buildings.  There is a clear synergy between active and sustainable buildings.  They both encourage and promote a healthy environment outside and inside buildings.

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