Could what happens inside a building really have this kind of impact on our health and wellbeing? I believe it can. In fact, I believe that ideally our buildings should not just not cause any harm to our health, but they should also support and enhance our health, well-being, productivity and enjoyment of life. I believe BUILDING WELLNESS can actually be the answer in creating our healthiest lives.
As a nutritional and environmental health practitioner, I’ve heard too many people comment on how symptoms improve or disappear when they’re away from their homes or workplaces for there not to be something in this. On average we spend 87% of our time indoors and 6% in enclosed vehicles (The National Human Activity Pattern Survey), so what happens inside buildings and how it impacts our health is critical.
Modern built environments are having an increasingly negative impact on people’s health including diet, stress, sedentary lifestyles, environmental toxins; which effect cognitive function, productivity and much more. It’s not just about the environmental health and design aspects of buildings, but also our behaviours and cultural mindsets in buildings that can affect our health. I believe that as Building Wellness gains more awareness, homes and workplaces will be seen as an investment in our health, not just a financial investment. Workplaces will measure Return on Wellness (ROW), in relation to the return for what they’re spending in this area of health.
I’m a qualified Nutritionist, Building Biologist and Feng Shui practitioner; and I decided to combine these practices into a unique method around holistic Building Wellness in homes and workplaces. This method involves visually identifying signs of health hazards, observing behaviours in buildings, using specialised equipment to measure things such as air quality and offering simple solutions to overcome problems. This can be proactively creating the healthiest living and working environments, or determining if health issues are linked to a home or workplace, as well as considering overall nutrition and lifestyle. For example allergies could be linked to foods or environmental allergens, or both.
There are eight key areas (detailed below) that I look at in positively changing the health of homes and workplaces:
- Environmental pollutants and hazards such as air quality, building materials and furnishings that off-gas toxic chemicals, dust particles that can carry toxins, exposure to electromagnetic fields from electrical and radio frequency sources, water quality, ventilation and mould. These indoor environmental problems can cause symptoms such as exacerbation of allergies, asthma and other respiratory problems, multiple chemical sensitivities, skin irritations, fatigue, insomnia, problems with concentration and memory and can also cause or contribute to serious chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. For example, studies have demonstrated indoor air quality is between 3-5 times worse than outside, there’s also evidence that improving indoor air quality can have a dramatic increase in cognitive function, and therefore productivity. A study from 2015 found healthier levels of ventilation, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and carbon dioxide resulted in improvements in all cognitive abilities tested including focused activity, task orientation, crisis response and strategy (The Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives).
- Nutrition – If we have healthy foods available and the ability to prepare healthy foods, this will have an enormous impact on our health. Workplaces who educate and provide staff with nutritious food for meetings and lunches will benefit from employees maintaining better energy and concentration, as well as lower stress. Shopping for fresh, organic whole foods is important; and growing food at home (and work) has been shown to improve health. However, its not just the food we eat but also how food is prepared and stored’ such as provision of clean refrigeration in workplaces, healthy cooking materials and preparation surfaces; as well as addressing specific health issues with nutritional medicine.
- Movement in buildings (and outside) will contribute to reducing chronic disease. Studies have shown that prolonged sitting raises the risk of cardiovascular disease by 14%, cancer by 13% and diabetes by 91%. Things to consider include accessible staircases and outdoor activities, bike storage, fitness equipment, active workstations and standing desks.
- Design and Energy flow is about how well the building flows, the layout, reducing clutter and includes Feng Shui. This can impact comfort, physical and mental health and how we function in different aspects of our life. Comfort factors are also considered such as noise, temperature and ergonomics.
- Light (and dark) is separated from design because it has the ability to impact every aspect of our health, because our bodies are incredibly sensitive to it. It can impact our hormonal systems, mood, sleep, our metabolism and weight, mental health, cardiovascular health and much more. Having lots of natural light during the day and dark especially in bedrooms at night is critical to this, as is the ability to control artificial lighting.
- Mindfulness and mental health aspects ensure people are functioning at their best at work and home. Achieving restful sleep in the way a bedroom is set up, as well as ensuring reduced stress from work and other areas is critical for mental wellbeing. Other areas include colours, ceiling heights, breakout spaces, low levels of clutter; a culture that encourages work leave, lunch times and breaks; and interaction with nature.
- Nature interaction can include the way plants are used in a building to support health, and a building should also be supportive of the occupants getting outside in nature through proximity and accessibility to natural environments. There’s been much research recently on the need for us to be not just outside, but actually interacting with nature (Read more about this here). This includes grounding (having your skin on the earth), and the positive effects of “forest bathing” (health impact of exposure to plant chemicals). Additionally, on average peoples exposure to Vitamin D stimulating sunshine (at the right time of day) is at an all time low. We know these things can act like antioxidants in our bodies therefore reducing inflammation and disease. This is about getting people outside not finding ways to keep them inside.
- People Power is the power of each individual to contribute to the health, enjoyment and productivity of a building, and will impact how we connect and interact with each other. It’s about individual responsibility and empowerment in ensuring we are getting enough sleep, we are exercising, creating balance in our lives amongst other things. Individualised education and workshops allows me to give people tools that can be incorporated into their lives to be the healthiest they can be, and contribute and connect with others at home and work in the most positive way.
Building Wellness can seem a bit overwhelming at first, however having this knowledge should be used to create positive change, and even just a few small changes in some of the above areas can have an enormous impact. Here are six very simple things you as an individual can make towards building wellness today:
- Reduce toxic chemicals you’re breathing and absorbing into your body. Reduce the use of cleaning and personal care products with toxins, many of which negatively affect our hormonal systems, are carcinogens and even contribute to weight gain. Choose one product at a time such as toothpaste and find a healthier alternative before moving to the next product. Be mindful of building materials, furnishings, bedding, clothes etc. that you bring inside and may have harmful VOC’s that off gas causing health problems. For example Formaldehyde is used in many products and is a known carcinogen according the International Agency for the Research on Cancer.
- Taking shoes off inside can reduce dust (including the toxic kind) by more than 50%, and as a bonus will reduce cleaning time.
- Create a sleep sanctuary in your bedroom for restful sleep and cell recovery. This includes minimising light and noise, good ventilation, non-toxic building materials and furnishings, no electromagnetic field exposure during sleep and minimisation of dust, dust mites and other allergens.
- Shop at least weekly for fresh whole fruit and vegetables, or even better grow your own. Prepare and store food without the use of plastic utensils, containers and other materials that may contain toxic chemicals.
- Clean up and declutter is important if it feels like parts of your home or work space are out of control such as your wardrobe, pantry, laundry, desk or email. This can impact mood, opportunities coming into your life, overall mental wellbeing and will further reduce dust.
- One of the most important things is to get out of the building as much as you can in a natural environment, moving with your shoes off.
As a qualified Nutritionist, Building Biologist and Feng Shui practitioner, I’m passionate about helping people improve their health and creating positive change in their lives. If you’re interested in Building Wellness at home or work, I do domestic and workplace wellness audits. Other services include workshops; stand alone Nutrition, Building Biology and Feng Shui consultations; helping companies with workplace wellness strategies and programmes; and lifestyle grounding recommendations (incorporating grounding into everyday life) and supply grounding as well as other wellness products.