Green Buildings and Your Health

Save the Sound climate interns, Savannah Kucera and Martin Tipton, spent the summer researching the intersection of green building policies, health, and equity. Here they tell us a little bit about their research and how we can improve energy efficiency in our own homes.

The term “green building” can be a black box. College admissions tours love to say how many buildings on campus are “green,” companies do their part to fight global warming by having “green” headquarters, and everyone is always trying to make their home more “green.” But what does it really mean?

Green Building Reduces Our Carbon Footprint

Green building doesn’t mean the exposed wood and glass architecture of the campus buildings and corporate headquarters; at its core, green building means anything done to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental impact of a structure. This can be as simple as switching from incandescent to LED bulbs, or as complex as digging a geothermal well for heating.

A building can be designed to be green from the get-go with more efficient HVAC, better insulation, and materials which are less environmentally damaging, or a building can be made greener through renovations. These renovations often target what is called the building envelope: anything insulating the internal space from the outside environment. This means that the external walls, windows, and doors are all part of the building envelope. Adding thicker or more effective insulation, installing better windows and doors, or sealing window or door edges are all improvements to the building envelope. With these improvements, the building’s HVAC system has to expend less energy to keep the building cool in the summer and warm in the winter, saving you money on utility bills, and saving the atmosphere by reducing the CO2 emitted by the local power plant.

Green Building Helps Our Health

While building green can be good for your budget and for the planet, it can also be good for your health. An often-overlooked benefit is that the indoor environment created using green building techniques can have positive impacts on both your physical and mental health. As compared to homes built with traditional building practices, green homes offer many important health benefits:

  • Because they are better insulated, green homes offer more stable indoor temperatures and better heating and ventilation.
  • The air in a green home is inherently healthier than in a traditionally-constructed building. Because health is considered throughout the design process, the air contains lower levels of particulate matter, formaldehyde, allergens, and nitrogen dioxide, to name a few. These factors are important in reducing the prevalence of respiratory disease, such as asthma, and other symptoms related to sick building syndrome, such as headaches, chest tightness, dizziness, nausea, and eye, nose, and throat irritation.
  • People who live in green homes or work in green office buildings self-report overall better physical and mental health.

Is Your Home Green?

Considering the health of your home, and its subsequent impact on your own health, is especially important now. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many people spending much more time at home following the implementation of widespread remote work, mandatory quarantine orders, and social distancing guidelines. This extra time at home might give you an opportunity to check in on your home’s performance and identify steps you can take to increase it.

Check out EnergizeCT’s home energy audit options here. And for New York, see here.

Green Building and Equality

Even though the benefits of green homes are appealing, the association of green homes with a high price tag is often one of the first concerns raised by homeowners.

The upfront costs of green building and renovating are often higher than using traditional techniques. Efficient appliances and lightbulbs are the latest and greatest on the market, so you pay a premium for that. It is also expensive to add extra insulation to a home. While these practices come with a higher upfront cost, they offer long-term paybacks in the form of decreased utility bills that generally outweigh their initial premium costs.

These upfront costs, however, often prohibit low and middle-income families from reaping the benefits of green building practices. When a contractor comes to replace an old window, a higher income family can pay extra for the higher efficiency model, while a family with more moderate income may have to choose the cheapest option, the inefficiencies of which will cost them more in the long run.

This pricing model is also damaging to renters. In the absence of “split incentive” programs, which offer front-end incentives to renters and larger long-term incentives to building owners to encourage investments in building envelope upgrades, tenants are often unable to reap the benefits of green building. Due to the high prevalence of renting among low and middle income families, this results in disproportionately high utility bills for these households—plus the less obvious, but more damaging, outcome of low-income families becoming locked into substandard housing, which can be devastating for long-term health.

The hopeful thing is that this has been identified as an issue and it is being tackled on many different fronts nationwide, and right here in our region. The EPA recommends that states mandate all new public housing be built to a green standard, like Energy Star or LEED. States have identified the allocation of low-income housing tax credits as a place to push for green building. Applications for these tax credits are scored on many characteristics, including a point system that rewards building energy efficiency and those that are green certified. Connecticut is one of the states that uses this tax credit allocation process to push robust green certification for low-income housing.

In addition to tackling new housing, states have enacted many programs to encourage green renovations. Connecticut has a low-income home energy evaluation program, which provides basic weather sealing and efficient light bulbs for free. The assessments also offer recommendations for future, more in-depth renovations of the building envelope, the HVAC system, or appliances. All of these improvements come with rebates, or long-term low-interest financing options. And check out New York’s energy efficiency program here. While there is always more to be done, our region is on the right track.

Green Building Saves You Money and Saves the Planet

The bonuses of green building and upgrades reach far beyond lower utility bills; the potential for more equitable housing and better health show the expansiveness of its benefits. Within your own home, identifying even small green upgrades will have long-term payoffs.

A building check-up might be just what the doctor ordered!      

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