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Not all ‘green’ buildings are healthy buildings, Sterling says

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by Brian Martin

That new green building, which may have received a lot of positive publicity, might not actually be as healthy as it seems.

Construction Solutions Conference

That new green building, which may have received a lot of positive publicity, might not actually be as healthy as it seems.

That warning was one of several delivered last week at an all-day Construction Solutions Conference in Vancouver.

Elia Sterling is president of Theodor Sterling Associates in Vancouver and conference chair. His company has been in the business of providing indoor environmental services for 35 years.

He said he is concerned there is a perception that because a building is certified green, people assume it is a healthy building. In fact it may well be a sick building.

“Not all green buildings have good indoor air quality,” he told the 125 delegates who attended, many of whom were contractors or architects. “While the intent of sustainable building certification programs like LEED is sound and innovative, there are a few flaws.”

LEED is a points-based system, but it is up to builders and designers to decide which particular points they choose to pursue when seeking certification.

“As a result, it is possible for a building to be LEED certified without actually verifying that air quality objectives have been met,” Sterling explained.

“That, combined with the fact that no re-certification is required after a building is initially certified as a LEED accredited building, lends itself to a situation that could result in poor indoor air quality.”

In other words, even if a building has good air quality on opening day, there is no guarantee it will be any better than any other building six months down the road when all sorts of sources of contamination have been moved in.

Furniture, photocopiers and printers can contribute a lot of pollution to indoor air.

Sterling was quick to point out that he wasn’t saying people should assume that all LEED buildings have poor air quality, but it could be a potential problem.

He said he was worried that the industry and the country may be in the process of making the same sort of mistakes they made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Back then, pushed by government energy policies, buildings were made more air tight than they had ever been before.

At the same time, an entire range of new synthetic materials were being used and introducing volatile organic contaminants into the air — contaminants such as formaldehyde.

The result was the well documented outbreak of Sick Building Syndrome.

Following its arrival, many improvements, often involving HVAC systems, came along. However, now Sterling is worried that we may be heading down the same dangerous road.

“For buildings being constructed now and in the future, new ventilation and thermal comfort standards have been adopted in North America in an attempt to reduce the effects of climate change,” he said.

The new standards have lowered ventilation requirements and eroded thermal comfort requirements.

“For example, the new standards allow temperatures in some commercial building to meet almost 32 degrees C,” said Sterling.

Sterling said that while progress has been made in the operation of buildings in providing indoor air quality solutions, he wondered if in our rush to embrace energy efficiency programs and to reduce green house gas emissions we are neglecting the indoor environment just as we did in the 1980s.

“Are we headed rapidly back to the past, without having learned anything?” he asked.

The Construction Solutions Conference was held at the Vancouver’s Hyatt Regency Hotel and was put on by local trade show company MMPI Canada. It featured a full day of often technical sessions that generally dealt with the broad field of green construction.

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