Building for health: developing technologies that will influence energy-efficiency measures in the building domain
The project is carried out by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and supported by Login5 Foundation
Three major forces are colliding and creating unsustainable demands on the planet and our health: population growth, rapid urbanization, and a changing climate. For thousands of years we have organized societies around buildings. Groups of buildings became villages, villages became towns and, eventually, cities. A few years ago, for the first time ever, more people were living in cities than outside of them. The human population recently surpassed 7 billion, and may reach 9 billion halfway through this century, with as many as two-thirds of all people living in cities. Although they have been a source of economic wealth (providing more than 80% of the global GDP) cities and their respective buildings are major contributors to the release of greenhouse gases, which change our climate and affect our health on an unprecedented scale.
The story, and the concept of this project, are both quite simple. Eighty percent of global energy production comes from fossil fuel combustion, which releases air pollutants that cause immediate and long-term harm to health, including cardiovascular issues, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. This global energy system dominated by fossil fuels also releases greenhouse gases that are causing climate change—itself labelled as one of the greatest public health threats we face. Buildings play a central role in this problem, yet they also represent one of the great opportunities to solve these challenges. Buildings consume 40% of global energy, and in some cities, buildings are responsible for over 75% of that energy consumptions. Efforts to reduce the energy demand of buildings are underway, yet the pace is not fast enough. The decisions we make today with regard to our buildings will determine our current and future collective health.
Energy-efficient buildings not only provide financial gains, they also come with a monumental health co-benefit; reducing energy use leads to a concomitant reduction in air pollutants and greenhouse gases emitted. However, the tools needed to make the energy decisions around buildings being framed and discussed as a public health benefit have not yet fully penetrated decision-making circles in the building domain. The Building for Health project at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health addresses this issue by 1) creating tools that capture the multiple health benefits of energy-reducing strategies in buildings and 2) making those tools available to decision-makers globally. The ultimate goal is to provide a health-based motivation to act aggressively toward energy-efficiency measures in buildings.
The Building for Health project is designed to develop technologies that influence policies, practices and behaviors that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by pulling on a proven lever of change – health – at the city, building, and individual scales. With this goal in mind, the research team will develop the Building for Health technology platform. This is a web-based suite of carbon reduction and energy modelling tools that also bring in the health co-benefits of these decisions. The tools have broad application to public and private sector decision-makers: building owners, developers, investors, architects, insurers, urban planners, legislators, regulators, and occupants.
In early 2018, the research team released v.1 of the Co-Benefits of the Built Environment (CoBE) calculator to understand the economic, climate and health impacts of building energy consumption on a broader scale. As part of this project funded by the Login5 Foundation, the research team will extend the range and impact of this tool by making CoBE an open-access, city-scale and portfolio-scale tool that allows for better accounting of the health impacts of different energy reduction strategies. The power of this tool will be demonstrated to users through a supporting set of case studies across major verticals – government, academia, healthcare and corporate real estate.
Project Leader: Joseph G. Allen, DSc, MPH, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
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