Silicon Valley is Incorporating Health into Green Building Design

By Shaina Kandel

Shaina Kandel is pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. She has a background in Organizational Development and Healthcare Consulting. She is passionate about creating sustainable food systems and improving the health and wellbeing of our communities.

For the Millennial employee, working at a mission-driven company is just as important as a steady paycheck. In the Bay Area, where the concerns for environmental and social sustainability run deep, this is even more so the case. In order for top companies in Silicon Valley to stay competitive, sustainability has become embedded into tech organizations, especially when it comes to Green Building. With a track record for innovation, the influence of Silicon Valley Tech companies has propelled Green Building Design to the next level.

As of 2012, according to Green Source, over 100 buildings in Silicon Valley were LEED certified as compared to only a few in 2006. This list includes Google, Facebook, Intuit, Yahoo, Adobe, Skype, and the highly anticipated Apple Campus in Cupertino set to be completed in 2016, which is expected to generate on-site renewable energy. Similarly, Green Buildings NYC listed tech companies’ environmental image as one of the top 5 issues for tech companies leasing office space. With LEED Certification becoming the norm for tech companies, the question is, what comes after LEED?

Rendering of Apple’s new Cupertino Headquarters, Photo Credit: City of Cupertino

Rendering of Apple’s new Cupertino Headquarters, Photo Credit: City of Cupertino

That question has been answered by the Northern California Chapter of the US Green Building Council (USGBC – NCC), home to Silicon Valley companies, in one of their cutting-edge initiatives of 2013: the Building Health Initiative. The Building Health Initiative addresses the impact of the built material environment on human health. Already, influential tech organizations in Silicon Valley are blazing the trail on this initiative, with Adobe, Google, Facebook, Salesforce, and Genentech included in the 30 founding members. The Building Health Initiative aims to “drive demand for products, buildings, and communities, to support improved human and global health.” This imitative is monumental in that it merges corporate silos of building management, material sourcing, and employee health and wellness. It creates dialogue between departments to address key factors of building design that impact health but may not have previously been acted upon.

Photo Credit: inhabitat.com

Photo Credit: inhabitat.com

The link between the built environment and health is not a new concept. The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) released a whitepaper on Sick Building Syndrome back in 1991. Sick Building Syndrome responds to acute illnesses caused by inadequate ventilation, outdoor pollution, biological contaminants such as mold and most disturbingly, chemical contaminants that create indoor pollution that the EPA outlines as, “adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde …Research shows that some VOCs can cause chronic and acute health effects at high concentrations, and some are known carcinogens. Low to moderate levels of multiple VOCs may also produce acute reactions.” Despite awareness of the harmful health effects of common building materials, many are still used in products today.

In response to Sick Building Syndrome is the Living Building Challenge’s material “Red List,” outlining materials that are harmful to human health and the environment. The Living Building Challenge was developed in the mid-1990’s as the most advanced sustainable building design and published its first standard in 2006. In this realm as well, we see tech companies taking the lead in steering clear of these materials such as Google’s Healthy Material’s Program. While programs such as this require up-front investment to rid the office environment of toxic chemicals or to source alternative materials, it also has the potential for long-term health savings, yet again tying together health and green building design.

Google’s Headquarters in Mountainview, Photo Credit: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

Google’s Headquarters in Mountainview, Photo Credit: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

There is a much larger implication of tech companies integrating health with Green Building Design. Workers spend the majority of waking hours in the office and are affected by the materials inhaled and the physical properties of the chairs, desks, and carpet that come in contact with their skin. For Silicon Valley (with a full time employee headcount close to 300,000 people) to take the lead on removing harmful materials from the built environment signifies that the rest of the country will follow suit. This could set precedence for new office building development and move the needle on improving the health of our country.

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