Silicon Valley is Incorporating Health into Green Building Design
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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?
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.
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.
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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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.