Breathing easy in the office

On average, every European spends approximately 20 hours a day indoors – a large part of which is at work. It is therefore somewhat surprising that healthy buildings have only become a hot topic in recent years, with an increasing number of owners and users now focusing on the issue.

One thing is clear: a building designed and fitted out with health aspects in mind improves the comfort and performance of the people in it. Health and cost-efficiency are thus very closely linked.

Indoor air quality matters

Buildings optimised to promote health use sustainable construction materials that are eco-friendly and ensure (measurably) good air quality. In fact, there is a huge array of modern materials now available, containing many different substances, which makes expert knowledge essential. Building materials have become the second largest market for the chemical industry and the range of products on offer is growing all the time. It is simply unrealistic to believe that chemicals can somehow be completely avoided. After all, even simple mortar is a chemical mixture.

VOC and their consequences

It is important in construction chemistry to ascertain which products are potentially harmful to human health. These include VOCs, for example – volatile organic compounds. VOCs occur in solvents and other ingredients of paints, varnishes and adhesives, and also elsewhere. There are some 200 individual substances in total. While VOCs are not generally harmful, they can impact room users’ health over long periods of exposure and in certain combinations. They evaporate into the air and people then breathe in the fumes. The decay time of construction chemical products is between ten days and three years. The potential harm caused includes irritation of the mucous membranes and headaches, as well as fatigue, itchiness and various allergic reactions. In extreme cases, exposure can even have a negative effect on the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.

List of ecological building materials

When we talk about buildings being healthy to live or work in, the aim is to provide factual analysis and expert advice, rather than scaremongering. With the right information, selecting appropriate building materials is made easier. Technical support is increasingly the domain of recognised experts who ensure the utility of properties by preventing indoor air pollution, thereby helping to avoid financial losses due to factors such as rent reductions. Especially in view of the fact that multi-component systems are becoming more common in the construction sector, it is worth employing the services of an expert who can identify any potential risks in advance. Initial guidance is available in the form of a list of ecological building materials that gives non-chemists a useful overview. The list is part of a set of published guidelines entitled “Green Lease Agreements – Recommended clauses and actions for sustainable building use” (see pages 60–67).


As there is no detailed legislation governing the use of pollutants in construction, this list is doubly useful. Having said that, the German Federal Environment Agency has set up a committee on indoor guideline values which is gradually defining limits for various substances. The resulting table is intended for an expert audience. These limits, however, are only recommendations and currently not legally binding.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that new or stricter limits on construction substances will lead directly to these substances being avoided in construction materials. The reason for this is that, apart from buildings certified by the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB), there is no legal obligation to carry out regular checks on indoor air quality.

Small steps that make a big difference

Following a long historical development, it is now becoming increasingly clear which construction materials ensure high levels of comfort in a property. Much can be achieved with a pragmatic approach and relatively small steps. If the selected construction materials ensure a healthy interior climate, it is important that indoor air quality is not then compromised by a poor choice of furniture or other fixtures and fittings. Cleaning products containing VOCs should also be avoided. Wood rightly enjoys a good reputation as a natural material, but it is rarely (if ever) used untreated and can therefore introduce pollutants into a room through formaldehyde-based binders, adhesives or coatings. So even when choosing a stylish desk for the CEO’s office, health should be prioritised over design.

Specifiers of construction substances can make a truly sustainable choice if they look at the entire life cycle of a material. From production through use to disposal, the impact on both people and the environment should be as low as possible. This has the added benefit of helping to avoid unexpected costs at a later stage. One need only think of the billions spent on removing asbestos, carcinogenic mineral fibres, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

Overall, environmentally-friendly investment benefits the people in a building, as well as being cost-effective, which is why healthy buildings are so high on the agenda for the real estate industry.

An article by:

Dr. Michael Rieß, Bureau for integrated enviromental protection (BIU), www.riess-biu.de

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