How Environmental Sensor Networks Connect the Dots for Healthier Buildings

4 min read
May 2 2016

From central air to green roofs, buildings serve as signs of the cultural times and showcases for technologies of the day. In the early nineties, the “green” building movement was brought into the public eye to reduce stress on the environment by encouraging low-impact, resource-efficient buildings. With high-profile help from organizations like the United States Green Build Council (USGBC) and its LEEDⓇ certification program, planetary health has benefited from these efforts by institutionalizing waste diversion from landfills and reducing energy use and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Largely as a result of these “Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design,” when we think of green buildings today we think about environmental performance. Just as scientific research of the day recognized the dangers posed by climate change, new research shows the acute and long-term risks posed by spending too much time in stagnant, code-compliant building interiors. Therefore, a new trend in the real estate industry looks to expand “performance” to the health and wellbeing of people inside our buildings. Technology, such as environmental sensor networks, provides new tools to inform those of us who spend about 90% of our time inside buildings — which is, unfortunately, most people. Aclima’s networks engage building and portfolio managers, architects, developers, and real estate investors to make data-driven decisions about buildings and their occupants in this new people-centered paradigm.

Earlier this month, Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB) and USGBC brought together current leaders and pioneers in the green building industry to talk about value creation through promoting health in real estate investment. GRESB assesses the sustainability performance of real estate assets around the globe for more than 50 institutional investors representing $6.1 trillion in capital.

The panel was moderated by Kelly Worden of USGBC and included Dr. Doug Jutte, Executive Director of the Build Healthy Places Network, Anne Tourney, Partner at Mithun, Jeannie Renné-Malone, Vice President of Sustainability at Prologis, and Davida Herzl, Aclima’s CEO and Co-founder.

Chris Pyke, Chief Operating Officer of GRESB, kicked off the event with an introduction of the industry-driven organization’s new Health & Well-being Module. The module enables investors to keep a pulse on how their investments will respond to this emerging trend and stay ahead of the competition. “We have a very technical name for those places. They’re called better places!” Pyke joked.

The panel spoke about how the promotion of health in buildings is a new paradigm — much the way environmental sustainability was considered 20 years ago. Better places are those that not only have superior environmental standards, but also provide a superior place for humans to live. “What is important is where you live,” said Jutte of the Build Healthy Places Network. “Your zip code is more important than your genetic code in determining your health and life chances. Where you’re born, where you’re raised and where you live are more important than who your family is and their health, the exact opposite of how the medical system currently acts.”

Jutte continued to say that it’s not just a matter of what’s being built, but also a matter of where something is built, what else is being built and what else is already present in a community. The problem is that health is oftentimes measured at the county or district level, while investment happens at the neighborhood level. At the neighborhood-level, how can we prove that two places generate different health outcomes? One of the ways to connect the dots is through environmental intelligence from Aclima’s sensor networks.

“One of the things we see is that schools tend to be located along freeway corridors. You’re talking about our future generations, and we’re placing them along these plumes of nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and black carbon, and it’s affecting long-term health outcomes and educational performance,” said Herzl. “We’re getting interest from policy-makers and the people responsible for zoning and citing schools saying ‘We need this data to help inform where we place schools.’”

Not only is it important to collect data to connect humans to our environmental health, but data also allows us to make informed decisions about the allocations of resources and funds. This was particularly useful to GRESB attendees, many of whom are investors with real estate portfolios. “Data justifies the investment and design decisions we have to make to create healthy environments,” said Herzl.

The result of more data is informed decisions and ultimately informed design. Torney of Mithun, a leader in sustainable design, spoke about design interventions. For example, dorm housing can be designed to make for a socially constructive environment, or kitchen design can be constructed to support healthy eating choices. With recent research showing the impacts of carbon dioxide on cognitive function, how could environmental sensor networks inform how spaces can strengthen learning and better decision-making?

Renné-Malone of Prologis summed up the sentiment of the panel, saying, “At the end of the day we want to quantify the triple bottom line: the environmental, social and economic benefits.” At Aclima, we believe people are our most valuable resource. Constructing and planning our built environments with an inherent respect and responsibility to our health is core to what we do.

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