Alex O’dell urges the building industry to do more to create places that promote health and wellbeing


Alex O’dell, vice president for GB & Ireland at Velux

Outdoor pollution and its negative effects on health have long been a topic of concern. Still, an increased focus on how indoor environments affect our health and wellbeing is much more recent, if long overdue. Most of us spend around 90% of our time inside, so we must do more to ensure that indoor climates support rather than impair our lives.

One thing we all have in common is that we live, work and play in buildings. So, we need to focus holistically on how buildings are designed and built and really look at their effects on our wellbeing. The Government’s consultation on the Future Homes and Buildings Standards is a good start, as its requirements for the performance of new homes include points for adequate ventilation and air quality. Similarly, the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) includes provisions on the same factors.

Nevertheless, legislators often ignore the psychological impact of indoor environments, but the correlation between buildings and mental health is clear. At one of our most recent projects, Living Places in Copenhagen, we partnered with various building stakeholders to demonstrate how homes and public spaces can be created that focus on household wellbeing in conjunction with other factors, such as sustainability, for individual and community benefit.

Our latest Healthy Buildings Barometer report, the eighth since 2015, shows that one in four European residents live in a building where indoor air quality falls below national standards. The report, a collaboration between Velux and the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), also found that 30 million people in the European Union live in homes that are too dark — a factor known to affect mental health negatively.

In the UK, the Town and Country Planning Association is running a Healthy Homes campaign. The campaign shows that one in ten people live in substandard homes and are twice as likely to have poor health, costing the NHS and society at least £18bn per year. The association calls for all political parties to establish a statutory duty requiring the building sector to protect people from harm and positively promote health and wellbeing.

The findings from the UK and globally have obvious and serious implications, highlighting the need for an inclusive, forward-thinking approach to building design. Architects, planners and construction managers must think more closely about the effects a building has on its occupants’ physical and mental health — and consult the likely residents about their needs.

All homes, workplaces, educational establishments, healthcare settings, and leisure facilities should form healthy environments for their occupants to live, work, learn, recuperate, and play. Everyone should have access to fresh, clean air and daylight. 

To these ends, we have identified three core actions that the building industry should follow:

  1. Adopt a framework, set out in the Healthy Buildings Barometer, of what constitutes healthy buildings and how to achieve them;
  2. Prioritise high-quality data that tracks building health and occupants’ wellbeing;
  3. Integrate health, sustainability and resilience in building policies.

Fortunately, there is growing recognition that reaching these goals is critical. For example, a group of more than 40 scientists have called for mandating indoor air quality standards worldwide, focusing on carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Similarly, the British Standard Institute’s indoor environmental quality standard (BS 40102-1) covers an evaluation of air quality, light quality, thermal comfort and acoustic and soundscape quality. These are good starts, but there is much more to be done.

The forthcoming UK General Election and imminent EU elections provide a chance for the next cohort of policymakers to create standards that will lead to better building environments. We need real changes to policy, not just talk — our health and wellbeing depend on them.