The unforeseen results of the drive for energy efficiency in buildings

Building design and the renovation of the current housing stock should be holistic; considering elements such as energy efficiency, indoor air quality, ventilation, lighting and acoustics, etc.

The health, comfort and wellbeing of residents should be at the heart of good building and infrastructure planning.

Jim Shannon MP- Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Healthy Homes and Buildings


Anyone reading the White Paper on Building our Future – Laying the Foundations for Healthy Homes and Buildings is in for a shock.

We’ve taken a look at some of the statistics that lay bare the health risks posed by our buildings and houses in the UK in a recent infographic and summary.

But what really hits a jarring note is when the report turns its gaze to properties that have been recently built or renovated to meet existing standards.

Because, while you’d expect a certain amount of problems in older homes and buildings, the expectation is that new build and recent renovations should be close to the mark.

This is not the case.

Contemporary building design and renovation is found to be seriously wanting throughout the report. And, time and time again, a blinkered approach to providing ‘energy efficiency’ is the culprit.

Wherever ‘energy efficiency’ is mentioned, the corrective term ‘holistic’ is never too far away.

The suggestion is that in our focus on achieving energy efficiency we have often overlooked other critical aspects of our buildings – namely the occupants’ health.

The hidden dangers of the single-minded drive for energy efficiency

Recommendation 3.1

The Government should develop a national renovation strategy to improve homes for health and performance and end the practice of improving energy efficiency without due consideration to the consequences for health.

Building our Future – Laying the Foundations for Healthy Homes and Buildings

The trend in insulating and sealing up buildings has certainly helped them become more energy efficient.

But this incentivised drive, backed by regulation, has seen an increase in the overall temperature of homes, particularly in urban areas.

The cost of overheating to human health is significant.

It places us at the risk of discomfort from heat rashes, impaired concentration and sleep disruption. It also increases the chance of greater, life-threatening risks, such as a sudden spiral from dizziness to disorientation to severe heat exhaustion and respiratory diseases.

In giving evidence to the Healthy Homes and Building Parliamentary Group, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) was unequivocal on both the risk and cause of overheating.

It identified problems with overheating as being linked to new airtight homes situated in urban areas. It also ‘wished to emphasise the fact that excess heat morbidity/mortality does happen despite being hard to measure when compared to winter deaths.’

The main issue here is that the focus on sealing buildings up has not been matched by a consideration of ventilation needs. What’s more, inadequate ventilation is also causing further negative impacts on occupant health.

Inadequate ventilation coupled with poor quality building materials, such as PVC and paints, can result in a dangerously high level of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in our indoor air.

Poor ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ) have a direct link to increased humidity, mould and condensation. At the level of mild discomfort, this can cause brain fog, headaches and poor sleep patterns, but it poses very serious health risks too, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disorders, depression and dementia.

The Parliamentary Group heard from Allergy UK that ‘increased airtightness through energy efficiency improvements is not being met by equal improvements in ventilation, which is causing an increase in allergic reactions.’

BEAMA, the trade association for the UK’s electrical products industry, confirmed that ‘ventilation is rarely a consideration when energy efficiency measures are installed’.

– The Royal College of Physicians estimated that in 2016 indoor air pollutants caused, at a minimum, thousands of deaths.

–  Professor Hazim B. Awbi predicted that by 2050, without action to tackle indoor air pollution, there could be an 80% rise in those suffering from asthma.

A holistic approach

Managing the IAQ and temperature we experience indoors is critical to maintaining good health. Yet, these essential requirements for well-being are currently overlooked in a single-minded focus on energy efficiency.

It seems almost unthinkable that our latest buildings and renovations are posing considerable threats to those who live and work in them.

Yet, this is the clear implication of the report. However, it’s important to emphasise that not all energy efficient and airtight homes are automatically bad for our health. There are certain initiatives and standards which actively work to achieve both – Passive House being the most recognisable and prolific of these.

However, Passive House and other such standards are often seen as being the expensive or luxury option and as such do not form part of a widely adopted approach to save energy and prioritise health.

To close, here are a few quotes from the ‘Building our Future’ White Paper that reveal just how widespread and serious this problem is.

‘Dr Marcella Ucci, of University College London, said a holistic strategy to make homes and buildings healthier, which considers energy efficiency as one of many factors, not in isolation, would be required.’

‘ARUP supported a holistic approach to adequately and equally consider overheating, energy usage, noise, and air quality.’

‘The need for a holistic approach was raised and supported by the majority of those we heard from, including the UK Centre for Moisture in Buildings, the HEMAC Network, the Good Homes Alliance, the Glass and Glazing Federation, the UKGBC and MIMA.’

‘The Residential Landlord’s Association identified that energy efficiency measures are incentivised through VAT relief but the same is not true of home improvements designed to make the housing stock healthier.’

‘Almost all respondents raised issues of conflict in building policy – where an investment or improvement in one area leads to unintended issues and health consequences elsewhere. It was recognised that this issue has become ever more prevalent due to the focus on energy efficiency without due consideration of healthy homes.’

To explore further how Zehnder can help create healthy buildings and offer increased wellness levels within the home visit our range of indoor ventilation solutions.

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