In this exclusive extract from The Indoor Environment Handbook: How to make buildings healthy and comfortable by Philomena M. Bluyssen, we look at some of the challenges facing designers when developing indoor space...

The drivers of the indoor environment, today and in the near future, are not different from the drivers of the overall economy and society: climate change and changes in demography, leading to different and varying needs, and requirements for outdoor and indoor environments with respect to health, comfort, safety and, more than ever, energy use.

The scientific approach, with regard to health and comfort of people in the indoor environment, has merely focused on its single components and, to some extent, on some interrelations between these components. The scientific community, as well as the construction industry and the regulators, are becoming more and more aware that this approach is not satisfactory. Some attempts have been made to involve the end users' wishes and demands in a holistic way.

Climate change will cause the outdoor environment to have a greater influence on the indoor environment. Indoor environments need to be able to anticipate these changes, as well as the changing wishes and demands of end users. A holistic design approach is required in which all stakeholders (not only the end user and the architect), during the whole building life cycle, are involved in order to be able to design, build, maintain and renovate or demolish the indoor environment in a way that is satisfying to all stakeholders.

In 2001, the Ecospace® concept was introduced as an answer to this integrated approach. According to the concept, in order to create healthy, comfortable, safe, smart and sustainable spaces, so-called Ecospaces®, several steps need to be taken. The first and last step require an integrated approach focused mainly on people and communication processes, while the second and third steps require individual innovative breakthroughs with respect to products, materials or production processes, depending upon techniques and materials available.

Essentially, it comes down to the following two questions:

  1. How to define the starting point (the end users' requirements and other stakeholder requirements in relation to health and comfort); and
  2. How to translate these requirements to requirements of the different phases (initiation, design, construction, maintenance and breakdown), the different stakeholders, and the different environmental parameters and parts (materials, products and systems) of the indoor environment.

Some challenges for the future

New 'drivers', new insights and changing end-user requirements, as well as the observed discrepancy between current standards with end users' needs, result in the necessity for a different approach towards managing health and comfort in the indoor environment, taking into account end users' needs through an engineering system approach. It is clear that end users need to be involved in the design process in order to make their wishes and demands more clear. But how these wishes and demands should be put into practice is another story.

When designing and constructing a new building, it is necessary to establish a risk assessment procedure for the health and comfort of people in the indoor environment in which the traditional bottom–up approach is used next to the top–down approach. Such a procedure could, for example, comprise the following steps:

  1. Identify the end users' wishes and demands, as well as their profile (if possible, the mental and physical status of the end users of concern), and try to translate these to boundary conditions and criteria for the indoor environment
  2. Identify the possible risks involved, with the assistance of all stakeholders involved (including the end users), related to the defined environmental criteria and the end users' profile(s).
  3. For simple or known risk problems with few uncertainties, the classical bottom–up approach can be applied using quantitative statistics (e.g. using existing standards on formaldehyde, particulate matter, etc.)
  4. For comfort-related risks (with the possibility of becoming a health risk), the end user needs to be directly involved. A prototype of the object of concern or a reconstruction of the intended activity could be applied. If necessary, (scientific) experts need to be consulted. Do not assume that there is a standard response that applies to all people
  5. For health-related risks associated with more than one factor and for which no acceptable standards or guidelines are available, the balance between efficiency and fairness needs to be discussed. For example, the risks of getting sick from the growth of a micro-organism on a certain material are unclear, even if one knows that it can happen. Discuss whether it is right to use this material in places conducive to growth, such as in bathrooms. Another example is the use of heating ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems in relation to issues of energy conservation versus health
  6. If controversy exists regarding risk (other than the probability and extent of health damage), or a risk is identified to be unknown and new, stakeholders should be involved in the discussion. For example, in terms of the risks of high-voltage wires and mobile phone masts, or risks associated with new design concepts using new materials and configurations, it is perhaps necessary to perform behavioural observations, interviews, etc.
  7. If uncertainties increase together with the seriousness and extent of associated implications (e.g. climate change effects or [fine] dust from the outdoors), a scientific analysis or even a political societal debate is required. This will result in a definition of the risk, a strategy to measure and/or monitor the problem, and, eventually, a decision framework.

In order to translate indoor environmental requirements to the technical performance requirements of the built environment, the interactions presented are of the utmost importance, but so is the applied communication process in the top–down approach, as well as the realization that performance requirements, wishes and demands can change over time and are context related. Eventually, the wishes and demands of end users have to be translated into real building products (building and elements) and processes (maintenance, energy use, security, environmental services) by the stakeholders involved in the whole life cycle of the indoor environment in a component-related and holistic manner.

About this book

This article is an extract taken from The Indoor Environment Handbook: How to make buildings healthy and comfortable by Philomena M. Bluyssen. Published by Earthscan in association with RIBA Publishing. Copyright Earthscan October 2009.

Ensuring that buildings are healthy and comfortable for their occupants is a primary concern of all architects and building engineers. This highly practical handbook will help make that process more efficient and effective.

It begins with a guide to how the human body (and mind) react to indoor environmental conditions, explaining the problems that can result from poor design, and indicating optimum (benchmark) responses.

It then moves on to give a background to the development of the study and control of the indoor environment, examining the main considerations (including temperature, light, ventilation and noise) for a healthy and comfortable indoor environment and discussing the drivers for change in the field.

The final section presents a newly developed 'top down' or systemic approach, where meeting the wishes and demands of the occupants with a holistic strategy becomes the overriding priority.

The book is filled with useful facts, figures and analysis, and practical methods which designers who are keen to assess and improve the user experience of their buildings will find invaluable and can begin using straight away.

To order a copy of The Indoor Environment Handbook: How to make buildings healthy and comfortable externallink by Philomena Bluyssen, please visit RIBA Bookshops externallink, who offer an unrivalled range of the best architecture, design and construction books from around the world.