I have been thinking for the past couple of weeks about which bits of alleged industry knowledge I should give detailed skeptical treatment in the coming months as I write this blog. Some of the most tantalizing low-hanging-fruit type claims I can think of examining tend to congregate around the topics of sustainability and occupant health, so I’ll probably start with examining one of those.
I fear that some of these topics may take quite a bit of work to dig out the best available data, but I want to at least set out some parameters for what I’m going to be looking at in this blog over upcoming posts.
Volatile Organic Compounds:
Federal and state governments have been regulating VOCs to lower and lower allowable levels in paints and construction adhesives for some years now. This has had a huge impact on the industry. With regards to flooring adhesives alone, product manufacturers have been struggling to come up with products that adhere to substrates as well as they “adhere” to the FDA requirements, while specifiers grasp at any system that might stem the tide of flooring failures. In light of the resulting impact, I have to ask: why was this change required, and what was the result of the change? Was there a specific risk identified to building occupants or construction workers? Or was it just a general ‘this class of substance is hazardous, so better to ban it outright’ no matter the dose-response? The outcomes to changing assemblies this drastically is something that can be (and should already have been) studied.
I’m not approaching this question with my bottom line written. I honestly don’t know the answer. It’s not a simple subject because construction methods and materials are constantly changing; we’re making buildings more air-tight, trapping construction chemicals in occupied spaces for longer periods of time. Perhaps VOCs weren’t previously an issue because buildings leaked like Swiss cheese, but since the industry was required to achieve a 0.4 CFM/sf whole building air leakage rate, it’s at least plausible that we have created a true risk of negative health effects. If that’s true, I think that we should start seeing the effects abate now that VOCs have been minimized. But do we actually see that result? It’ll be an important data point if we do.
“Evidence-Based Design” for Healthcare Facilities
With this topic, I can almost guarantee I’ll dig up a mountain of junk science and dubious study results. As an architect/specifier in a firm that does a lot of healthcare work, I’ve been subjected to numerous AIA-accredited lunch and learn presentations that make touchy-feely claims like, “health outcomes are improved when views of nature are incorporated in patient-care settings.” Really. Then tell me: has anyone found the biological mechanism for that? The best studies of so-called mind-body medicine clearly indicate that there’s no such thing (I offer pretty much every blog entry at www.sciencebasedmedicine.org as support for that statement).
While I would be willing to wager that there are improved patient outcomes when facilities are designed to help healthcare workers avoid medical errors (that at least is plausible), I’m skeptical that a patient healing garden or similar nature-ey features has anything more than placebo effects.
This is so broad a category, I don’t have any specific examples to offer yet, but it’s a ripe, ripe topic for healthy skepticism. I’m not at all aiming to minimize the need for us to create buildings that use less energy and water, create less CO2, and generate less waste, but the industry is awash in supposedly environmentally-friendly buildings, “green” products, sustainability rating systems, codes, and industry labels. We already know that those don’t have anywhere near equal validity. It’ll be interesting to find the ones that do the best job.
I have interest in examining other topics as well, to see if they are delivering on their promises: Architecture 2030, fire and smoke modeling, egress modeling, biomimicry, Passive House. Again, the goal is to focus on showing (and hopefully explaining) what’s true, and eliminating from discourse things that we believe are true, but actually are not.