Left to right: Ralph Jorrison – managing director of Tarkett Australia; Peter Colqhuoun, architect and presenter Better Homes and Gardens; Dr Robert Crawford – Melbourne University, Thrive Research Hub

It’s long been suspected that poor quality indoor air is detrimental to the health of the most vulnerable people among us, namely children and older people.

Now research by Thrive Research Hub at the University of Melbourne School of Design has revealed the evidence that underscores the thinking.

The 2016 Towards Buildings That Thrive Report, commissioned by flooring manufacturer Tarkett, shows that poor indoor environment quality in Australian schools can lead to illness, absenteeism and poor life-long outcomes in educational and employment.

Part of the reason is because children – like people in aged care facilities – spend much of their time indoors and are more vulnerable in terms of their immune systems. Another reason is that these facilities typically use the same indoor air quality thresholds as commercial offices and warehouses, which fall well short of ideal for vulnerable groups.

Tarkett chose a sustainably branded high quality cafe/restaurant Acre in Sydney’s inner city Camperdown to both discuss the findings of this report and launch its new PVC-free flooring range.

The setting, amidst a former bowls club converted to a city farm and one of Sydney’s latest “go to” restaurants, served to reinforce the message that green could not only be “good” but preferable.

The latest flooring product, said managing director of Tarkett Australasia Ralph Jorissen, was PVC free, phthalate-free, had low VOC emissions and was 100 per cent recyclable.

“Unhealthy indoor air quality is one of the biggest threats to Australian’s health and wellbeing in the built environment but is often completely taken for granted,” he said. “So it is more important now than ever that manufactures take-up strategies that promote healthy indoor environments.”

Delivering the academic content was Thrive Research Hub’s Dr Robert Crawford.

“The report brings to the forefront the urgent need for the sensible use of materials as the exponential growth of extraction of natural resources for building and construction continues,” he said.

“Companies that put the wellbeing of the earth and the human population at the centre of their practices will be central to the building industry of the future.”

The report found lack of thermal comfort, the presence of volatile organic compounds and airborne particulate matter are among the factors identified as having negative impacts.

Another finding in the report was that our rate of natural resource extraction needed to construct and maintain the built environment was starting to become unsustainable.

Over 70 billion tonnes of materials are extracted from the earth annually – enough to cover the surface of Tasmania by half a metre, the report said.

“In the years from 1970 to 2010, global materials extraction tripled. In addition to this, the rate of extraction has grown faster since the start of the present century than at any other time in recent history.”

Much of this growth has been driven by the extraction of non-metallic resources including gypsum, clay, gravel, limestone and sand, which comprise around 44 per cent of total resource extraction.

The building sector is responsible for at least 80 per cent of non-metallic mineral use, accounting for over 25 billion tonnes a year, mainly for the production of concrete and bricks.

The research also flagged the embodied energy and water in the built environment.

A case study on a typical detached house in Melbourne based on data from a recent study on the City of Melbourne showed that each new home built since 1960 has required on average 3.1 tonnes of materials for every square metre of gross floor area, including 650kg of concrete, 23kg of steel and 640kg of timber.

In addition, these houses required 10-15 GJ a square metre of embodied energy and 17-20 kL a sq m of embodied water for their construction. The water needed to construct a building is equivalent to around 10 times its volume.

The report also outlines ways in which built environments can be improved and become more regenerative.

This includes dematerialisation, manufacturing efficiency, the use of renewable and recycled materials, designing and specifying for recyclability, using materials that are sustainable and durable, and designing for adaptive reuse.

Systems-based thinking was also key.

“Current business as usual approaches in the built environment tend to rely on a linear thinking paradigm, where each discipline is responsible only for its part of the job. This leads to suboptimal built environments where the linkages between buildings and the natural and socio-economic systems on which they depend are neglected.

“Such manner of thinking, focused on one particular aspect only, e.g. building height, can have severe consequences on the urban system, such as the loss of street life, overshadowing of entire neighbourhoods, loss of identity, environmental damage for material extraction elsewhere, lack of connectivity and others.

“Another example is focusing on just durability at the cost of recyclability, or just aesthetics at the cost of durability of a product.”

  • Read the report here

– with Willow Aliento

One reply on “Why poor indoor air quality is one of our biggest health threats”

  1. Congratulations on a really good article.

    On top of the deleterious effects of poor indoor air quality is the impact of outdoor air quality on so much of the current residential development being built along our busiest most polluted main roads.

    Consequently more and more people are being crammed into units with windows opening directly onto roads with 24/7 high traffic volumes producing toxic exhaust fumes. In NSW, State Planning is fully aware of the negative health impacts of vehicle exhaust on air quality as well as the detrimental health impacts of excessive noise and the increased risk of life threatening injuries to children and adults from spending their lives next to speeding vehicles. They know this because they commissioned the reports that identified the problem.

    Also, with the current craze for the knock-down-rebuild so much of the embodied energy in existing housing stock is being wilfully wasted.

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