The Ins and Outs of Sick Building Syndrome

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Much of my work pertains to homes, apartments and other personal spaces, but the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) relates to your working environment as well. In modern times, we spend a little less than 1/3 of our time at work on average. That's a lot of time in the same space! Unfortunately, these spaces are often poorly ventilated and filled with a host of other issues that lead to sick building syndrome, which is as gross as it sounds. 

Sick building syndrome is a collection of symptoms that seem to be caused directly by spending time in a certain building, often an office. These symptoms can include anything from headaches, dizziness and sensitivity to smell to asthma attacks, flu-like symptoms and even personality changes! Long term, they can even lead to cancer, pregnancy difficulties and other more serious issues. Not only do these issues cause us to feel poorly, they can also result in higher incidents of missing work and difficulty being productive when we do make it in. 

These effects can be caused by many factors, including:

  • external pollution (think car exhaust, radon, asbestos, lead paint) that leaks indoors through ventilation
  • VOCs off gassed by a number of office supplies like manufactured wood furniture, carpet, printers and more
  • Off gassing from clothing, fragrances and personal products
  • Insect or vermin droppings 
  • Mold and mildew
  • EMFs from small appliances like microwaves
  • Inadequate lighting
  • Ventilation issues

The good news is that there are ways to avoid sick building syndrome, and while many of them are reserved as actions for landlords and building owners, some of them we can do at our desks! If you own a building you suspect of making people sick, take care to use proper ventilation, remove and replace water stained carpet, upholstery and ceiling tiles, aim to use materials that do not off gas as much, and educate yourself as well as possible to help prevent sick building syndrome in your space. Changing out your air filters regularly with HEPA filters can be very effective as well! 

If you're an employee in a sick building, be sure to bring the problem to the attention of someone who can make changes, but you can also consider bringing in a small air purifier for your office and adding plants to your desk and office space that can help to absorb harmful VOCs. Check out our favorite options

Generally the symptoms of sick building syndrome are relieved when you leave the building, but if you leave one place and head to another polluted place, you're not doing much good! So work to make your home as holistic and green as possible to give yourself a safe place to rejuvenate and heal from a long day at the office!

by Anjie Cho

Bamboo Isn't Just a Fad

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As a licensed and practicing architect, I regularly take continuing education courses to stay up to date and maintain my certification. My most recent course detailed the perks and benefits of using bamboo in remodeling, renovation and building, and it's pretty incredible what using bamboo can do for your holistic space and for the environment. Let's take a look at why bamboo is hopefully here to stay. 

Bamboo is Environmentally Friendly and Sustainable

Using bamboo to build dates back at least 2,000 years in Chinese culture, and there are 1,400 different species of bamboo, all of which can be used differently. It's such an amazing untapped resource that fully engaging in a bamboo-based industry could provide jobs for up to one billion people worldwide, all without providing any unnecessary strain on our environment or ecosystems. 

Unlike the harvesting process of typical trees, harvesting bamboo does not fully release its carbon dioxide supply into the air. This is no small detail, since deforestation is one of the main contributors to global warming through carbon off gassing. Instead, the root structure of bamboo stays alive and holds onto almost 50% of the carbon it sequesters, which can be up to 60% more than fir trees.

Bamboo also releases 35% more oxygen than typical fir trees, helping to give back more to the environment, and since it is harvested more selectively, it doesn't wear out soil, which prevents the need for relocation, a common issue in traditional wood harvesting.  

Bamboo is a rapidly renewing resource, and due to its tight hold on carbon and the fact that it travels via sea and train for much of its journey to us from Asian countries, it's actually a carbon negative product, which means that yes, it is more sustainable in every way than traditional wood. All of this, without even mentioning that relying on bamboo for building can not only avoid the devastating effects deforestation has on some indigenous species, it can actually help us to provide more solid economies for these people while we still have everything we need in building supplies. 

Using Bamboo Adds Nature to Your Space

Recent research shows that using natural wood in indoor environments actually has positive impacts on our health, much like that of spending time out in nature. In fact, using natural wood like bamboo for our building needs can lead to decreased blood pressure, lower levels of stress and increased emotional wellness! Talk about benefits!

What's more, some other studies have shown that physical contact with wood products, as opposed to other materials like aluminum and plastic, actually produces positive physiological responses. We feel safer when we're surrounded by nature, even if it's in our homes and not outdoors. These studies also show that imitation wood doesn't have the same effects. 

It's not difficult to see why choosing bamboo for renovations and other indoor needs is a good move all around. In fact, we'll share even more benefits soon! With plenty of perks and almost no downside (as long as you get quality, properly aged product!), bamboo is potentially an amazing tool to move us forward in sustainable, eco-friendly building and green design. Would you consider using it?

by Anjie Cho

4 Tips for Buying Sustainable Wood

As you're creating your holistic space, there will almost definitely be situations in which you need to seek out wood in some way or another. Whether to add a wall, redo flooring or to replace an entertainment center, the uses for wood in our society are numerous. Unfortunately, the wood we use is often in danger of extinction and is not often harvested in an eco-friendly, sustainable or respectable way. 

Not only can using certain harvesting processes significantly reduce the number of certain types of trees on our planet, it can also displace many species of animals, as well as indigenous people who call these forests home. In addition, unsustainable, at times even illegal, practices can contribute to poor water quality and environmental issues as well. 

Since trees produce the very oxygen we breathe, opting for a sustainable route on this front is a no-brainer. But actually putting this into practice can be difficult if you don't know what you're looking for. Keep these tips in mind when hunting down wood for new projects or searching for that perfect coffee table. 

Seek out Gold Standard

The FSC, or Forest Stewardship Council, is well-known as the highest standard in ensuring that wood is sustainably harvested. This organization takes great care, from the initial cut to the final product, to ensure that wood delivered to the masses is produced with high regard for the environment, animal species that live in these forests and indigenous people who depend upon these trees for livelihood. The FSC has an easily identifiable label stamped on each piece of certified sustainable wood, which is available at most supply companies. Before anything, look for this option. If you cannot find it, ask in depth about the origin of the wood you have your eye on. 

Avoid Tropical Woods

Though it's ideal not to buy any wood that isn't certifiably sustainable, purchasing certain tropical woods can do even more damage, based on the fact that these trees do not grow as quickly or in as great of numbers as other materials. If you're in the market for any of the woods below, look for the FSC label, ensure that it's been sustainably harvested, or seriously reconsider. 

  • Big Leaf Mahogany
  • Spanish Cedar
  • Caribbean Pine
  • Ipe
  • Rosewood
  • Teak
  • Ramin
  • Merbau
  • African Mahogany
  • Okoume

Know WHERE Your Wood Originated

If you're unable to find the type of wood you want with an FSC label, it's important to ask the right questions in determining whether your particular selection is contributing to deforestation and other negative outcomes. For certain woods, including Beech, Pine, Oak, Douglas Fir and more, the geographical area of harvesting is just as important as the actual process. This post in Eluxe Magazine is a great resource for determining whether you're buying legal, ethically harvested wood. 

Keep an Open Mind

Wood may be one of the most elegant, timeless and sturdy options for building, but it isn't the only one. If furniture is your end game, be open to other options, like bamboo, wicker, plastic wood or a plastic-wood composite, all of which can significantly reduce the harm done to our forests, while still providing beautiful options for holistic living. 

Other options include seeking out reclaimed or recycled wood, both in building projects and in completed furniture, or checking out your choices of used furniture on trusted sites like eBay. In this case, be sure to clear the wood of any predecessor energy before welcoming it into your space! 

by Anjie Cho

Renewable Energy Certificates: JD Capuano

Our last blog post was an interview with JD Capuano and his work with Closed Loop Advisors, a sustainability management consultancy focused on helping organizations with two things: environmental sustainability strategy, measurement, and analytics; and green building fit-outs and certifications. 

While we were chatting, we started talking about energy efficiency and RECs. I really appreciated his perspective and wanted to share it with the Holistic Spaces readers. So, read on!

AC: Let's talk about RECs, what are they exactly?

C: RECs are renewable energy certificates bought and sold in the U.S. Basically, RECs allow you to buy the bragging rights for renewable energy without actually buying the energy. One REC is created for every megawatt hour (mWh) of renewable electricity generated. They were first thought up as a way to incentivize energy developers to invest in renewable projects like wind farms or solar arrays.

There are two markets for RECs – the compliance market and the voluntary market. The compliance market is regulated and is comprised mostly of utilities purchasing these credits to help meet a state's renewable portfolio standard, or RPS. We focus on the voluntary market, where companies can buy RECs to claim they use "green power" for their operations or that their product is carbon neutral. Most of the time you hear such claims, it's not because companies are directly consuming 100% renewable energy.

What's the truth about RECS and your opinion on them?

Most RECs purchased on the voluntary market are considered "national RECs." National RECs mostly come from less populated regions where there's a lot of wind, like west Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma. My colleagues and I have been digging into this for a year, and our problem with RECs is that if you're in New York or Michigan or California and buy national RECs, it is physically impossible for that electricity to reach you. There's a myth out there that the U.S. electricity grid is like one big bathtub where you can turn up the green energy faucet and make the whole thing greener. In reality, there are 26 grids in the U.S., so 26 bathtubs. While there are connections between grids, there are also substantial transmission losses. There's no way an electron generated by a wind farm in west Texas is making it to New York. 

Unfortunately, national RECs are cheap and easy compared with other "green power" options. Our concern is that programs like the EPA's Green Power Partners and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (the gold standard on international guidance about emissions) give RECs the same weight as onsite renewable generation, power purchasing agreements, and utility green power schemes (that aren't REC based). This allows companies to make big green claims while not making financial decisions that add more renewable capacity to the grid. And why wouldn't they if the EPA and GHG Protocol tell them this cheap and easy option is equivalent to putting solar onsite? We believe this sends a weak market signal for the development of new capacity. We're actually talking with people at the EPA and Greenhouse Gas Protocol to try and influence change. We also have a paper coming out on the topic.

Your readers can also be unknowingly making the wrong choice. In states with deregulated utilities, like NY, you can pay extra to buy green energy. Some just use national RECs, while others use local RECs. Is it a good REC (local) or a bad REC (national)? You can usually find this if you check their website FAQ. If you can't find anything about local RECs, assume they're national. There are some good companies working in this space, like Ethical Electric and Community Energy.

Companies can also purchase local RECs, which we think are okay, so long as they have no options for onsite or utility green energy programs. 

So, rather than buying RECs, we recommend good old energy efficiency! What is a simple tip for our readers, so they can become more energy efficient?

Insulation is the best place to start. People can more quickly and easily impact their homes than their offices, no matter if they own or rent. I rent and have found noticeable savings with weatherstripping my doors and caulking cracks. This method is effective, so long as you're diligent, and inexpensive. So find those leaks and seal them up! Use your hand and feel for air. Around windows, window frames, interior room door frames, and where any molding meets the floor are good spots to check. Ditto for any pipes entering for heat or water. If you're unsure whether air is coming in, use a match as both the flame and smoke are telling when it comes to air leaks. If you're a city dweller, this is also helpful for keeping out any unwanted vermin.

by Anjie Cho

JD Capuano, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Closed Loop Advisors – JD Built his career using data to solve business problems. For nearly a decade he worked in various positions within the Business Analytics group at Schering-Plough. JD utilized technical skills such as big data analytics, deep-dive analysis, data modeling, and metric development, to advise decision-makers on strategies and tactics. JD also spend years as a volunteer working on environmental advocacy and pro-bono sustainability consulting for the city of Hoboken, NJ. Today JD helps clients with strategic planning, advanced analytics and helping them effectively tell their sustainability story. JD holds a B.A. in Business from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.S. in Sustainability Management from Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Sustainable Building: Closed Loop Advisors

Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, Courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

JD Capuano is Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Closed Loop Advisors, a sustainability management consultancy. He is super passionate about sustainability and helping businesses truly incorporate sustainable green practices. Holistic Spaces interviewed JD about his business, the Living Building Challenge, and sustainability.

Be sure to check in on the next blog post, to read JD speak about Renewable Energy Certificates

AC: Tell us about your mission at Closed Loop Advisors.

JC: Closed Loop Advisors is a sustainability management consultancy focused on helping organizations with two things: environmental sustainability strategy, measurement, and analytics; and green building fit-outs and certifications. Our mission is to change business as usual by integrating commerce and deep green environmental sustainability.

AC: What is the Living Building Challenge and how have you incorporated it into your consulting? 

JC: The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is the most inspiring and stringent green building standard in the world. It imagines that we design and construct buildings to function as elegantly and efficiently as a flower. LBC has three certifications – the full challenge (7 PETALs, or areas of certification), PETAL Certification (3 PETALs, one of which has to be Energy, Water or Materials), and Net Zero Energy Building Certification. Our involvement with LBC started with my colleague, Eileen Quigley. Eileen was project-managing the Chicago office fit-out for our client, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and posed the idea of pursuing LBC PETAL Certification in their Chicago office. Once we realized there was a chance of doing it, they were all for it, and we were off and running.

Tell us more about PETAL certification and at zero-toxicity materials -- what does that mean and what can we learn from it?

We spend most of our time indoors, and we're surrounded by many human-made materials that are off-gassing toxics. You know the smell of new carpeting or fresh paint? When you smell that, you're inhaling the toxic gasses seeping out from those materials. The Materials PETAL places emphasis on all of the inputs to a building's structure and finishes with very specific requirements, such as a certain amount of material reuse for a renovation, forestry requirements and a definition of local for wood, and most important their Red List of materials and chemicals products cannot contain. By following this PETAL we learn to create an indoor environment where residents or employees can be healthier and more productive. 

Tell us about the Chicago Natural Resources Defense Council project, where you were able to create a notable innovation and really make a difference.

The Natural Resources Defense Council project was innovative because it was the first time anyone suggested that an office could go for the LBC certification. Every project before ours was residential or an entire building. We saw the chance to do something on a smaller scale while still having an impact. We didn't know about the PETAL Certification until we researched it. We got excited once we realized we didn't have to worry about net zero water or energy, which are really difficult to do for a project that is 1% of the building square footage. We pursued the materials PETAL. I think it has just as much if not more, of an impact than water or energy, because it's causing ripples in a huge industry of materials manufacturers and making them re-think their processes. It's also making us re-think what's healthy for people to be in the presence of, especially considering how much time people spend at work.

What are three tips that the readers can do to make their work spaces more sustainable?

It depends. Are you staying in the same space, or moving? Where are you geographically? What have you already done? Sorry, force of habit as a consultant to make sure I'm answering the right questions!

Assuming you're staying in the same space:

  1. Track and analyze your data over time to look for areas of improvement. You can get electricity, maybe heating and water. Start tracking your waste and see how you can reduce it.  
  2. Focus on reducing electricity use by changing set-points, upgrade lighting or de-lamp if your space is over-lit, install sensors (daylight and movement), maximize use of daylighting, make sure lights and equipment turn off when no one is around.  
  3. Look at what you're purchasing and consuming. What can you reduce? Are you purchasing eco-friendly, reusable or recyclable (preferring the former) and non-toxic products (from the little things to furniture)?

by Anjie Cho

Closed Loop Advisors is changing business as usual. We are passionate about integrating sustainability and business. From addressing specific environmental problems to organization-wide sustainability planning, we help our clients become more efficient, responsible and adaptive. Our work focuses on each client’s desired outcomes that we align with their unique combination of priorities, values and budget.

Our services fall into two categories. The first is Strategy, Measurement and Analytics, with projects ranging from environmental target setting to carbon foot-printing to GRI reporting. The second is Buildings and Certifications, where we manage office fit-outs and certify projects to LEED or Living Building Challenge standards. Founded in 2011, we are based in NYC and manage projects in Europe, China, and across the US. We are a Certified B Corporation