The Built Environment: Look Inside First

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The Built Environment: Look Inside First

While most people tend to spend more time inside, many public health studies focus on the outside world. But when analyzing health risks associated with what researchers call the “built environment,” both venues are important to examine. Much like the external built environment, indoor spaces – such as offices, work stations, residences – carry a host of potential health risks that affect individuals’ ability to function effectively within a community (i.e., a workplace) and can lead to serious illnesses.

Health Risks

“Indoor air pollution” is not a new concept. Industrial hygienists have been assessing air samples in workplaces for decades. These samples have found toxic chemicals, asbestos particles, and other materials which affect our respiratory system, as well as other vital body organs and functions. Imagine that your office if freshened up with new carpet and new paint. If your office is poorly ventilated, then you are likely ingesting those vapors for more than eight hours a day, five days per week. Beyond refurbishing your workplace, what if the office in general lacks circulation of clean air? You may be at greater risk of acquiring an airborne illness.

It also is worth considering the arrangement of your work station – including factors such as keyboard placement, monitor height, and type of chair. If this ergonomic system is not well orchestrated, then you are likely to experience eye strain, headaches resulting from eye strain, and a host of musculoskeletal problems from low back pain to a repetitive motion injury such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The effects of a less-than-healthy design of the indoor built environment places you at a preventable increased risk of injury, illness, disease, and disability.

Performance Risks

If health risks were not enough, the performance-robbing effects of a poorly designed indoor built environment are numerous. Over the past 10 years, open space offices have become increasingly common. Picture yourself working in an open office environment with co-workers working alongside you, in front of you, and behind you as you listen to the clattering keyboards and occasional chatter. Some of us can focus despite the claustrophobic feelings of being packed into one cubicle after another, or jammed in with others on a long table. Some individuals can tune out the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual distractions. Yet, some of us cannot. Our senses are inundated with constantly bombarding stimuli.

Recent research has revealed that “green buildings” are not only good for the environment, but they enhance cognitive performance and promote better sleep due to factors such as clean ventilation, natural lighting, and occasionally some fresh air. So, performance does not begin and end with the individual worker. The context surrounding the worker has a big impact.

Strategies to Reduce Risks

To reduce the negative health and performance-robbing effects of a poorly designed internal built environment, it is incumbent upon legislators, regulators, enforcement officials, architects, and other stakeholders to advance policies, regulations, technical advice memoranda, and other instruments to decrease individuals’ exposure to known indoor health risks. Two successful campaigns to reduce indoor health risks include initiatives focusing on lead-based paint and radon exposure. And health professionals may have to educate these stakeholders about the link between the indoor built environment and the health of individuals working, living, or learning in such environments. An ideal educational approach would be three pronged: (1) enhance awareness of the risks of the internal built environment; (2) equip regulators, builders, and dwellers of internal environments to decrease known risks; and (3) enable stakeholders to advocate for improving health by focusing not just on the climate, but on the internal built environment. The recommendations of health professionals regarding the indoor built environment should be based upon empirical evidence, consisting of randomized controlled trial studies to more observational analyses.

In closing, we tend to view internal spaces as protecting us from elements which may impose health risks. It is now time to place an increasing focus on protecting us from the elements within these environments.


William “Marty” Martin, PsyD, is Associate Professor and Faculty Director of the MS in Human Resources, Department of Management & Entrepreneurship, at DePaul University.

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