It has been quite a while since my last post to this blog. I have been busy developing a book describing some of my experiences in sustainable building, and the following is a draft of a chapter I'm working on. Feedback is welcomed!
The 3.8 billion years of evolution of the DNA strand that uniquely identifies the human genome has invested in humanity a host of sensory inputs that are essential to our survival. This distinctive combination of skills has made Homo sapiens the single most efficient predator on the planet. We possess an exceptional set of sensors from which we extract many subtle cues from our environment, providing us with constant reassurance of our safety. If our building designs do not satisfy our innate security interests, then we feel disconnected.
Various theories and hypotheses about the interaction between man, nature, and the built environment have been proposed. Biophilia references the spiritual aspect of a visual contact with nature. Eco-psychology submits that contact with nature extends a bond that provides sensations of harmony, balance, and stability. Environmental psychology addresses the psychological responses we have to environmental stresses, and proponents have performed studies on the effect of the built environment on human behavior.
Humans thrive in many harsh environments from the desert to the arctic. We have designed and built protective shelters unique to each of these environments to facilitate our survival. From these shelters we obtain security, comfort, convenience, and efficiency. The scientific community lists as many as 21 acquired sensory traits in humans, with many appearing to be subsets of the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and vision. In addition to these five familiar traits, breathing is relevant as a sixth sense as it relates to how we design our buildings.
The need to satisfy these elemental instincts is no more a discussion of nature vs. nurture than learning to cry or breathe is a response to a sharp whack by an obstetrician. Removing your hand from a heat source is not a learned response. The smell of bread baking in the oven is not a learned response. Tastes of bitter, sweet, salty, and sour are not learned, but serve to sharpen our survival skills. Addressing these most basic instincts in our building designs provides for our sense of security.
Each of these six sensory inputs has an impact on how we design and operate our buildings on an elemental level that exceeds what can be derived from a spiritual or psychological influence. As we think of these senses, they are so primal that we are unconscious of their origin and impact. We taste because we have taste receptors, we feel the touch of heat and cold because we have a neuro-chemical response to those influences. We see, hear, and breathe from the moment we are born with no thought to the implications. We have responses to each of these sensory inputs that affect our survival and are hardwired into our essence.
The confluence of building design and our sensory inputs can be dissected to determine how we must consider building design in light of our primal security needs.
Taste is something that few building design elements incorporate. The notable exception is water. Certainly clean water is essential to survival, and our sense of taste is an excellent tool for discerning much about water quality. Some water sources require treatment systems that affect taste and have long term health repercussions. There is no single right solution for every situation as both the water sources and the recipients have so much variability in taste and quality.
In this context, taste is often a tool we use to assure safety, though not always successfully. In nature we obtain clues about water safety based on observations of the natural environment around the source. Today we rely on testing to provide for water quality that we rely on for survival. This does not correspond to our desire for taste which is inherently an individual preference and may be addressed through any number of technological remedies from filtration to reverse osmosis.
Touch is perhaps the easiest sensory input to control. Texture is an element of building design that provides contextual cues to our location. We make material selections based on regional availability, tradition, technological innovation, and aesthetic preferences. As a means of survival, we use textures as environmental cues to our location. In the absence of sight, we navigate spaces with subtle cues from the texture of floors, walls, furniture, and the acoustic footprints imposed by the textures in a room. Airflow also contributes to the ability to orient in a given space.
The sense of touch has a subset that includes thermal awareness. As a survival tool our sense of environmental temperature ranges from severe cold to severe heat. Protection from the elements is an essential survival mechanism, and we have made tremendous strides in our capacity to control our thermal comfort in the last half century.
Smell is another essential survival tool. People are extremely sensitive to indoor air quality, and mold, mildew, and decay, are cues to the health of our buildings that we are superbly adapted to discover. We have done a marvelous job of eliminating olfactory distractions and dangers from our indoor environment. To our credit, we have accomplished this by installing exhaust fans, air exchangers, and construction materials with no volatile organic compounds to reduce or eliminate the potential for injury. To our detriment we have masked odors with perfumes and deodorants.
As a matter of survival we rely on smell to protect us from harm. Smells that affect our survival include gas leaks, smoke, vegetation, disease, poisons, and finding a mate. Taste and smell are inextricably tied together, with both eliciting strong memory responses to events in our lives. The examples of baking bread, burning toast, steak on the grill, skunks, campfires, rotting plants, pine forests, and ozone from an approaching thunderstorm will likely have evoked either a positive or negative response based on individual experience. These responses directly impact our fight or flight instinct.
Hearing is a sensory receptor for which we actively design elements in our buildings, most notably the installation of warning devices like fire and carbon monoxide alarms. As a survival mechanism, we have trained ourselves to be alert for familiar sounds. The sound of the refrigerator kicking on, the noises we associate with the furnace, the whooshing noise of the gas burner on the hot water heater, the squeaking floor boards, the rattling windows, all form a symphony that we learn to identify as friendly. A noise out of place may be a threat, and we react to that threat instinctively. How many of us have gotten out of bed to investigate an unfamiliar noise?
Acoustic control affects our productivity by either allowing better reception of sound or masking sounds as needed for the right application. Isolation from sounds that can provide us with cues to our survival makes us uneasy. The total absence of sound in a recording studio sound booth is very disorienting. Ironically, superinsulated buildings dampen exterior sounds nearly to the point of simulating a sound booth environment. The sound of wind, rain, mild thunderstorms, traffic, and animal noises, are virtually obliterated by a highly thermally efficient envelope. This isolation from exterior sounds provides the same sense of disorientation experienced in a sound booth.
Vision is the sensory input that we most value. We gather a great deal of information visually, so having access to a view is vital to our comfort. This is the most complex sensory interaction with the environment as it affects design. In our hermetically sealed indoor environments, our sense of security is enhanced by our ability to observe threats to our survival.
We build shelter for protection from predators, the weather, and even war. As a survival tool a visual connection provides for these protections, but also maintains a connection with our need to observe our environment for both predators and prey. Today we gather our prey at the grocery store, but this recent agricultural innovation does not satisfy billions of years of evolutionary conditioning.
We evolved over these billions of years in a landscape that included only natural light. It seems intuitive that our ability to observe threats in the environment is best served by our long evolutionary adaptation to natural light. The recent innovation of artificial light leaves us with an impaired capacity to fully access all of the information we need to assure our continued survival.
Flickering light from alternating current energy sources can cause headaches, eye strain, and visual discomfort, though ballast technology has provided a dramatic improvement. Another effect of artificial light is the interruption to our natural circadian rhythms. The artificial extension of daylight plays havoc with our natural sleep cycle, turning certain segments of the population into either curmudgeons or teenagers.
There is some evidence that artificial light creates negative health effects. High percentages of blue and green in artificial light suppress the production of the mood and stress hormones cortisol, DHEA, and melatonin. This can be overcome with proper lighting design and careful attention to wavelengths in the red spectrum. Light-source injuries occur from the familiar burns produced by extreme exposure to UV or infrared radiation, for which we require protections either from the source or from poor judgment.
Breathing is the response we have to lack of oxygen and it elicits a powerful survival response. Being underwater for an extended period of time is an extreme example. To a lesser extent we feel the same sensation at high altitudes and in enclosed spaces. You may be able to identify a time when you were in a room that felt stuffy or where you felt as if you were struggling for breath. A lack of oxygen, a surfeit of carbon dioxide, or the presence of carbon monoxide sends us a signal that all is not well and that we must act to change our environment. The instinct to breathe is unconscious until we find our ability to breathe compromised. Building design contributes to our ability to satisfy this most basic instinct.
Early symptoms of lack of oxygen manifest as a sense of being in a stuffy room, progressing to headaches and vomiting, to death. Ventilation in building design is required by building code, but lack of attention to the details of this requirement has many repercussions.
We are remarkably sensitive to toxins in the air. The built environment has historically used many materials which off-gassed toxins into increasingly better-sealed interior environments. The advent of sick building syndrome drove home the importance of protecting our indoor environment from accumulating toxins, and building component manufacturers rose to the challenge of designing new materials that would not contribute to building toxicity.
We have become more adept at exchanging indoor air for fresh outside air, and walking the tightrope balancing the requirement for fresh air with the energy cost of treating those volumes of air. With good design we can eliminate almost all materials that contribute toxins and particulates, and we can continually refresh the indoor environment from the accumulation of CO2 from breathing, cooking, and combustion, as well as cleaning chemicals, perfumes, and other introduced chemicals.
Manifestations of sensitivity to poor air quality from inhaled toxins include respiratory infections, asthma, hives, pneumonia, bronchitis, and asphyxia among others. The complexity of designing buildings to reduce exposure to chemical irritants cannot be understated.
A fine line separates instinctive responses to stimuli and learned responses. We instinctively react to bitter or sweet tastes, withdraw from acrid odors, and have a startle response to loud sounds. We instinctively react to heat from a flame, and none of us would be here had we not drawn our first breath. We further calibrate our responses by learning about environmental cues that provide for our sense of security or pose a threat. What tastes and odors are noxious, and which are life sustaining. Which sounds are natural and which constitute a threat. We see and feel the need for protection against the elements and learn what constitutes that level of protection. With every breath, in association with taste and smell, we make minute observations about the local environment.
Our physical senses are not the only aspects of our sense of security in a building. In contemporary society financial security plays an important role in our comfort level. Monetary exchanges for specialized goods and services have replaced the independence that we enjoyed in hunter-gatherer societies, where skillsets were not as neatly isolated as they are today. Generalization in skillsets assured greater species survival than specialization until an exchange system became universal. With this relatively new adaptation, we require security in our financial realm to assure our continued survival. Savings, social security, community resources, wealth accumulation — all contribute to this sense of security.
Good building design can help facilitate our financial security. The design of a net zero energy building secures energy independence for the foreseeable future. The elimination of indoor environmental toxicity secures our continued good health, lack of which is a leading contributor to financial insecurity. Securing an independent access to safe, clean, water provides a rare layer of security in modern society as competition for this resource becomes increasingly common. These are a few of many aspects of green building that provide a hedge against discontinuity in a global economy.
Absenteeism in the US caused by lack of health security is approximately 3%, costing the average employer over $2,000 per year per employee. Lost productivity from ‘presenteeism’ (present but sick) is nearly quadruple that. Building design has a profound impact on human health in our homes, schools, and workplaces. Indoor environmental quality is directly relevant to the quality of life we enjoy as it relates to our connection with the outdoor environment, and the elimination of toxic chemical concentrations.
At particular risk in an indoor environment are the young, the economically disadvantaged, and the elderly. Poor quality housing, schools, and workplaces increase the risk for poor health. The young and the elderly may have underdeveloped or compromised immune systems. The loss of income from poor health for those with few financial resources has a disproportionately greater impact. Exposure to poor quality housing, poor school districts, and poor quality jobs with poor working conditions exacerbate the environmental conditions that affect their health. A single lost day of wages creates significantly greater stress for the impoverished person than a walk in the woods will cure.
Another aspect of our sense of security began to emerge as a design consideration after the lessons of the collapse of the Twin Towers and Hurricane Katrina exposed vulnerabilities in our capacity to respond to a breakdown in social order. The ability of building design to serve basic human needs in light of a catastrophic failure is beginning to enter the sustainable building lexicon.
Passive survivability reflects the ability of a building design to maintain critical life-support conditions in the event of an extended power outage, fuel supply interruption, or water shortage. Conventional design vulnerabilities can be overcome by considering passive solutions for storm resilience, terrorist threats, and interruptions in heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, energy, and water.
Consistent with our evolution as the most efficient predator in the history of the planet is the development of a social structure that presents another layer of security. Species that aggregate in a communal structure benefit from the capacity to repel predators and in their ability to hunt and collect food. Dolphins, lions, and wolves are among many socially structured communities that herd their prey and collaborate to optimize their kill.
As community members we also communicate survival lessons to successive generations. These learned behaviors can adapt over short time periods as environmental conditions change. The development of agriculture some 12,000 years ago made communities more sustainable with less need to follow migrating food sources. In contemporary society, where our skillsets have become highly specialized, we require community structures to provide support systems from broad skillsets we no longer retain. We may program computers for a living, but we do not likely also grow our own food, generate our own power, or provide for our own water sources.
In designing our communities we need to observe the elements that contribute to our sense of security. Volumes have been written on community development over the years, with many well-intentioned plans such as urban renewal demonstrating a poor grasp of the basic human need for security. The benefits of establishing a robust community social structure were ignored in favor of a minimum-first-cost philosophy applied to warehouse housing. Aside from the wrenching social cost of displacing existing communities, little of the support structure to keep a community viable was developed to assure the success of these projects. There was a decided lack of attention to providing access to local services like banks, medical care, grocery, libraries, churches, pharmacies, entertainment, jobs, or the physical security to be able to walk through the community.
Each of these sensory inputs has direct ties to our evolutionary development and our inborn capabilities to survive in the environment. As the building envelope isolates us from access to the cues we require to satisfy our security needs, we need to be aware of the impact of building design on our human capabilities. How do we reconcile our need to connect with the exterior environment and provide protections from the hazards we experience in modern life.
By design we can build the infrastructure required to resolve 3.8 billion years’ worth of aggregated fears, improving our security in our choice of refuge. Though there are many influences that affect our perception of security, those that are hardwired into our genetic code have the greatest impact on our sense of well-being.
Samuel D Pobst, LEED Fellow
LEED AP® BO+M BD+C ID+C Homes