2019 the year of healthy building

This year we joined forces with  Steico to create a new campaign to help promote healthy buildings, the campaign, called the 'Leaf Campaign' was officially launched at Futurebuild in March which saw the construction of a large timber tree on the Steico stand onto which visitors were invited to add a leaf in their name which would identify them as committed to healthy building, creating healthy buildings, or delivering exemplary healthy buildings. By the end of the show, the tree had over 400 leaves added.  Visitors were very keen to explore ways to improve the health impacts of how they build. The interest in healthy buildings was extraordinarily high and, hopefully, signifies a genuine shift in the market towards better building. We have featured some of the businesses that added an exemplar  'gold leaf'  to the tree at the end of this article.

We invited Alex Campbell, director at Steico, to give his view on making better decisions when it comes to choosing materials for your project and the effects on a building’s performance and occupant health.

Why the Leaf Campaign and what is a healthy building?

A healthy building is both life-enhancing and supports occupants’ health, mood and productivity.

Most of us spend the majority of our lives indoors.  Little surprise then that the health of the buildings, we live and work in, heavily influences our physical, psychological and social well-being.

Existing UK regulations

British buildings are currently regulated regarding their ventilation and heating but there are some glaring omissions.  For instance, indoor air quality and exposure to natural light remain free of legal requirements despite the health benefits they offer occupants.

It’s the responsibility of the entire UK construction industry – from designers to architects, to builders – to drive the need to change.

By 2050, it is estimated that the UK’s current (as @ 2019) housing market will make up 80% of the entire nation’s supply of houses. That is why 2019 gives us 30 clear years to perfect how we build and retrofit the healthy homes of the future.

What makes a ‘healthy’ building?

A building is healthy if it does not harm the environment or its occupants

It is commonly accepted that traditional building materials - such as steel and concrete - find themselves in decline.  Not only are natural materials now as cost-effective as synthetic materials but they also have a much smaller environmental impact – crucial for the health of any building [i]. Natural building materials are also easier to dispose of and much more likely to fit into the goals of a circular economy.

The key to building sustainably is by using natural materials such as timber or straw bales. The world’s forest contains about 385 billion metres3 of timber with an additional 17 billion metres3 growing each year and only 3.4 billion metres3 are currently harvested[ii]. Sustainable materials can be used for numerous applications:  from large-scale commercial projects, down to small-scale extensions and other residential projects.

A building is healthy if it enhances the wellbeing of its occupants

It is well documented that we live more happily with wood than we do with concrete and steel.

A Passivhaus Plus rated five bedroom detached house one of the most airtight houses in the UK at 0.07 ach@50Pa. Image courtesy PH15

Most people now accept that mental health is just as important as being physically healthy. So why, in an era where we are more conscious of our health than ever before – particularly considering all the mindfulness apps on our phones and yoga breaks at work – do we not take more steps to improve our mental health through better building practices?

With studies linking air pollution’s negative impact on physical and mental health, it has become important to improve the quality of air in our homes.  Nordic countries have a standard governing indoor air quality but no such equivalent exists in the UK.

Natural insulation materials promote higher standards of air quality compared with synthetics which, as they degrade,  ‘off gas’ i.e. emit minuscule toxins. Natural insulation materials do not off-gas and can help mitigate indoor air pollution.

Natural insulation prevents the accumulation of damp and condensation because it is breathable and vapour-permeable. This keeps occupants healthy with its effective moisture control preventing the build-up of mould and bacteria.

Wood fibre also better attenuates acoustic pollutants than its synthetic alternatives.  Any property wanting to block out traffic noise (or keep loud music in) will be better served by natural insulation.

These natural insulation solutions also became cost-effective in 2018 when their synthetic competitor materials rose in price but natural’s remained stable. With 96% of fuel-poor homes being badly insulated, natural insulation provides a suitable option to help improve the lives of thousands across Britain [iii].

Image courtesy of Professor Stephen Holgate Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology, Medical Research Council. This image was part of a presentation given by Professor Holgate at the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) Healthy Buildings Conference, 2018 . Professor Holgate is chair of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) working party on air pollution and a co-author of the Every breath we take and Better homes, better air, better health publications.

Building healthy homes together

The Steico message is clear; we should all work together to make 2019 the year the whole industry embraces healthy building. The supply chain needs information to ensure a building’s specification takes account of the health and wellbeing of its occupants.

But how do we build healthy buildings when we’re already struggling with volume?

The key to building healthy buildings is using natural materials which is no longer the more expensive solution.

Natural building materials contribute to a healthier internal environment of a building – maintaining a more stable and comfortable temperature and humidity throughout the seasons as well as improving indoor air quality and acoustic properties.

Although some of the more common building materials have their advantages, there is a better, more efficient way to build – and we hope this will soon become the norm.

Insulation is a key component in a building’s design. There is a proven relationship between insulation and the overall performance of a building and the health of its occupants[iv].

Natural insulation

Natural insulation is hygroscopic in that it provides a degree of humidity control to a building, positively impacting its thermal comfort. It is typically recognised for its ability to retain heat within a building but it has an equally important role in preventing a building from overheating in summer months.

Steico Universal Dry T&G board used as sarking board over Steico Flex between roof timbers. image courtesy of Steico

The properties of natural insulation – such as wood fibre, sheep’s wool or cellulose – mean they tend to have a higher thermal mass than their synthetic alternatives, providing improved thermal efficiency.

Wood fibre insulation boards are quick and easy to install and thanks to their tongue and groove profile, the boards' slot together seamlessly, creating a tight thermal envelope.

The cleanliness of wood fibre insulation means it does not release any harmful chemicals as it degrades so carries zero risk of toxic emissions, dust or fibres.

Natural insulation is also breathable and vapour-permeable – an essential quality to prevent the build-up of damp, condensation or structural decay. This is the key factor in improving the overall indoor air quality.

The higher density of natural materials also makes them more effective at mitigating noise pollution – both into and from a building – improving the occupants’ daily life.

In years to come, our children’s children will wonder why on earth we continued putting synthetic insulation into buildings in 21st century – using up the world’s precious and dwindling non-sustainable resources – when wood fibre is not only renewable, reusable, recyclable and compostable but also does a better job.

Making a change

To raise the bar on building healthy British buildings, developers, planners, architects, designers and engineers must all work together to raise standards and demand higher levels of building performance. Together, let’s embrace natural materials and shape a built environment that delivers performance and health as standard and makes for happier occupants.

For more information

If you are interested in building healthy buildings, show your commitment by signing up to the health newsfeed by emailing ‘health newsfeed’ to leaf@ecomerchant.co.uk  

Below you can find out a bit more about some of the Futurebuild attendees who visited the Steico stand at the show; these are businesses that are already delivering exemplary healthy buildings, they were invited to add a gold leaf to the Healthy Building campaign tree.

Steico's stand at Futurebuild showing the 'tree' on which visitors were invited to add a green, silver or gold leaf to show how they are helping deliver healthier buildings.

Passivhaus Homes Ltd 

Jae Cottrell PH15's principal architect adds their gold leaf to the Steico tree

PH15 is a Passivhaus suitable construction solution. PH15 delivers airtight and thermal bridge free houses using simple, UK friendly, construction details. The PH15 approach ensures an appropriate level of specification, at a fair price, with robust details. PH15 was developed jointly by an experienced Passivhaus architect and contractor, recognizing the UK’s need to build much better houses within a longer-term mindset.

The PH15 System is flexible enough to enable bespoke designs and to meet the many and varied planning requirements in the UK. It comprises all the component parts needed to create a weather tight, airtight shell (walls and roofs), alongside the glazing package and ventilation system.

The PH15 System uses natural, low carbon materials, including an off-site, pre-cut timber frame. The PH15 timber frame is ‘vapour permeable’, this means moisture within walls and roofs can escape to the external air; maintaining vapour permeability is critical when working with natural materials. PH15 is supported with training modules for the erection team.

Kithurst Builders Ltd

Antoine Constantine (Kithurst MD) adds the Kithurst gold leaf to the Steico tree.

A family owned and managed construction business winners of the Domestic Newbuild category Greenbuild Award 2014 for the "Curly House" low energy build house and runner up for the same house in the 2013 ICF Builder Awards. Kithurst is a Sussex Heritage 2014 Commercial award winner for the sensitive renovation of three existing barns dating back to 1801.

Kithurst are committed to building only with natural materials and designing with energy efficiency, occupant health and low environmental impact in mind, their most recent development is the design of an innovative prefabricated passive standard panel know as a NIPP (naturally insulated passive panel)  a highly efficient and sympathetic natural material based prefabrication system for those clients wanting to minimise their environmental impact and reduce construction costs.

Conker Conservation Limited

Paul Mallion adds the Conker gold leaf to the Steico tree

Conker is a small family business established in 1999 to concentrate on creating truly sustainable, energy efficient, durable buildings.

Conker has chartered building surveyors and certified Passivhaus designers with experience in designing new buildings, refurbishment, extension, conversions and conservation of historic buildings. Conker work on a wide variety of domestic, commercial, industrial and conservation projects across the south-east, and have been fortunate enough to win a number of awards for their work

Paul Mallion is a certified Passivhaus Designer. Passivhaus is the leading international low-energy design standard, although the design of Passivhaus buildings addresses more than just energy efficiency.  Passivhaus also considers the health and comfort of the occupants by addressing the ventilation requirements and avoiding overheating.

Conker will not use materials that are harmful to the environment or humans.  Conker minimises the use of petrochemical products, plastics and other polluting materials. Where possible they use natural materials and processes, and have experience with straw bales, rammed earth, rammed chalk, lime plaster, natural insulations, natural paints, green oak, sweet chestnut, reed bed sewage treatment, rainwater harvesting and renewable energy.

Grain Architecture Ltd

Janna Laan adds the Grain gold leaf to the Steico tree

Grain Architecture Ltd, founded in Aug 2015 by Janna Laan, is a small architectural design practice with a focus on sustainable building using natural materials. Janna works collaboratively with other designers, companies and freelancers within the natural building industry.

The Grain approach is to use a 'low-tech' approach to building, Grain put materials and design first. The materials Grain use in construction must have a low embodied energy (i.e. use very little energy to make/process, such as natural materials) and must be as local as possible. The design must cleverly use the materials and site to optimise building performance and efficiency, whilst never compromising on comfort or aesthetic.

By sourcing materials appropriately and specialising in using natural, local materials such as timber, earth, straw, stone, hemp, clay, lime, sheep wool and cellulose, Grain aim to support the local economy, community and biodiversity, while also reducing transportation impacts, energy consumption and locking up CO2 within the organic materials.

Eco Tiffin

Robert Tiffin of Eco Tiffin adds a gold leaf to the Steico tree

Eco Tiffin offers a range of diagnostic and remedial services to ensure that energy efficiency and occupant health is maximised. They offer comprehensive thermography or Infrared scanning services which are used to identify thermal defects in buildings by measuring and recording the energy of an object or area. These thermograms can accurately detect problems by relying on the heat spectrum. The coldest temperatures will appear as black images and range up to red for the warmest temperature.

By using this process, Eco Tiffin is able to establish and identify areas of heat loss, building defects and anomalies in building structures, which in turn enables homeowners to avoid the sometimes costly expense of invasive and destructive measures. The use of thermography as a diagnostic tool is one of the most underrated ways of checking and determining the quality of any new build and/or the specific remedial actions needed for older or underperforming buildings to be brought up to higher efficiency levels, the key is knowing and not working on supposition or guesswork.







Further reading (Click the image to read)

The multiple roles (and benefits) of natural insulation an Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) briefing paper






TRADA (Timber Research and Development Association) Research Paper 'Timber and healthy buildings: indoor air quality'






[i] Salonvaara, Mikael & Simonson, Carey. (2019). Indoor Air Quality In A Wooden House.

[ii] http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/wwf_business_and_economic_case_report.pdf

[iii] http://www.endfuelpoverty.org.uk/about-fuel-poverty/

[iv] https://www.go-gba.org/resources/green-building-methods/insulation/