A recent workshop on the effects of the built environment on health brought together 50 Canadian experts to investigate ways in which they could work together to design better environments that promote the health and well-being of Canadians. Experts from areas as diverse as acoustics, architecture, biology, chemistry, engineering, epidemiology, medicine, psychology, public health, and urban planning met at the First Canadian Building and Health Sciences Workshop in Montreal in November 2008. Their aim was to identify the knowledge gaps that impede healthy design, develop plans to address them, and begin breaking down the barriers that obstruct interdisciplinary research and knowledge transfer among these disciplines.
The workshop outcomes will guide the further development of the Canadian Building and Health Sciences Network. This Network was founded in 2007 by NRC-IRC in partnership with Health Canada, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in order to facilitate communication among Canadian researchers interested in the connections between our health and the buildings we live, work, learn and play in. The outcomes will also guide NRC-IRC in its own work in environmental health, a goal identified in its strategic plan.
Two broad goals for the Network emerged from the workshop: improved health for all Canadians, and high quality and sustainable built environments. Achieving these goals will require collaborations and partnerships involving researchers, governments, the construction industry and the general public.
There is mounting evidence that air, light, sound, materials, and even some features of interior design and architecture can all influence health, but understanding just how they do so is a complex business. Thorough research addressing questions such as “What is the best way to construct a house to reduce noise and all the resulting stressful effects on our bodies” or “Which ventilation strategies reduce exposure to potential allergens while still conserving energy?” requires expertise from many scientific disciplines. The research agenda before us is, therefore, challenging.
The workshop identified significant research gaps that impede action. For example, although there is a great deal of information around the world about how conditions in the built environment can affect health, little is known about the real conditions that Canadians are exposed to. We also lack information on the costs and benefits of reducing exposure to unhealthy conditions, making it difficult to determine where to direct our research efforts, or to identify which of the many possible changes to building design and operation are most important.
Dr. John Cooper of Health Canada, one of the final panelists, concluded the workshop by saying: “[W]e want to see improved health outcomes and we’d like to see building designs that incorporate indoor environmental quality and building performance.” Actions needed to achieve the broad goal of a more healthful Canadian built environment go beyond research. Education and training will be needed, aimed at professionals, the building industry and the general public. Public policy tools will also be necessary, including guidelines, recommended practice documents, standards and perhaps code changes. The Canadian Building and Health Sciences Network, led by NRC-IRC and its government partners, will be at the forefront of these actions.
The proceedings of the workshop are available. Specific questions can be directed to Dr. Jennifer Veitch at 613-993-9671, fax 613-954-3733 or e-mail email@example.com.