The Built Environment and our health

The Built Environment and our health

One of our responsibilities as the built environment, human rights and sustainability experts is to analyse and develop work and home spaces that are safe and healthy for everyone. One had to realise late that the environment we thrive in or not, can affect our health and even our healing.

Our built environment includes all the human-made physical spaces where we live, recreate and work. These include our buildings, furnishings, open and public spaces, roads, utilities and other infrastructure. These structures and spaces affect our health by bringing pollutants into our environments and by allowing or restricting access to physical activity, transportation and social interactions.

1. Indoor Environments and Health

Because close to 90 per cent of the time is spent indoors on average in developed countries, and because indoor spaces in developing nations are often greatly impacted by burning solid fuels, indoor environments have a huge potential to influence health worldwide. The features of our indoor environments that can affect our health and well-being include noise, temperature, humidity and mould, light, air quality, lead paint, electromagnetic and radiofrequency radiation and water quality.

Air Quality

Indoor environments can concentrate some pollutants such that indoor levels can be many times higher than outdoor levels. Poor indoor air quality may increase rates of asthma, allergies, and infectious and respiratory diseases.

Take for examples the gases below.

Carbon Monoxide

When fuel is burned in cars or trucks, small engines, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas appliances or furnaces, fumes containing carbon monoxide are produced. Without adequate ventilation indoors, carbon monoxide can build up, poisoning people and animals. Carbon monoxide poisoning is characterized by headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain and confusion, and is compared to flu symptoms. Higher concentrations are lethal.

Particulate Pollution

Particulate matter (PM) in the air comes from dust, fly ash, soot, smoke, pollen, spores, fibres, pet dander, aerosols, fumes, mists and condensing vapours that can be suspended in the air for extended periods of time.

2. Outdoor Built Environments


Beginning with the invention of the automobile, and accelerating after World War II, environments from neighbourhoods to regions worldwide have been designed or adapted to allow and promote automobile and other vehicle use. These decisions and designs have had far-reaching consequences for communities and societies:

  • Increased road construction and maintenance
  • Promoted neighbourhood sprawl
  • Increased traffic noise, pollution and congestion
  • Increased reliance on petroleum
  • Reduced opportunities for walking and other active transportation

These consequences all have implications for our health. Designing or altering transportation systems to focus on clean community transit and walkability could have far-reaching public health benefits.

Road Construction and Maintenance

More vehicle use generally means more paved roads and parking lots. Building and maintaining roads release toxic fumes and involve polluting and noisy heavy equipment. Rain runoff from roads and parking lots impacts water quality and can increase levels of heavy metals in water.

Asphalt and sealants also impact air quality: a 2010 investigation found that residences adjacent to parking lots with coal-tar-based seal coat have concentrations of PAHs in house dust 25 times higher than residences adjacent to unsealed pavement or asphalt-sealed pavement, and living adjacent to coal-tar-sealed pavement can increase excess lifetime cancer risk as much as 38 times.

In conclusion, the ball is in our court. We are the architects, planners, surveyors and engineers. Let’s go in the boardroom and ethically consider the repercussions of our building, road and or bridge, humanity and health.

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