Kathryn Deveau (from left), Harvard University Housing Property Manager, talks with area manager Pamela Cornell (center) and Matheus Fernandes, doctoral student in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. They are sitting on furniture free of chemical flame retardants, which is being added to Peabody Terrace’s furnished apartments as part of a renovation project.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Looking indoors to health

5 min read

Renovations to University housing interiors focus on long-term health of students and staff

Construction planners and project managers do not often think of themselves as health care workers, but that is exactly the charge Joe Allen, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, delivered last week to the University Construction Management Council.

Ten years ago, the network of people responsible for the design and construction of Harvard’s buildings came together to share best practices and envision improvements for how projects can be more efficiently managed from concept to move-in.

That group was ultimately named the University Construction Management Council (UCMC), which comprises senior administrators involved in planning and executing capital projects. The UCMC holds a community meeting every spring, focused on a topic of shared interest and attended by more than 100 planning and project managers across the University’s Schools and departments. This year’s gathering celebrated the UCMC’s 10th anniversary and looked forward to the future by educating participants about how health and well-being is linked to the built environment.

“Commitment, energy, and focus are what it takes to implement a capital project.” said Maureen McDonough, co-chair of the UCMC and senior director of administrative strategies at Harvard Planning and Project Management. “The question we’re asking today is how the facilities we deliver can benefit the health and well-being of users who occupy the buildings.”

Through the UCMC’s work, Harvard has developed a rigorous process to track and influence how it spends construction dollars. The effort has also increased the focus on renewal of the University’s historic structures, including the renewal of Harvard’s undergraduate Houses. To underscore to point, event organizers hosted the UCMC’s community meeting at Dunster House, the first undergraduate House to be fully renovated under the renewal program.

Allen, who directs the Healthy Buildings Program at the Chan School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, began his keynote speech by stressing the impact that project managers and facilities teams have on health due to what he called the “90 percents.” People spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and 90 percent of the operating costs of a building are related to the health, salaries and benefits of the occupants.

Of the more than 80,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States, less than 15 percent have health data available. Many building products and materials used in interior building spaces contain harmful chemicals linked to adverse health impacts on humans. “How can we organize this information to inform practice?” Allen asked.

The solution he offered is focusing on transparency related to building materials and products, and excluding unnecessary chemicals of concern in the built environment. Dozens of Harvard faculty have published research showing that exposure to harmful chemicals has a clear health impact on people and the environment.

For example, recent research from Elsie Sunderland at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Philippe Grandjean at the Chan School has focused on exposure to fluorinated chemicals that reduce production of antibodies after vaccination in children. Sunderland said that certain types of fluorinated chemicals deliver “the most dramatic immune suppression ever observed for an environmental toxin.”

Studies by Allen and his colleagues, including John Spengler, Grandjean, and Russ Hauser, have also brought attention to the health effects of flame retardants and other toxic chemicals. A study released by the Chan School in May, led by Allen, found that women with elevated levels of common flame-retardant chemicals in their blood may be at a higher risk for thyroid disease, and that the risk may be significantly higher among postmenopausal women.

“The good news is that science shows when we act we improve health, because we see an immediate reduction in exposure and therefore risk,” Allen said. “These issues are not solvable by health scientists alone. We need the combined effort of people in facilities, project managers, environmental health and safety officers, policy and legal experts, designers, and architects, and at Harvard, we have all of those people here working together.”

Through its University-wide Sustainability Plan, Harvard is already taking action to address chemicals of concern. The Office for Sustainability is collaborating with faculty and researchers, including Allen, to identify and assess chemical exposures in interior spaces on campus. Spurred by a change in fire-safety codes, the University in November 2015 became the first higher education institution in the United States to sign a pledge stating a preference for chemical flame retardant-free furniture.

A Harvard University Housing project to renovate graduate student apartments is the first project of its size to implement this new pledge, adding chemical flame retardant-free furniture to 80 furnished units and chemical flame retardant-free window treatments to 489 units.

“Well-being is an important part of building a strong, productive and resilient community,” said Executive Vice President Katie Lapp, addressing the crowd. “A sustainable approach to construction projects across campus can enhance the well-being of our built environment, and the well-being of the people who will inhabit the buildings.”