Designing Healthier Buildings
By Donald DeMars
It is an interesting and troubling fact, that the majority of the
buildings that are designed and built to enhance our health, may
very well be obstacles to the health of many consumers that are
led to our industry for better health and a higher quality of life.

The way in which architects, engineers, and designers have
historically approached the process of formulating their end
product, has normally followed what is known as "standard
practice." These means and methods generally follow very
specific educational principals, professional practices and code
requirements, but are also tempered by the designer's concern
for his own liability, and the amount of time he has projected to
get the job done, which translates into an allowance for profit.
Such "cost and benefit," or economic considerations also involve
the owner's concerns for the unit of cost of various components in
the project, which usually and incorrectly leads away from
choosing a more expensive "best option" for materials, systems,
equipment and other items. It is a fact known by the best
developers in the world, that the best choice of quality always
costs more, but the increased cost and impact can be amortized
over the life of the project. On the other hand, the operating
benefits are felt on an everyday operating basis.

The pictures portrayed in this article are from the Wilton P.
Hebert Health and Fitness Center in Beaumont, Texas, USA, a
project our firm was commissioned to design in 1995. It
incorporates the best practice design methodologies that deal
with conservation, indoor air pollution and other "sick building"
issues that have burdened the health and fitness industry for
decades. This project proves the statement that healthy buildings
can also be profitable. It reached its "break-even" point within six
months of opening.

Lack of Awareness
It is a natural outgrowth of an architect's learning and experience
level that leads most all professionals to fail in achieving optimal
design solutions; this is mainly because they continue to
duplicate prior mistakes. If they are unaware of a potential
problem with a design application, or if a prior client has never
brought such a problem back to them, they will continue to use
"tried and true" solutions. They continue to duplicate those
elements which did not come back to haunt them from an earlier

It has also become abundantly clear that the "perceived benefits"
of less expensive solutions may be temporarily beneficial and
economical, but in the long run, are shortsighted, wasteful, and
extremely detrimental to our businesses, our environments, and
our health.

Excellence In Design is Excellence By Design
For over twenty years, since 1975, as a designer focused solely
on the athletic, fitness/wellness and leisure-recreational industry, I
have been aware of the specialized environmental problems
associated with the buildings designed in this industry. It started
in 1973, when I was commissioned to design my first health club
building. Most of them exhibited dank odors, poor lighting, and
dirty and unsophisticated interiors. The air was so heavy, and the
orders so reminiscent of mildew, that when I left them, I felt as if I
needed to go home and take a shower! And I had only taken a
tour! This experience was so repulsive, it led me into building a
methodology of design that has been committed to investigation,
research and development to find better solutions, to innovate,
and to produce not only more economically viable environments,
but ones that are clean, inviting, and "environmentally healthy" for
not only people, but for the local, national and global environment.

What Is the Problem?
We are all increasingly aware of the growing environmental
issues facing the world. All of the nations of the world, both in
industrialized, developing, and non-developing areas, impact
and are impacted by the way in which human beings interact with
their environment. On a global basis, our actions are impacting
habitat destruction, global warming and stratospheric ozone
depletion. We are also effecting soil erosion, the depletion of
fresh water resources, acid deposition, urban air quality (smog),
surface water pollution, soil and ground water pollution, and the
depletion of our mineral resources.

The trend toward "environmental protection" is gaining
momentum. But, at this stage, the principal point where most
designers, owners, and consumers are effected, comes down to
"partial recycling efforts" and some energy conservation. The
largest efforts on our part to implement any methodical plan to
make better environments have been reactionary responses to
regulatory policing and code enforcement. In the real world, the
developer and the architect get away with whatever they can,
either because they do not understand the inevitable
consequences of uniformed choices, or they make such choices
for "some perceived economic or scheduling benefits."
Trade-offs will be made between optimizing building
performance for various objectives. Such building designs as a
environmental burden are generally consistent throughout the

Environmental objectives are diverse, complex, interconnected,
and not infrequently, conflicting. Local, regional, and global
objectives may conflict, such as natural resources conservation
opinions. Therefore, without a clear focus on what goes into the
design and construction of our health and fitness buildings and
what the impact of our choices are, we are all relegated to
pursuing healthy objectives, within environments that are not
helping the cause.

Although there are numerous issues associated with
environmental design concerns and their impact, it is commonly
accepted by the Environmental Protection Agency and an
international body of reliable sources, that there are numerous
health effects of "sick buildings." These include:

Infectious Disease (flu, colds, pneumonia, legionnaire's
decease, pontiac fever).

Cancer and other genetic toxicities.

Asthma and allergy.

CNS, skin, gastro-intestinal, respiratory, circulatory,
muscle-skeletal and other systemic effects.

Sick Building Syndrome where possible synergistic or
multi-factorial issues such as chemicals, microbes, acoustic,
thermal, illumination, and other factors interact.

Although lighting, color, water quality and other issues are all
important in producing properly designed buildings that are
"consumer healthy," the greatest concern for the largest number
of consumers is indoor air pollution.

Indoor Air Quality
The key to producing crisp and clean air quality is to identify the
source of the pollution, then eliminate it, reduce it, or isolate it.
The pollution source may come from indoors, the building
materials themselves, the occupants and their activities (the
most important source of contamination in the health club
industry), building equipment (such as the ozone produced from
copiers and laser printers), appliances, consumer products
(furnishings and finishes), and maintenance and cleaning.

The basic principal of building ventilation is based upon the
introduction of (assumed) fresh air, and moving it through the
building by way of a balanced system of pressurization, directing
the air from high points of pressurization to low points, and then
relying on thermal forces to transport the low pressurized,
unwanted air upwards to create a strata of polluted air just below
the ceiling. There it is collected and removed for exhaust, or
cleaning and recirculation. The air exchange rate is determined
by the number of consumers in the space, and the activity they
are pursuing. For example, thirty people in an advanced
aerobics class of one hour can lose up to five gallons of sweat
during the activity. If the room does not provide at least 16 air
changes per hour during this time, the walls and windows will
sweat as well, and the quality of air and pollutants escalate.
Remember that sweat is warm, and carries the bodies waste; a
perfect breeding medium for unwanted micro-organisms.

Informed system design and especially, balance, is essential in
proper ventilation for health and fitness centers; as this includes
not only proper air exchange rates, but pressure differences that
result in the right air flow within and between spaces for better air

Major Indoor Air Pollutants and Their Effects

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCS): (Common industrial
solvents, adhesives, and other modern chemical products). For
example, using particleboard sheet material is cabinetry and
other casework can produce significant emissions of
formaldehyde and other volatile organic chemicals in the air.
Such composite wood products can be pollutants for years after
they are installed because of their thickness and pollutant
construction. It is an interesting fact that many locker systems
presently serving the fitness industry, exclusively use
particleboard construction.

Microbial Contaminants: (fungi, bacteria, viruses). Most
ventilation systems use the area above suspended ceilings as a
return air plenum for unwanted air. This is the worst thing you can
do. These areas, as is the case with the insides of improperly
chosen ducts, become "breeding grounds" for such

Non-Viable Particles: (dust mite droppings, mold spores, plant
pollen, animal dander).

Inorganic Chemicals: (nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide,
carbon dioxide, ozone).

Semi-SVOC's and mocrobial contaminants seem to get
most of the attention, it is the synergistic effects of all of
these pollutants that are the biggest challenge.

Design Solutions: What We Can Do
It is becoming abundantly clear that the environmentally preferred
solution is also better economically. Designers, architects, and
owners must keep a focus on the following options:

Energy Conservation: Use better insulation; efficient lighting
and mechanical systems; potential solar energy utilization for
passive space heating and cooling, water heating; photo voltaic
electricity generation; geo-thermal heating and cooling.

The Best Water Filtration and Conservation: Low
consumption fixtures and higher quality water systems.

Incorporate Recycled Material, or Using Materials With
Large Fraction Recycling Content.

Have Low Emitting Material Selection and Ventilating for
Improved Air Quality.

Utilized Reduced Building Construction Waste and
Resourcing Waste Materials.

Follow Less Environmentally Destructive Site
(such as run-off control, preservation of water
courses, natural vegetation and habitats).

Attempt On-Site Waste-Water Treatment.

Target Reduced or Zero Use of Ozone-Depleting
Compounds in Refrigeration and Fire-Depression Systems.

Do Life Cycle Assessments of Materials or Building
Systems, and a Formal Environmental Impact Assessment
of the Entire Project.

Promote and Implement Recycling Provisions (in building
design) for Occupants.

Operational Suggestions That Effect Environmental

Allow adequate time between the buildings schedule completion
and occupancy to allow new building materials to "off-gas" and
settle. In addition, have the HVAC system properly balanced. Put
testing, adjusting and balancing in your construction contract
before final acceptance of the building.

During the building's ongoing operation, on a daily basis,
"operationally purge" during off-hours, as this will reduce thermal
build-up and remove polluted air that has built up during use.

Maintenance and Housekeeping: Neglected or deferred
maintenance is often the cause of polluted air and other
contaminants. Indoor vacuum systems are very effective. All
components in the building must have access for inspection,
repair, and cleaning of surfaces, especially accumulated dust.
Vertical fabric or wood surfaces (wall coverings, soft woods,
etc.), should be vacuumed, since small inhalable particles
deposit themselves as easily on vertical as on horizontal
surfaces. The HVAC system, its filters, ducts, coils, drain pans,
plenums, and valve controllers, must be consistently cleaned and

Use HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filters in your
ventilation systems. New advances in filter technology allow for
more effective filtration of inhalable size particles without
concomitant pressure changes.

Follow proven methods in carpet cleaning. More is not better!
Call telephone number (360) 693-5675, in the USA, for a copy of
the IICRC 5001, 1998 Carpet Cleaning Standards Booklet. This
is the standard reference guide for professional, on-location
cleaning of installed textile floor covering materials.

Remodeling Protections: During remodeling activities,
construction dust, fumes and vapors must be contained and
isolated from contaminating surfaces, or the air in occupied

It is certainly possible to create health and fitness buildings that
are ecologically responsible environmentally in harmony,
operationally effective, healthier, exciting and fun. To achieve
such results requires that the entire development team adopt a
decision making process committed to systematic analysis,
discerning, questioning and proof sourcing to achieve the best
results. The best results equal design excellence, a spiritual
balance that leads us to better health and a higher quality of life.
For more information about
Donald DeMars International, Inc.,
email us at
All contents contained herein,
Copyright ©2003 by Donald DeMars International, Inc.