Healthy Buildings I BSS200 (Building Construction and Health)

Course CodeBSS200
Fee CodeS2
Duration (approx)100 hours
QualificationStatement of Attainment

Learn to assess buildings for health risks

Some construction materials have no known impact on a person’s health, but others can have a very serious impact. One of the best examples of undesirable building material would be Asbestos. Though used widely in the mid 20th century, it is now widely recognised that asbestos can cause cancer. In 1979, James Hardie Industries made a conscious decision to cease the company’s heavy reliance on asbestos based products. The wide use of asbestos by other companies in the USA actually led to the downfall of those companies.

Research was undertaken around this time to develop asbestos free fibro cement, and new improved fibro cement was released onto the market by James Hardie in 1981. Despite the actions of Hardie such a long time ago, the legacy of asbestos has still plagued them with legal compensation challenges well into the 21st century.

Apart from this legal and commercial side to the asbestos story, there is also a tragic personal side. People exposed to asbestos decades ago continue to develop asbestos-related illnesses and all too often not only does their quality of life diminish, but lives are lost.

  • What building materials are toxic?
  • How to design a safer building?
  • Where do you want to work and live?
  • Is your building good for you, your family or work mates?

Lesson Structure

There are 10 lessons in this course:

  1. Introduction To Building Biology
  2. Building Materials
  3. Construction
  4. Services
  5. Temperature: Heating & Cooling
  6. The Internal Environment: Ventilation
  7. Light
  8. Acoustics
  9. Ergonomic Considerations
  10. Psychological Considerations


  • Explain the concept of healthy buildings including its relevance to human health.
  • Select building materials which are safe to human health.
  • Evaluate the health impact of different building techniques, including construction and design.
  • Explain how the way in which services are installed, can impact upon the health of people using a building.
  • Explain how building design can impact upon the quality of the physical environment inside.
  • Explain ergonomic considerations in building design.
  • Explain psychological considerations in building design.

What You Will Do

  • Explain the concept of building biology, in accordance with the international building biology institute.
  • Explain the history of building biology institutes, in Germany, America, and New Zealand; with relevance to Australia.
  • Explain the current status of bio-harmonic architectural practices in Australia.
  • Assess in a summary for each, problems with different dangerous building materials including:
    • Asbestos
    • Plastics
    • Insulation materials
    • Treated pine.
  • Compare characteristics of different commonly used building materials, including:
    • Rate of deterioration
    • Thermal qualities
    • Chemical properties
    • Acoustic qualities
    • Dust collection/repellence
    • Light reflection.
  • Develop a checklist, for evaluating the health impact of different building materials.
  • Evaluate the impact of different building materials on health, in a building you inspect.
  • Develop a checklist of building design factors, to assess the affect of design on human health.
  • Develop a checklist of building construction factors (other than materials) which may impact upon human health.
  • Explain how design can impact upon different aspects of the internal environment, including:
    • Thermal comfort
    • Light intensity
    • Humidity
    • Condensation
    • Acoustics
    • Control of pests
    • Noise insulation.
  • Compare the impact of building techniques, including construction and design, upon human health, in two different specific buildings.
  • Explain the impact of electric fields on human health in a building.
  • Explain how electrical fields can be minimised by the way in which electric wires are laid in a specific house plan you analyse.
  • Compare differences upon the impact on health from different power supplies including: Mains power
    • Self generated systems
    • Different voltages.
  • Compare the potential impact on health, of different waste disposal systems including:
    • Chemical treatments
    • Reed beds
    • Settling ponds
    • Combustion systems
    • Land fill.
  • Explain potential impact of different water supply systems on human health, including:
    • Mains water
    • Ground water
    • Different types of rain water tanks.
  • Explain possible impacts of gas supply systems on human health including:
    • Mains gas
    • Bottle gas
    • Self generated bio gas.
  • Compare the impact of different types of artificial light sources on human health, including:
    • Electric light
    • Combustion systems.
  • Compare the impact of different types of heating systems on human health.
  • List ways temperature can be controlled inside a building by design.
  • Explain health impacts of air conditioning in a building studied by the learner.
  • List ways acoustics can be controlled, by building design.
  • List ways light can be controlled, through building design.
  • List ways ventilation can be controlled, by building design.
  • Explain solar energy applications in a specified building.
  • Evaluate the impact of the design of a building you visit, on the interior environment.
  • Redesign a building from a specified building plan, to improve the quality of the physical environment inside.
  • Evaluate the heights of three different kitchen benches for ergonomic suitability to the people who are primary users of those benches.
  • Explain the importance of clear and easy access into and through the building for all users, including the disabled.
  • Explain health aspects of the relationship between the human body and the interior of a specific building.
  • Explain the affect that four different colours may have on human health.
  • Explain the affect of space perceptions may have on human health, in a visited interior workplace.
  • Evaluate the psychological impact of the interior environment in two distinctly different offices, upon the people who work in each of those offices.

What is Building Biology?

Building biology, bio-house design, biological architecture and ecological building all refer to the construction of a building along lines of more natural, renewable resources and health of the occupants. In other words buildings become more people-friendly. It aims to establish a balance between technology, culture and biology.

"Building Biology deals with the study of living organisms in and around the building environment which have direct or indirect effect on the health of the building fabric, its materials, structures, environments and occupants." Jagjit Singh (1993)

To a human-being the walls of a building can be regarded as a third skin (the first is our own skin, the second is our clothing). Most buildings do not breathe like our natural skin and unfortunately in the USA this has been shown to lead to a build-up in radioactive radon gas and reduce the benefits of passive solar energy in spring and autumn. If a building is to be sealed (which most are) then it needs to be well ventilated to remove unhealthy pollutants.

Many buildings contain hazardous materials or substances without the owner's knowledge. Freshly constructed cement homes have high levels of moisture, homes built in the 1960's contain asbestos cement which is known to be carcinogenic and old piping systems are frequently painted with lead paints. In addition to the household disinfectants, fly sprays, paints, varnishes, and other fumes released from a large range of furnishings and commodities are of no benefit to the occupant's health.

Environmental costs are considered from the very first stage of planning. If products need to be transported a good distance, then they are usually rejected due to pollution, energy and costs for transportation. Even non-renewable resources are avoided.

Building Diseases

  • Chemical - As mentioned above due to their fumes.
  • Electrical - The human body is sensitive to electrical frequencies. Wiring should be minimalised, not placed closer than 1 metre to the sleeping bed, use of T.V. and other appliances should be reduced. Even static electricity from synthetic floor coverings can cause problems.
  • Cage - This occurs when concrete and steel buildings screen out natural radiations which help regulate life systems.
  • Location - This covers geobiology which is concerned with natural radiation that originate within the earth. It is a new science based on traditional principles.

Building Biology also deals with the environment in general and the climate of living. The climate of living can be determined by things such as: 

  • installations and furnishings
  • noise and acoustics
  • lighting and colours
  • radiation, avoiding disturbed areas
  • radioactivity
  • space, form and proportion
  • physiology and psychology of living and working
  • city planning with biological, ecological and sociological aspects.

Bio-houses and bio-settlements have been sprouting up throughout Europe over the years. They frequently contain solar temperature-control systems or insulated winter gardens for heating. Sites are surveyed with divining rods to ensure the area is free of ground water veins and other electromagnetic disturbances.

Biotechture utilizes vegetation to reverse the harsh processes caused by buildings. Plants usually intercept between 70% and 90% of incoming solar radiation. Deciduous trees can provide a 5 degree C reduction in heat in summer but allows the sun through in winter thereby reducing energy loss by up to 30%.

Many plants have characteristics that can be used for the benefit of construction. Leaves defoliate and remove air pollution, foliage that closes and opens can act like a ventilator, etc. It is advisable to use plant as much as possible to complement the house not only aesthetically but also functionally.


"Bau Biologie" is a German word, meaning building biology. This concept was developed in Germany and has spread from there throughout Europe to the USA and other parts of the world.

A course to train building biologists was written by Professor Doctor Anton Schneider in Germany; as head of the German "Insitut fuer Baubiologie und Oekologie in Neubeuern" Building Biology Institutes have now also been established in various other countries including:

  • In the United States (Florida):"International Institute for Bau Biologie & Ecology"
  • In New Zealand: "Building Biologie and Ecology Institute of New Zealand".

These institutes conduct courses and seminars training professionals to work as consultants, designers and inspectors in the building industry.

Opportunities to work in this industry are limited, but expanding. Legislation (particularly in parts of Europe), is leading to increasing significance being given to health issues in the way buildings are constructed.

Study of building biology factors is being included increasingly into relevant courses (e.g. Architecture) in many parts of the developed world.

Different terminology is used by different professionals, from bio-harmonic architecture or healthy buildings to sick building syndrome and building biology. These terms all refer to similar things: the impact of a building on the health of people using it.

A Summary of Environmental Law in Britain

  • Government policy is to frame laws that will prevent, rather than cure, pollution.
  • The polluter is to pay for the pollution generated.
  • Environmental protection laws to be increased by the EC unless the controversial subsidiarity principle, referring to in the Treaty of Maastricht, is applied.
  • Environmental protection will become an ever-more significant factor in town and country planning.
  • New contaminated land registers under the EPA could have a significant impact on the location of commercial developments and on the availability of development finance, if the government proceeds with its proposal.
  • Building regulations whilst not primarily concerned with environmental protection will give greater consideration to issues such as energy efficiency and the use of environmental friendly building materials.
  • Construction operations must be carried out in such a manner so as to cause no unavoidable pollution of the air, land or water.
  • Waste materials must be disposed of in accordance with the new duty of care imposed by the EPA, and only by registered contractors.
  • The government plans a new, comprehensive Environmental Agency for England and Wales, but this is unlikely to be in place until 1994.
    From: S. Johnson and T. E. Sutherland (1993) "Greener Buildings: Environmental impact of property".


Biology and Health of Buidings

A building is similar to a living organism. It can provide ecological niches and micro-climates for a wide range of organisms, which should be understood as a whole entity. Interrelationships exist between the building, the living organisms and the environment, many of which are very complex. Factors that cause building decay or failure are temperature, water, humidity and lack of ventilation.

Biological Damage

Dry Rot

  • Timber decay caused by the fungus Serpula lacrymans attacks mostly softwoods causing extensive damage in Britain.
  • The fungus causes discolouration and cracking.

Wet Rot

  • The fungi group of Basidiomycetes will cause wet rot. These include Coniophora puteana, Phellinus contiguus, Donkioporia expansa, Pleurotus ostreatus, Asterostroma spp., Paxillus panuoides and "Poria" fungi.
  • Wet rot is sometimes called white rot.
  • The fungus causes shrinkage, cracking and discolouration.

Soft Rot

  • More common in timbers in contact with the ground, this rot is caused by Chaetomium globosum.
  • Hardwoods are more susceptible to this form of rot.
  • Thin surface cracking and shallow decay of the wood are typical symptoms.


  • Moulds have the ability to survive on masonry, brickwork, concrete, rendering, tiles and paving, plaster, wood, wallpaper and paint. They occur only on the surface as a miscoloured growth, usually green, grey or black.
  • Mould species include: Cladosporium spp., Penicillium spp., Aspergillus spp., Trichoderma viride and Alternaria spp.
  • Moulds reduce the strength of the wood.

Slime Moulds

  • Slime moulds are occasionally found growing on masonry, brickwork, rendering, tiles, paving and organic surfaces such as damp wood.
  • Slime moulds belong to the division of Myxomycota.

Plaster Fungi

  • Occasionally found in situations where damp brickwork or plaster occurs.

Stain Fungi

  • Most stain fungi belong to the class Hyphomycetes.
  • Damage will occur if timber is sap moist and will only reduce the aesthetics of the timber.


  • Damage can occur to timber and stone in a building environment.
  • They eventually cause a slow and progressive loss of timber strength and an increase in the permeability of the wood which adds to the chance of seasonal rain wetting, thus increasing the risk of decay.

Lichens, Mosses and Algae

  • All three cause a chemical dissimilatory type of biodeterioration.
  • Damage is restricted to surface discolouration of wood, concrete, brick, asbestos-cement and asphaltic materials.

Environmental Considerations in a Building

A building should provide a pleasant, efficient and healthy environment for its occupants. Its primary purpose should be to protect from adverse conditions found outside; but in doing so, not loose the beneficial conditions found outside. If a building is properly planned and built well, these aims can be achieved. In most situations, buildings should satisfy the following:

  • Buffer the impact of adverse external conditions (e.g. extremes of temperature, wind, moisture).
  • Make use of natural light during the day (with windows, skylights, reflective interior surfaces, etc).
  • Provide appropriate artificial light (without glare, with appropriate intensity and wavelengths, etc).
  • Maintain good air quality inside (e.g. through ventilation, indoor plants).
  • Minimise pollutants/toxins (e.g. fumes, dust).
  • Control acoustics (stop unwanted noise; avoid interference/distortion of desirable noise, etc)
  • Provide unimpeded movement and access to all areas.
  • Provide rapid response to environmental controls (e.g. ability to raise or lower temperature quickly, ventilate rapidly if necessary).


Interiors that are clean are healthier to live in. Building and interior design should be geared towards ensuring interiors are able to be kept clean without any great difficulty.
Guidelines for a Clean Building
  • Smooth, even surfaces are easier to keep clean
  • Areas need to be well lit if dust, grime etc is to be noticed
  • Areas need to be accessible to be kept clean
  • Cracks, high shelves, light fittings etc. can easily collect dust and go unnoticed
  • Minimise fabrics which will collect dust/ breed pests (eg. mites, etc)
  • Avoid using cleaners that contain toxins or leave undesirable residues.


  • Electric appliances will cause radiation which can be a health risk.
  • By selecting low radiation appliances and placing them in appropriate places, this risk can be minimised.
  • Appliances made from plastics can give off toxic fumes at a faster rate if they heat up.

Cleaning Materials

There are toxic components in many common household cleaners. Ammonia and chlorine based cleaners are common, but these can also be detrimental to health if used repeatedly over a long period of time. The following cleaning alternatives are considered safer than using synthetic chemical cleaners:



Laminated surfaces

Use vinegar & sodium bicarbonate on different sponges

Stainless steel

Use vinegar & sodium bicarbonate on different sponges


Cover with sodium bicarbonate paste, then wipe off

Sprinkle stains with salt (in cool oven) then wipe off

Burnt saucepans

Boil water with cream of tartar for 10 minutes


Rub surfaces with sodium bicarbonate and a damp cloth. Deodorise by leaving vanilla essence (open) inside.

Stained crockery

Rub with salt or sodium bicarbonate and a damp cloth

Washing dishes

Soap if using soft water. If using hard water, use soap and washing soda.

Cleaning Floors

Half a cup of vinegar in a bucket of warm water, then mop or scrub.

Aluminium in salty water acts as a magnet, drawing tarnish from metal in the kitchen or jewellery. In the kitchen sink you could add a sheet of aluminium foil with a few handfuls of salt, and immerse metal items in for a quick clean. A teaspoon of baking soda will add in the cleaning process.  Lemon juice and salt work well on brass, silver, bronze, copper and steel.

Household Chemicals and Hazards
Tetrachloroethylene can enter the home on clothes that come fresh form the dry cleaners. Benzene can enter the home on clothes form self-serve petrol stations. Elevated levels of chloroform are present in every time you take a shower, if the water is chlorinated. Oven fumes, nail polish, paint thinner, and especially cigarette smoke add toxic fumes to which you may be exposed.    Plants may be an effective method in removing some of the most dangerous toxic contaminants. In one experiment it was proven that the spider plant (Chlorophytum elatum) was capable of reducing the concentration of formaldehyde by 85% within a 24 hour period.
As such, 2 or 3 spider plants per average household room should be sufficient to reduce offensive chemicals.

Ozone generators have been used by many people to reduce the chemical out gassing of new cars and other such products. These generators destroy odours caused by chemicals, tobacco, animals and fires, aerosols; they kill fungus, moulds, spores and mildew, and detoxify buildings. Unfortunately, it is toxic to humans and animals, is unstable, ages fabrics, plastics and rubber, and is believed by some to affect the ozone layer.  

The following list on formaldehyde was compiled by Lovelace Biomedical & Environmental Research Institute, 5400 Gibson Boulevard, S.E., Albuquerque, NM 87105. It is a ranking of off-gassing form formaldehyde-containing products. The product and the amount of formaldehyde release per m2 surface area per day.

Plywood Panelling


Particle Board


Particle Board


Particle Board


Particle Board


Wood panelling


Paper cups and plates                       


Ladies' dresses                     


Men's shirts                


Fibreglass ceiling panel


Fibreglass insulation  


Rigid round air duct                


100% cotton fabric drapery    


Paper Cups and plates


Paper cups and plates


Rigid round fibreglass duct


Girl’s dresses – polyester/cotton


100% cotton drapery fabric


Latex-backed carpet


3.5% inch fibreglass


Foam-backed carpet


Plywood exterior


77% rayon/23% cotton drapery


Children’s clothes – 65% polyester/35%cotton


Bland fabric


Nylon upholstery fabric




Foam-backed carpet


Cotton upholstery fabric

ND (not detectable)

Research in Oregon (USA) has shown that housewives aged between 16 and 64 are twice as likely to die from cancer due to domestic exposure to carcinogenic materials found in cleaning materials such as petroleum distillates, benzene, naphtha, chlorinated hydrocarbons and ammonia.

In a comparison between indoor and outdoor air, breath and drinking water in North Carolina (USA) it was shown that at least 11 chemicals were found to be 2 to 5 times higher indoors. Some households had exposure to chemicals 70 times the outdoor rates.

The worst household dangers identified so far include smoking, living with a smoker, using air fresheners, mothballs, aerosol sprays and storing paints and solvents.

Ideas to reduce Hazards

  • Kitchen microwaves - long term exposure to low-level microwave radiation affects the central nervous system, causing insomnia, decreased sexual potency, dizziness and birth defects. If microwaves must be used, do not stand in front of it when cooking. Eastern European nations believe that the "safe exposure levels" set by western nations is far too dangerous and would prefer the rate reduced from 10 milliwatts to 10 microwatts per cubic centimetre.
  • Gas ovens and stoves - the toxic fumes released by poorly ventilated appliances is sufficient to make the air inside the house worse than that of Los Angeles' smoggy skies. When using gas, ensure exhaust fans are on and windows are open.
  • Lead - lead is a well known hazardous ingredient used in paints and soldering in tin cans. Fruit juices such as orange or any acidic product, can react with the original metal container if kept in the refrigerator. Closed glass bottles are best.
  • Synthetic carpets - spray on an anti-static fluid (one part fabric softener to five parts water) each month to reduce the positive ions generated by walking across it. Positive ions make you sleepy and rob you of oxygen. Replace carpet with natural thread throw rugs, non-porous ceramic tiles or sealed hardwood floors.  
  • Freshly dry-cleaned clothes will release trichloroethylene (TCE), which are known to cause headaches. Remove newly dry-cleaned clothes out of the bedroom for safety reasons, and a good night sleep. Consider airing the clothes on the porch/veranda until smell has gone.
  • Reduce use of "non-iron", "permanent-press", or "crease-resistant" clothing and materials. It is believed that formaldehyde is the ingredient that makes material crease-proof, and that it is used in the cotton/polyester blends. Formaldehyde is suspected of being carcinogenic, teratogenic (causing birth defects) and mutagenic (causing genetic changes). It has also been implicated with infant death syndrome.
  • Electric blankets - get rid of them! The EMR so close to your body is dangerous.
  • Hairsprays - many contain methylene chloride which has been found to be carcinogenic to animals and is suspected to be dangerous to humans. The same substance is often found in decaffeinated coffee, and is used in spray paints and insect sprays.
  • Talcum powder - women using talcum powder on their genitals and sanitary napkins were three times as likely to develop ovarian cancer as women who didn't use the powder.
  • Toothpaste - some varieties contain formaldehyde.
  • Face creams - some creams use petroleum products. Avoid these: paraffin, propylene glycol, isopropyl myristate, sodium lauryl sulphate, TEA and DEA.
  • Laundry chemicals - avoid: naphthalene, phenol, ammonia, EDTA and dyes

Why Study this Course?

Building construction and operations can impose various health risks. This course will provide you with the skills to evaluate the impact of building construction characteristics upon human health and to recommend innovations in building design to minimise these risks.


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