Green cure is urged for `sick-building' epidemic

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At least 30 per cent of the world's new office buildings are "sick", causing widespread illness and absenteeism and costing hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity, according to the influential Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

The spread of the International style in architecture, rendering office and apartment blocks ``virtually identical" whether they are in Philadelphia, Budapest or Singapore, is creating building-related pollution on a global scale, says the institute in a new report, A Building Revolution*.

It says the construction boom accompanying economic growth in countries such as China, India, South Korea and Argentina is devastating the world's landscapes because of its heavy use of energy and resources.

Le Corbusier, the pioneer of Modernism, proposed "one single building for all nations and climates". In fact, says the institute, architects should return to the "organic beauty" and ecological economy of traditional local building methods such as earth, wood and stone.

Because of its use of expensive air-conditioning and of materials such as steel and concrete, which consume large amounts of energy to manufacture and transport, the modern office-block has become one of the world's biggest polluters.

Forty per cent of the annual global consumption of materials and energy goes into buildings, which rank alongside the private car as a source of environmental damage.

According to the report, their contribution to environmental destruction makes modern buildings "more primitive than traditional structures".

Japan's building boom of the 1980s was fuelled by its "mining" of the timber resources of its Pacific Rim neighbours.

Building a typical 160-square-metre American home generates seven tons of building refuse. Both the United States and Europe generate as much demolition waste as household rubbish.

Two billion people now live and work in "resource-intensive" buildings, spending 90 per cent of their time indoors. In half a century, this figure will rise to 8 billion, making already severe environmental problems "much worse".

The baleful influence of Modernism and architectural homogenisation also means that "the settled landscape worldwide is coming to consist of little more than monotonous business and residential neighbourhoods scored with garish commercial strips".

Sick-building syndrome, where "sealed" buildings recycle stale air and trap indoor pollutants, affects 30 per cent of new buildings.

The syndrome causes headaches and nausea, assists the spread of colds and influenza and may increase the risk of cancer and immune-system disorders because of toxic gases from paint and furnishings.

The report says traditional materials such as wood, stone and adobe consume less energy to produce and provide a better working and living environment. However, designers should adapt vernacular building techniques rather than adopt them whole-scale. Firms in the United States and Europe are already producing compressed-earth blocks for new housing. Production of the blocks requires only 0.2 per cent of the energy taken by brick manufacture.

Among the principles builders should adopt are natural ventilation rather than air-conditioning, the use of cheap and recycled materials, energy- efficient design and the elimination of man-made products such as PVC.

One of the world's best-known "green" buildings, the ING Bank in Amsterdam, uses only 10 per cent of the energy of its predecessor and has cut absenteeism by 15 per cent.

The naturally ventilated "ecological office" uses less mechanical heating and cooling and thus gives enough room to insert one more floor in every four. A recent survey of eight such buildings in the US identified productivity gains of 6 to 16 per cent.

In Malaysia, skyscrapers built on "bioclimatic" principles - planted with trees and angled to make best use of sun and wind - use up to 80 per cent less energy than conventional buildings. Applying these principles worldwide could halve the global energy bill, saving $200bn (£125bn).

It could also help to realise a new aesthetic language for the world's buildings, based on the fundamental principles of ecological design and "flowing from region to region into dozens of modern vernaculars''.

*A Building Revolution: How Ecology and Health Concerns are Transforming Construction, Worldwatch Paper 124.

Leading article, page 16

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