From Grey to Green: Creating Healthy Buildings
by Balwant Saini, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, University of Queensland, Australia

There is increasing evidence that the destruction of the natural environment, the increase in industrialisation and urbanisation and the corresponding increase in pollution levels have begun to affect our health. When we deny ourselves the essential sources of life-force energy, we decrease vitality and effectively weaken our immune systems which , in turn, leads to reduction in our ability to withstand the effects of pollution and infectious viruses and parasites. With all these forces operating against us, it is important that we give the utmost priority to the task of restoring the balance between development and the natural world and preserving our environment.

In this paper, based on ancient wisdom supported by scientific research, I discuss what is wrong with buildings that alienate us from nature and what can we do to make them healthier.

From Grey To Green
Creating Healthy Buildings

Our health and wellbeing is essentially affected by three factors: our diet and nutrition, the state of our mind, and finally, the quality of the environment in which we live and work. I am concerned specifically with the last of these: the quality of our built environment.

Buildings are important when we realise we spend well over 95% of our lifetime indoors. A good way to test this is to simply think back over where you have spent the last 24 hours. It is most likely to be inside the home, place of work, or a car, bus or train.

As we move into the 21st century, we take it for granted that technology has made our lives easier. Household appliances, transportation and communication are just three areas where our daily chores have become easier as a result of technological advances.

But we also know that our planet is becoming dangerously polluted. Technology has brought enormous benefits and has made our lives more comfortable in many ways but it has also brought pollution and degraded our environment.

We all know there is pollution in the air, but we canât even rely on basics like pure food and water anymore.

Water was once natural and pure. Now it is polluted, so we add chemicals such as chlorine to make it drinkable. We feel good when we are told that chlorine kills germs. What we are not told is the harm chlorine can do to us. What we are not told is that there is a co-relation between the amount of chlorine we put into our municipal water supplies and the increase in the incidence of bladder cancer and possibly heart disease. 1

There is evidence that the chlorine in the water we drink may be destroying some of the vitamins which we would otherwise get from our food. Now there is evidence that chlorine is swimming pools may be causing premature ageing of the skin, if not an increase in the photosensitivity of the skin, which in turn means greater risk of skin cancer and melanoma.

Another additive to some water supplies that is of concern is fluoride. Do you know that fluoride has been traditionally used for killing cockroaches and rats? It is an active ingredient in the widely used poison known by the numbers 10-80. There is also mounting evidence that there could be a link between fluoride intake and an increased risk of hip fracture and even bone cancer.2

It is obvious that we must stop looking to chemicals to solve these problems. It is high time we learn to take our cue from nature and see how we can deal with water purification naturally. We know that sunlight and oxygen disinfect water. We should use sunlight as a sterilising agent and develop ultraviolet light- based water treatment systems which add no harmful chemicals. 3

Our food is also polluted. We reduce its nutritional value by adding harmful preservatives. We add chemical colours and chemical flavours to compensate for refining natural foods. More and more of our food is fabricated in laboratories and factories and this trend is likely to increase in the coming decades. Soon, we will not know what natural food is like.

This degradation has started to affect our health and it could also be contributing to the many tensions that exist in our personal lives. We are becoming more and more dis-oriented. If we want to bring back some balance then we must stop turning our back on nature.

Our Buildings: A Third Skin

Ancient wisdom tells us that if we learn to live in harmony with everything and everyone with whom we share this planet, then it is possible that we may rediscover a similar harmony within ourselves. Our buildings can help us to achieve this harmony.

Like the clothes we wear, I see a building as a kind of third skin. Its main job is to make the human body comfortable and to protect it from extremes of climate. Also, like a good quality garment, a building is much more comfortable to live in if its skin, that is, its walls and roof, breathes and acts like a filter. It will not make us comfortable if a building seals off and isolates us from the natural world that nourishes our body, mind and spirit.

It has been my experience that, if we use natural materials and carefully orient a building, then we can maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages of being close to nature. Our aim should be to harness natural energies, such as those produced by the sun and the wind to heat or cool our buildings. This is a good way to create comfortable environment naturally.

Early in the 20th century we experienced what is known as the Modern Movement in Architecture. It had a great influence on how we still build our towns and cities. One of its inventions was the technology of post and beam structures which do not rely on weight bearing walls to support the roof.

Once designers realised this, they found that they could use reinforced concrete and steel frames to construct buildings of all kinds that had free and open plans. They were able to design highrise buildings which now dominate the skylines of our city centres.

Walls were no longer seen as barriers between the inside and the outside. They were seen as filters that could bring nature and the natural energies into the building in a way that was not possible before.

The Problem: Sick Buildings

Sadly, somewhere along the way, our building designers and developers seem to have lost their way. They have failed to exploit their new freedoms. It has become normal practice to turn away from nature, seal buildings, especially highrises, and leave it to the high energy consuming mechanical systems, such as airconditioning, to make people comfortable.

In reality, , this climate control is rarely comfortable and can never give the variety of experiences and physical and mental stimulation that nature provides. In fact it has now been scientifically proven that buildings designed in this way fail to provide healthy environments. A 1984 World Health Organisation report told us that something like 30 percent of new and remodelled buildings worldwide are unhealthy.4

The risks are high. People have started to complain about indoor air quality. They are asking for compensation. In the USA, hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid out in settlements for the ill health caused by what we now call Îsick building syndromeâ.

This situation has become worse since we started to use synthetic building materials, chemicals, and other products whose long term effect is only now starting to be revealed.

The problem is that most designers believe that we escape pollution as soon as we go inside the buildings. In fact, the opposite is true. We donât escape pollution by staying indoors. Indoor pollution has been found to be as much as 5 to 10 times higher than outside levels.

The best quality air we can expect inside any building is the same as outside. This is obvious when you think about it, as our buildings are literally bathed in this outside air.

We know that we can only clean the air, any air, properly if we use very expensive particulate and charcoal filter systems, normally reserved for special situations. For the majority, it is a case of Indoor air=Outdoor air+whatever we add indoors.

The Îtighterâ the building, the longer the added chemicals remain and the higher the indoor contamination. Buildings are often designed to be Îtightâ for reasons of energy conservation and other running costs. The rationale is that heating or cooling Îfreshâ outdoor air requires more costly energy than recycling indoor air, which is already about the right temperature. This is false economy because recycling air can spread disease.

We must be clear about one thing, and that is that airconditioning systems do not produce pure fresh air, they only contaminate it. People often add their own viruses and bacteria to the airconditioned air. Scientists have recorded that even a simple normal cough produces 5000 droplets of liquid while a sneeze may generate a million.

Even the use of a handkerchief does not help. Bacteria spread everywhere throughout the building where the air is circulated. Diseases, like measles in airconditioned schools and the sudden outbreak of flu among office workers, have been recorded.

Out of doors, nature uses the ultra-violet component of sunlight to kill bacteria in the air. I believe scientists are already working on developing methods to simulate this natural force in airconditioning systems.

A group at the University of Florida found that air-borne micro-organisms die when exposd to ultraviolet rays in the presence of a titanium dioxide filter. Such a system, when developed, could be highly effective in sterilising circulating air in airconditioned buildings.

A further problem is cigarette smoke. We now know a lot about the health hazards of passive smoking. In a study involving 2100 office workers, non smokers continually exposed to cigarette smoke in the work environment suffered about as much damage to the small airways in the lungs as the light smokers. This was about half as much as that suffered by the heavy smokers.

Another study found that non-smoking workers in a typical office would inhale equal to two or three cigarette per work shift. 7 This study also showed that none of the existing ventilation standards were adequate and even if these were substantially increased it made no difference whatsoever.

In the workplace, passive smoking leads to higher health risks and potential future litigation, as well as increased absenteeism and reduced performance. In our homes, we pay with ill health and sickness from common illnesses such as asthma and infection.

We also know that airconditioning systems are responsible for what is called legionnairesâ disease. It is spread by a virus which not only kills people inside the building but also those within a kilometre radius.

It works like this. The warm air exhaust from the airconditioning system is often located close to the cooling tower where fresh air is brought into the system. Bacterium multiply in the warm environment of the cooling tower, pass into the airconditioning ducts and spread throughout the building.

Airconditioning is also the main contributor to skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. These conditions are the result of dry skin caused by low relative humidity levels. Humidity, in case of aircrafts, can get as low as 3%, whereas we humans like the humidity levels to be somewhere between 46% and 65%.

I often find myself frustrated when I move into over-heated and dry airconditioned hotel rooms. The first response is to shut off the system and then try and open one of the windows. This is usually impossible since they are often well sealed.

Dr. Molloy, a world renowned dermatologist, found an ingenious way to deal with such a predicament. He simply chokes the bathroom door open, fills the bath with water, and leaves a little note for the chambermaid saying. ÎPlease leave this full of water all the time Iâm hereâ. Evaporation from the bath keeps the humidity at a more natural level.

Ross Thorn and Terry Purcell, two researchers from Sydney Universityâs architecture school, found that airconditioning also affects our natural daily (circadian) temperature rythms. They discovered that our body temperature falls well below the normal 37 degrees Celsius when we are in airconditioned areas for some time.

After coming into contact with what we call Îdead airâ, our skin appears to suffer a form of sensory deprivation. Our skin is no longer stimulated by air so our body becomes lethargic in the afternoons.

The lesson is that our skin needs constant stimulation from moving air to maintain its normal temperature. Over a long period, the lowered body temperature can literally make us ill and increase our susceptibility to viral infection.

The obvious answer to these problems is to do just the opposite to what we do now - provide high quality ventilation by opening up our buildings to natural energies.

Two other things we can do is to specify safe and non toxic materials, and bring plants and shrubs inside the buildings. This is exactly what our ancestors have practiced for centuries. It is just that, much to our own peril, we have learnt to ignore them.

The Solution: Living Building Materials

Ancient seers of India viewed all buildings as a living organisms. This meant that all construction materials were also seen as living organisms, as long as their origin could be traced to nature.

Natural organic materials such as wood, soil or stone, especially sandstone, limestone or marble were the obvious choices, since they radiated positive energies, and therefore provided a healthy environment.

They also thought that all inorganic or non-natural materials, especially synthetic materials, were Îdead materialsâ that radiated negative energies. They were lacking in what they called the Îlife forceâ meaning everyone who came into contact with them was likely to suffer ill health.

Mud houses were considered a blessing as were timber buildings. In a deep and spiritual sense such buildings sent out positive messages to everyone who was fortunate to live in them. They were indeed lucky people who aged gracefully and considered ageing as inevitable and natural.

The ancient seers extended this awareness to the process of the ageing of objects and buildings. They had found that synthetic and new materials simply did not age in the same slow natural way as natural materials. Synthetic materials had no memory or sense of history.

This is true when we look at, for example, a very old hand carved wooden door. We can picture the tree from which it was extracted; its grain and texture and the quality of its craftsmanship. It sends us signals about the skills of its carver and the generations of men, women and children who have passed through it. You canât say the same about an aluminium framed sliding glass door.

The negative impact of synthetic building materials and furnishings on our health has been clearly shown by a number of research studies. We donât use timber in its natural state anymore. It is chipped into little pieces and glued into boards for walls, floors, cupboards, shelves and furniture.

Plastic polymers are used to manufacture fabrics for floor coverings and curtains. The walls and ceilings are insulated with plastic foams which are also used to stuff cushions and bed mattresses.

In their book,The Perils of Progress , two Australian scientists, Dr. John Ashton and Dr. Ron Laura of the University of Newcastle, maintain that all these synthetic materials let loose trace amounts of unreacted monomers, plasticisers and other chemicals into the air, especially when new. Take, for example, the suffocating smell of new (synthetic) carpet or of a new car.

They mention several studies that have shown that as a result of exposure to these toxins people suffer from a range of symptoms such as ãheadache, flushing, laryngitis, dizziness, nausea, extreme weakness, joint pains, unwarranted depression, voice impairment, exhaustion, inability to think clearly, arrhythmia or muscle spasm.

Another study of over 1000 patients identified undiagnosed chronic symptoms associated with the purchase of new carpets, furniture, beds, cabinets, the renovation of buildings, moving into new buildings and insulating with synthetic foam ( ureaformaldehyde) insulation.

Formaldehyde is one of the main culprits. It is issued by glues, resins and similar agents used in the manufacture of synthetic products, which are now widely known as one of the main sources of indoor pollution caused by so- called volatile organic compounds ( VOCs) in buildings.

Other sources of VOCs include synthetic tiles and flooring, contact adhesives and sealants, paints and varnishes. Synthetic carpets are the worst offenders issuing such VOCs as vinyl acetate and propane-1,2-diol and the compound 4-phenylcyclohexane (4-PCH).

Then there are VOCs released from flooring materials, including toluene and xylene from adhesives, and phenol and trimellitic from leveling resins which are all extremely toxic as they cause immunological sensitisation and severe respiratory irritation. The list goes on.

Dr. Bill Lawson of the School of Architecture at the University of New South Wales, has conducted scientific research on this subject. 13 He found that natural organic materials were not only non-toxic, they were far more energy efficient and had less environmental impact than synthetic materials.

Kinship with Nature

So how can we bring nature closer to people by introducing plants and shrubs to buildings.

Several hymns in the ancient Indian text, the Rig Veda, praise trees, rivers, herbs, forests, night, dawn, dusk, fire and clouds. Plants were believed to contain the divine presence.

Hindu priests have always maintained flowering trees at temple sites. They use blossoms in religious rituals. Trees such as Peepul and flowering shrubs were thought to possess qualities which could enhance a personâs spiritual life.

They also believed in the therapeutic value of plants and vegetation. They were convinced that they provided physical and psychological benefits. Basil, Neem, mango, coconut and banana are given pride of place in a courtyard or surrounding garden. 14

The Basil (Tulsi) plant contains 27 minerals and is used in 300 Ayurvedic medicines. It destroys disease carrying germs, and is also used in the treatment of asthma, tuberculosis and leprosy. It is known to purify blood and improve the digestive system. Neem cleanses the air, acts as a pesticide and its oil is extensively used in physiotherapy.

The Lungs of the Earth

Air, or oxygen, is known as the breath of plants and plants are considered the lungs of the earth. The ancients viewed the earth as an extension of the human body and plants effectively as an extension of the lungs of our body.

Through the process of photosynthesis, plants produce the oxygen we breathe in and absorb the carbon dioxide we breathe out. A human being uses 1/3 of a ton of oxygen every year and requires 500 to 700 litres in a 24 hour period to stay healthy. 15

Approximately 90% of the bodyâs energy is created by oxygen. All body activities, from brain functions to elimination, are regulated by oxygen. A toxic and polluted environment, devoid of oxygen, creates imbalance in the bodyâs energy system, making a person prone to stress and disease.

We are all contributing to reduced oxygen levels in our living environments by adding chemical and auto pollution and by removing minerals from the soil and forests from the planet.

Tree cover is an important indicator of the health of the planet, as it provides oxygen for us to breathe. Yet we are clearing eleven million hectares of forest each year without adequately replacing it.

Environmental scientists working with NASA have found that many plants are very good at absorbing indoor pollutants such as benzene and formaldehyde.16 They are very effective in reducing allergic reactions triggered by these toxins. In fact they plan to launch selected plants into space as part of the biological life support system aboard future orbiting space stations.

I believe we can do the same in buildings. By placing appropriate indoor plants within buildings we can minimise the adverse effects of the various toxic materials used in their construction.

During the night, plants should be removed from the sleeping areas because they reduce oxygen levels and increase the quantity of carbon dioxide. This is the reason why ancients in India advised against sleeping under trees and bushes at night.

At Sydneyâs University of Technology, Professor Margaret Burchett found that plants in the home and office not only reduce pollution; they also benefit us psychologically.17 Her studies clearly validate the ancient wisdom which has emphasised a close rapport between humans and their natural environment. This rapport was reflected in traditional garden concepts of the Persians, Indians, Chinese, Japanese and others whose culture goes back thousands of years.

A Way Forward 

In recent years many architects have started to follow the basic principles of energy conservation in buildings. They are showing the way by using energy saving techniques like generating power from roof mounted solar collectors. These are amplified by reusing waste heat that comes from people, carparks and lifts, for example, and storing it in extensive ice banks in the basement.

Others have used computerised techniques to respond to natural energies, such as those of the sun, to maintain optimum conditions inside. A louvred facade automatically changes according to the movement of the sun during the day, shading the walls during summer and letting the heat in during winter. Such a facade is not a barrier, but a filter that reduces heat transfer and noise pollution while opening up to let in light and fresh air.

There have been some great ideas about how to bring nature into densely populated urban areas. In his design for a tall office building in a congested area of Sydney, architect Harry Seidler has used an atrium with shrubs and even tall trees to bring nature closer to people. He rationalised that it was a good investment to provide sufficient soil depths for some of the trees to enable them to reach heights of 15m or more.

Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has developed what he calls bio-climatic or green facades for high rise buildings. They involve sun shading, deep cavities and a landscaping strategy that takes into account vegetation all the way from the ground up to the top floor. It means you can be close to nature even when you are sitting in your apartment on the thirtieth floor.

Greening the Cities

The concept of roof gardens in city centres offers some exciting possibilities. Roofs are generally unused spaces that are well exposed to sunlight and rain. They can bring nature into places where office workers can escape during lunch and tea breaks. People in apartment buildings can enjoy the outdoors all year round, breath fresh air and even get some exercise in a relatively safe and private setting.

Apart from a clean environment, roof gardens have also been seen as urban places where people will be able to feed themselves and deal with waste. Just imagine what a boon it would be to millions of people around the world, most of whom will live in cities but most likely will suffer from malnutrition, as they may not be able to rely on food from farms which require lots of space.

Architects and planners can put forward creative and innovative ideas and also suggest how to deal with the practical application through physical design, building regulations, zoning, development and enforcement of planning.

Canadaâs International Development Research Centre ( IRDC) based in Ottawa has promoted research into urban farming for almost three decades. Its aim is to teach people ecologically sound agriculture practices, based on locally available resources, for small scale farms. Such moves will bring agriculture back into towns, guarantee food security, regenerate the environment and strengthen urban economies. They could help us to achieve clean, green, healthy, low maintenance cities.

In 1982, City Farmer, Canadaâs Office of Urban Agriculture established a 2500 sq.ft. Demonstration Garden in the heart of the city of Vancouver. 18 Its aim was to demonstrate the large quantity of food one person can grow in a city backyard using intensive, organic methods of cultivation. This Demo garden holds regular workshops and hands-on experience on raised beds and gives novice gardeners the confidence they need to start their own gardens.

The Centre has also initiated awards for students who wish to conduct urban and peri-urban agriculture.19 It has also funded community media such as the Toronto-based Developing Countries Farm Radio Network ( DCFRN) which is able to spread its message to listeners in 121 countries around the world.

Experienced broadcasters explain such practical ideas as how to grow fruit and vegetables in small spaces, use old tyres as gardening pots, reduce lead levels in vegetables, breed guinea pigs and rabbits for meat and turn roof-tops into perfumed gardens.

We live in an overcrowded and increasingly polluted environment. We must bring nature into our day to day lives; create a sense of urgencyand do whatever we can to make up the loss and neglect that has done so much harm to our health and well being.


1. M.A. Mc Geehin, J.S. Reif, J.C.Becher and E.M. Mangione, (1993) ÎCase-control study of bladder cancer and water disinfection methods in Coloradoâ, American Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 138, no.7. pp 492-501. Also see: J.M. Price (1984) Coronaries, Cholesterol, Chlorine, Pyramid Publications Ltd., Banhadlog Hall, Tylwich, Llanidloes. pp. 32-33.

2. M. Diesendorf.(1990) ÎHave the benefits of water fluoridation been overestimatedâ, International Clinical Nutrition Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp292-303.

3. A. Acra, M. Jurdi, H. Muâallem, et al., (1989) ÎSunlight as disinfectantâ, Lancet, (I), p. 280. Also see: J. Hecht, (1990) ÎSunlight gives toxic waste a tanningâ, New Scientist, 14 April. P.16.

4. U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation. (1991) Indoor Air Facts No.4: Sick Building Syndrome, revised. There is extensive literature on toxicity and Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). A few recent examples include: Edward, R. (1995) ÎOzone alert follows cancer warningâ, New Scientist. May; Evans, B. (1995) ÎMaking buildings healthierâ, The Architects Journal. Sept.; Graham,J. et al. (1988) In Search of Safety: Chemical and Cancer Risk Harvard University Press, Cambridge, USA.; Timbrell, J. (1995) Introduction to Toxicology Taylor & Francis, London.UK and Raw, G.J. (1992) HSE Contract Research Report No.42/1992: Sick Building Syndrome - A Review of the Evidence on Causes and Solutions, BRE, Garston, UK.

5. M.J. Finnegan, (1987) ÎAir Conditioning and Diseaseâ, The Practitioner, vol. 231, 8 April, pp 482-5.

6. P. Carter,(1983) ÎTobacco Smoke, Ventilation and Indoor Air Qualityâ, Australian Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating, April. pp. 13-16.

7. J.L. Repace and A.H. Lowrey, (1980) ÎAir Pollution, Tobacco Smoke, and Public Healthâ, Science, vol.208, p.464.

8. Molloy, Hugh. (1995) Interviewed by Norman Swan. Health Report Transcript. Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National 2 Oct. 1995.

9. A.T.Purcell and R.H. Thorne, (1987) ÎThe Thermal Environment and Level of Arousal Field Studies to Ascertain the Effects of Air Conditioned Environments on Office Workersâ, Architectural Science Review, vol. 30, 1987, pp. 91-116.

10. John Ashton & Ron Laura. ( 1998) The Perils of Progress. UNSW Press, Sydney.

11. S.A.Rogers. (1987) Î Diagnosing the Tight Building Syndromeâ, Environmental Health Perspectives., vol. 76, p.195.

12. Ibid.

13. Lawson, Bill. (1996) Building Materials Energy and the Environment - Towards Ecologicaly Sustainable Development. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects. Canberra. p. 135.

14.,Derebail Murlidhar Rao. (1995) ãAuspicious Trees and Plantsä in Hidden Treasure of Vastu Shilpa Shastra and Indian Traditions. S.B.S. Publishers, Bangalore. India. pp. 184-5.

15. A, Bernatzky. (1989) Î Ecological Principles in Town Planning: The Impact of Vegetation on the Quality of Life in the Cityâ in R. Krieps (ed), Environment ans Health: A Holistic Approach, Gower Publishing Co., Aldershot, England, p. 136.

16. B.C. Wolverton, Ann Johnson, and Keith Bounds, (1989) Interior Landscape Plants For Indoor Air Pollution Abatement. Final Report-Sept. 1989. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, John C. Stennis Space Centre. Stennis Space Centre, MS 39529.6000. pp.22. Also see: Roger S. Ulrich, & Russ Parsons, (1990) ÎInfluence of Passive Experiences with Plants on Individual Well-Being and Healthâ. in The Role of Horticulture in Human Well-Being and Social Development: A National Symposium. 19-21 April 1990-Arlington, Virginia. Ed. by Diane Relf. Timber Press, Portland Oregon. pp 93-105.

17. Cheryl Maddocks,. (1996): ÎAn Insiderâs Guideâ. The Australian Magazine, July 6-7 1996. p.33 Also see:, Ronald A Wood. and, Margaret D. Burchett (1995). ÎThe Role of Interior Plantscaping in the Health and Wellbeing of Building Occupants.â in Marco Maroni, (Ed). Proceedings Healthy Buildings Î95. An International Conference on Healthy Buildings in Mild Climates. University of Milano and International Centre for Pesticide Safety. Vol. 1. pp 299-304.

18. City Farmer Demonstration Garden 2150 Maple Street, Corner 6th Avenue and Maple Street, Vancouver, Canada.

19. Email: or and