Climate, Carbon, and Human Health

Buildings can shift from being part of the problem to part of the solution
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Sponsored by Interface
By Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Applications: Influence on Building Types

Making it a priority to reduce embodied carbon in buildings is an approach that has been shown to make dramatic improvements in a variety of building types (i.e., residential, commercial, institutional, industrial) and all project types (i.e., new construction, renovations, tenant improvements, additions, remodeling, and even major infrastructure). The impacts will then be felt not only on the environment but also in very real ways on human health. In so doing, design professionals are at the forefront of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the general public from the harmful effects of climate change identified by CDC and APHA. Some examples of the possible impacts of this proactive approach include the following.

  • Health-care buildings: Health-care organizations and designers pride themselves on leading the way on interior environmental health, and, in many cases, they do just that by using materials and systems that have little or no negative impact on human health. However, it is exactly these facilities that will be most stressed when climate change events and disorders occur. By designing these facilities with reduced carbon, the health impacts of climate change can be lessened, and the health-care system in general will undergo less stress.
  • Schools: As embodied carbon is reduced in buildings, the health effects of climate change on students and staff can be expected to reduce as well. Healthier students means better performance and educational outcomes, which is what schools generally desire. This creates better learning environments for students, faculty, and staff.
  • Office/corporate: If there is less carbon dioxide and particulate matter in the air, then it follows that there are fewer illnesses and conditions related to air pollution, such as respiratory and cardiac conditions. For office and corporate settings, this means less absenteeism due to illness and potentially more productivity stemming from healthier employees. It also means there is less disruption of business due to weather-related events and other conditions of climate change.
  • Retail/ hospitality: Overcoming the effects of climate change means the economy can be more robust. When the economy is healthy, there is more consumer and commercial activity, with more travel opportunities motivated both by business and leisure.

Clearly the impact of reducing carbon emissions and reducing the degree of climate change is far-reaching. And as shown in the discussion above, it has direct impacts on many different building types and the people who use them.


Climate change and buildings are inextricably entwined with each other. The creation and operation of buildings produces GHG emissions that in turn effect the climate. which then affects the people who live, work, and play in those buildings. The highest and best opportunity for carbon neutrality, if not carbon reduction, is for everyone involved (architects, designers, construction teams, and product manufacturers) to take full responsibility for the full life cycle of the products they create, specify, or procure. For design professionals in particular, the best way to reduce the embodied carbon in a building is to specify low-carbon materials. Currently, we have some tools to assess the carbon footprint of products and buildings to help us work to reduce it. With the emergence of new tools and the creation of carbon-storing materials, buildings can progress toward becoming part of the solution to global warming instead of part of the problem.

End Notes

1Special Report: Global warming of 1.5 °C.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Revised on January 2019 by the IPCC, Switzerland. Web. 9 May 2019.

2Select Results from the Energy Assessor Experiment in the 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 9 May 2019.

3About the Construction Carbon Calculator. Building Carbon Neutral. 2007. Web. 9 May 2019.

4MacNaughton, Piers et al. “Energy savings, emission reductions, and health co-benefits of the green building movement.” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. International Society of Exposure Analysis. January 2018. Web. 9 May 2019.

Peter J. Arsenault, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is a nationally known architect, consultant, continuing education presenter, and prolific author advancing building performance through better design.,


Interface Interface is a world-leading modular flooring company with a fully integrated collection of carpet tiles and resilient flooring. Our modular system helps customers create interior spaces while positively impacting the people who use them and our planet. nora is Interface’s commercial rubber flooring systems and solutions brand. Produced in Germany for more than 65 years, nora premium rubber works to improve operations, efficiencies, health, safety, and wellness with sustainable flooring that eases maintenance, absorbs noise, and provides added comfort underfoot.


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Originally published in Architectural Record