Metro, Boston

Joseph Allen, BC ’98, Explores Link Between Buildings and Overall Health

Natural light pours down through skylights positioned above the central atrium of what was previously a Sears distribution center, replete with hints of 1920s art deco all around. Now, it has been retrofitted into a well-frequented commercial building with modern office spaces available.

Occupying an office leased by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and blessed with expansive views of the Boston cityscape, Joseph Allen, BC ’98, has dedicated his life’s work to bridging the communication and implementation divide between building science and health science.

Allen currently holds a teaching appointment as an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard Chan School’s department of environmental health. He has introduced brand new courses including one titled The Impact of Buildings on Health, Productivity and Sustainability, which is often taken by cross-enrolled students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

These initiatives stem from the Healthy Buildings group he began at Harvard to explore the way in which the indoor built environment—homes, offices, schools, planes—influences our overall health and performance. Drawing from his experience as a consultant, Allen intends to translate his previous research into actionable public health solutions that are accessible to shareholders who don’t come from hard science backgrounds.

“I think the real danger within the scientific community can be that we talk just amongst ourselves,” Allen said in discussing his interdisciplinary approach. “We can always fall into that trap. But I think that’s the beauty of the field of public health …. We’re encouraged to not just do the science but get that all the way to implementation.”

For this reason, the ethos of the Healthy Buildings program centers around reducing the collaborative friction that exists between urban planning designers and environmental health scientists. The integration of insights from the natural environment into the construction of indoor environments will, according to Allen, usher in an important paradigm shift in the commercial real estate space. By translating its research into the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, the Healthy Buildings team hopes to redefine the way we treat space and emphasize the design decisions that can ultimately improve the health of those who occupy it.

“The facilities manager in a building has as much influence on your health as your primary care physician … They’re all in the health care space,” Allen said. “Once we change that conversation to be all about health, these people will have the ability to drive [Healthy Buildings principles] into practice globally.”

In 2015, Allen and his team set out to reveal how ventilation, temperature, lighting, and noise affect cognitive performance in the workplace through a double-blind, highly controlled clinical study. Over six days, 24 test subjects were observed in a simulated office while researchers adjusted the concentrations of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that circulate in the air from carpets and surface cleaners. In addition, they modulated ventilation rates and carbon dioxide levels to imitate green and green+ certified office space standards.

The results of the study offer striking evidence of the correlation between a number of air quality metrics and the cognitive performance of exposed individuals. Performance areas such as focused-activity levels, information usage, and strategy were all higher in the subjects exposed to green and green+ building environments in contrast to control subjects. To a certain extent, Allen’s work highlights the social and productivity benefits that optimized indoor conditions can produce at the individual and organizational levels.

“When we’re not comfortable, we’re not functioning properly,” Allen said. “That includes the way we think and handle information … All we’ve done here, quite honestly, is just quantify that.”

With the growing proliferation of low-cost sensors available to consumers, physiological data collected from users’ activities in the physical world has become an important tool for urban designers of the future. Allen acknowledges their place in the 21st century “smart city,” where connectivity and open-access data will allow public resources and services to be allocated more efficiently. There is an unequivocally human element to this future, and the boundaries between innovation and privacy must be clearly defined moving forward.

Allen has a long-term vision in mind. After being asked by one of the deans at Harvard about how he thinks his work will impact the future, the answer has become clearer with time.

“We are being intentional about the audiences we’re working with in terms of answering questions that are relevant to move the market,” Allen said.

Featured Images by Alessandro Zenati / Heights Editor

April 18, 2018