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Health + Accessibility


Canadians Spend 90% of Their Time Indoors

Canadians, though typically thought of as “outdoorsy,” actually live most of their lives indoors. When we do open the door to go out, the majority of us are in cities. As such, human health is in many ways influenced by designers’ consideration for the quality of the interior environments of buildings and the shape and form of cities and neighbourhoods.

Urban sustainability and human health are inextricably linked. Sustainable neighbourhood design must address the well-being of its residents, affording people access to clean air and water, and places to play, socialize and be active. A green building must provide a healthy environment in which people can eat,

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sleep, learn and work. If a building is resource efficient and built with the most sustainable materials and processes, but does not provide healthy interior environments for its occupants, it cannot be called sustainable.

At the design level, outdoor health is addressed by creating opportunities for physical activity, clean air, places for leisure and recreation, and safe, walkable streets. Indoor health revolves around air quality, ventilation, non-toxic and clean environments, thermal comfort, daylight and views to the outdoors, and a regular supply of fresh air. The design of the man-made environments in which we live affects the quality of our lives immensely, and can be measured by our happiness, productivity and physical and mental health.


Courtyard Design

As discussed in Chapter 4, the majority of residential buildings on this project were designed around courtyards. Goran Ostojic of Cobalt Engineering, the mechanical design consultant, explains the design rationale for building exterior accessways that face onto a courtyard. In the Net Zero building (see ‘Vision + Concept’ on page 16), “it was important to get corridors to the outside of the building for energy conservation reasons. But the added success of the exterior corridor design is that the seniors will have social sustainability,” says Ostojic. “They’ll come out of their suites and see people – it’s a social thing. There are places for people to sit and meet and for kids to play. With this design we’ve gone back to the basics, when people were living closer together and sharing things.”

The experience of coming to and going from the buildings is designed to maximize social interaction and encourage physical activity. The stairwells and corridors are located on the exterior of the buildings as much as possible, some enclosed and some open to the elements. “The goal was to create streets in the sky,” says Roger Bayley, design manager for Millennium Water. Bayley refers to the care taken in the design of the buildings’ outdoor environments. Largely vegetated, and boasting water features and places to relax and play, the courtyards and gardens contribute to a sense of healthy living.



If you’re alive, you’re breathing – it’s a fundamental function of the human body, delivering oxygen to our organs and removing carbon dioxide. Humans draw more than 17,000 breaths per day. For such a vital physical process, the quality of the air we breathe is of utmost importance. When measuring quality of life in a city or region, air quality is always a key indicator. The quality of the air indoors is equally significant, and can be achieved through adequate ventilation strategies: eliminating exposure to contaminants, utilizing sufficient filtration, controlling rate of air changes and improving access to fresh outdoor air. The effects of indoor air quality can range from adverse health (see sick building syndrome) to positive impacts such as improved productivity, mood and overall health.

Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome describes health conditions associated with the interior environmental quality of an individual’s workplace or residence. Symptoms can include: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; neurotoxic or general health problems; skin irritation; and odour and taste sensations. The syndrome is related to poor indoor air quality, often caused by flaws in the HVAC system or from off-gassing of building materials that contain volatile organic compounds, moulds, improper exhaust ventilation of ozone (a byproduct of office machinery), the use of chemicals, location of the fresh-air intake or lack of adequate air filtration.

Designers at the Olympic Village eliminated the potential for sick building syndrome by specifying ventilation systems with high rates of fresh air exchange with the outdoors, and installing operable windows. The choice of interior materials and finishes also contributed to healthy indoor air (see ‘Interior Design’). By specifying environmentally benign products, the interior design consultants were able to mitigate the presence of volatile organic compounds and conditions that encourage the growth of allergens and mould.


Blower Door Testing

To ensure that buildings achieve baseline indoor air quality levels, LEED™ requires that all buildings meet environmental tobacco smoke control requirements. In residential buildings, this means reducing air leakage between smoking and non-smoking areas in order to minimize occupants’ exposure to tobacco smoke.

To achieve the LEED™ requirement, walls, floors, ceilings and doorways must be sealed to protect from air leakage between residential units. Next, LEED™ requires a blower door test to demonstrate the effectiveness of the leak protection measures. A blower door test is a diagnostic tool designed to measure the air-tightness of buildings or rooms and spaces within a building.
All buildings at the Olympic Village had to undergo this testing procedure. To run the test, a blower door fan is sealed into an exterior doorway. The fan draws air out of the suite, creating a pressure difference between inside and outside. This pressure difference forces air through all holes and penetrations in the building enclosure. Airflow and pressure differential are measured
using gauges on the blower door, and are then used to determine the leakage rate of the unit.

Challenges and Implications

Protecting occupants from exposure to tobacco smoke is generally recognized as a key measure in ensuring healthy indoor environments. Despite widespread acceptance of the concept, implementation can present a challenge, as industry is relatively unfamiliar with LEED™’s testing procedures. “We are talking about changing common practices out there,” says Jason Packer, Sustainability Consultant at Recollective Consulting. “While it is understood that the whole point of LEED™ is to transform the market, there is significant push-back from owners, developers and builders, particularly when so much money is at stake.”

“It is difficult to fix (air leakage) problems once construction is underway,” says Packer. To avoid this costly predicament, Packer recommends “having an air leakage consultant do a presentation with the design team so that air leakage testing requirements are considered early on in the design process. Also, it would be useful to require the relevant sub-trades to witness air leakage tests and feel the air flowing with their own hands. These guys are genuinely interested in doing this properly, but they don’t have experience with this testing procedure.”

“It’s important to take advantage of synergies,” he continues. “For example, some aspects of fire-stopping regulations provide an opportunity to simultaneously address tobacco smoke control. And there are other benefits – an airtight building can have positive implications for energy efficiency, comfort and even durability.” Despite the challenges, the buildings all passed
the test, meeting LEED™’s tobacco smoke control requirement.

“We are talking about changing common practices.”
Jason Packer, Recollective Consulting


Adaptability and Aging in Place

In many residential neighbourhoods, homes are designed primarily for a particular phase of life and type of resident – those who are mobile, have no significant physical challenges and are not in their elderly years when their use of special equipment may increase.

Unfortunately, this means people may face painful choices when their circumstances change, through age or injury. Homeowners are often forced to leave their neighbourhood and social networks because the cost of special renovations is too high.

A growing awareness of such needs has led to the rise of Universal Design – the idea that products and environments can be designed to meet a broad spectrum of needs, rather than designing specialty products for each niche need. “It’s really incredibly simple, as long as you start at the beginning of a project,” says Roger Bayley, Design Manager for Millennium Water.

“Everyone involved needs to realize they have some slightly increased space allocations to make, but as long as you’re aware of those in the planning process, most are really fairly simple to execute.”

Suites in Millennium Water include a variety of features that improve their accessibility and their support for aging in place. Power plugs in every unit are slightly higher than is customary, while light switches are lower. To improve access for those in a wheelchair or with mobility issues, corridors, doorways and spaces between countertops are a little wider. “There are fewer pinch points in terms of how you move through a unit,” says Bayley. Bedrooms have a double set of duplex plugs, says Bayley, “because older people typically use more power around their bed.” In washrooms, the taps for showers and bathtubs are offset rather than centred, so that people don’t have to lean in so far and don’t risk getting sprayed with hot water.

Other features are impossible to see but could prove extremely helpful should a resident’s circumstances change. Behind every shower enclosure, an additional plywood backing is already installed, allowing future installation of handrails without rebuilding the wall. Kitchen installers were all instructed to install the sink unit last, so that it can be easily replaced with a low-level unit. “It’s future-proofing,” says Bayley. “These features mean you can come in later and modify the unit in a way that’s reasonably easy to do, and will accommodate the kinds of dimensional criteria that handicapped access dictates.”

Bayley says a challenging aspect of accessibility was providing level entries to showers and from suites onto balconies, because of issues relating to controlling water.

“Building developers are nervous about developing showers without thresholds because of the possibility of leaking into the units below,” he says. “You have a plumbing code, then you have people striving to deal with assisted access issues, and their views can be somewhat at odds with each other.”

Parcels 9 and 10 will be used to house competitors in the 2010 Paralympics. Robin Petri, Manager of Development at the SEFC Project Office, says an indication of their universal design is that the suites will be used with almost no changes. “There were minor changes needed, mostly around putting in benches so people could slide into tubs and showers, and installing hand held showerheads, but there wasn’t a lot needed to make the suites ready for the Paralympics,” she says.

Beyond the suites, the design of the community overall helps support aging in place. “The goal was to create beautiful spaces that encourage people to get out and use those spaces and engage with the street,” says Petri. “The streets are designed to cause cars to slow down. There are many benches so that anyone who needs to stop and rest can do so. You have many services that you need all around you – grocery store, drug store, restauarants, community centre, day care, coffee shops – so you get in your car less often, and you’re engaging with the people in your neighbourhood. If you’re raising your kids there, or you’re an older person, you’ll feel more secure because you’ll feel more connected to the people around you.”

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