To Reduce Disease and Fight Climate Change, Design Buildings that Breathe

Healthy air quality in buildings improves cognitive function and combats the spread of disease, but its implications for carbon reduction are perhaps the most important benefit.

May 10, 2022

Principal / Director of Design Performance, NBBJ

The benefits of fresh air have long been tied to health and productivity. But as we continue to examine the built environment’s role in climate change, its implications for reducing a building’s carbon footprint are increasingly important. In this post, the fourth in a series about healthy buildings (the first three posts covered light, noise and access to nature), we illustrate how solutions like operable windows and breathable facade systems are key to maintaining a healthy indoor environment and reducing energy use in buildings. This post was co-authored by Peter Alspach and Eric Phillips.


Long before the pandemic, studies indicated the correlation between indoor air quality and health. Lower levels of outdoor air supply have been associated with increased sick leave among employees, while improved ventilation corresponds with higher test scores and decreased school absences among students. Covid-19 further underscores the importance of proper ventilation and air quality in preventing disease transmission since it has been shown that the virus spreads more rapidly in poorly ventilated spaces. And while natural ventilation has positive implications for health and cognition, it can also reduce a building’s carbon footprint in lieu of conventional mechanical ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

While few climates can rely completely on natural ventilation, many climates have significant periods of the year where natural ventilation is an effective and low-energy solution to providing increased ventilation rates and space conditioning. Designing for mixed-mode buildings—buildings that can operate mechanically or naturally—allows for the best of both worlds in a changing climate.

Healthy air drives performance—of people and buildings 

The air we breathe is affected by hundreds of indoor and outdoor pollutants, and the baseline for what is considered healthy air—as defined by minimum air quality standards—is below what is ideal for performance. Good indoor air quality positively affects creativity and cognition, while even minor indoor pollutants can inhibit our ability to concentrate and process information. That’s because cognitive performance increases significantly when indoor CO2 levels are lower than those that result from current ventilation standards.

Natural ventilation can provide increased levels of outside air to a space relative to code. Bringing in two to four times as much outdoor air as required by code not only increases performance and reduces the risk of viral transmission, it also decreases energy use and operational carbon emissions. For example, in a Tokyo University of Science study on the energy saving efficiency of a natural ventilation strategy in a multi-story school, researchers analyzed ventilation and cooling load reductions based on the opening and closing of several windows. The results showed that the natural ventilation strategy could effectively establish required indoor conditions and compared with the mechanical ventilation system, could decrease energy consumption by approximately 30%.

To improve ventilation by increasing air exchange rates, features like operable windows or garage doors—which open to the outside and can be used for natural ventilation or to create dynamic indoor-outdoor spaces—can be incorporated into a building’s design. Classrooms at the new lower school campus of the Westmark School in Encino, CA—which is targeting LEED Gold certification as well as International Living Future Institute Zero Carbon certification—feature oversized doors that can be opened to create regular moments of engagement with the powerful benefits of outdoor learning and reduce the need for traditional mechanical systems.

The new lower school campus at the Westmark School outside of Los Angeles incorporates hangar doors that harness energy savings as well as the benefits of nature to improve cognitive performance for its students. 


Natural ventilation increases resiliency

Natural ventilation’s benefits extend beyond reducing disease transmission and carbon emissions. It also allows our buildings to remain habitable, even under power outages and extreme weather conditions. Hospitals are now beginning to re-examine operable windows for patient rooms, even if only to be used in an emergency. And during Covid, some hospitals were able to use operable windows to allow for retrofits of increased isolation and higher ventilation rates.

The Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary in Scotland features high-performance operable windows that help maintain a comfortable, energy-efficient internal climate and enable optimum natural light in patient rooms.


A breathable facade design takes the idea of resiliency even further. This envelope-first approach prioritizes energy efficiency and comfort simultaneously and enables thermal autonomy—a building’s ability to maintain its thermal environment if power is compromised. Thermal autonomy is critical during events like heat waves, when sealed environments such as high-rise multi-family residences can become dangerous, especially for elderly or otherwise compromised populations.

Thermal autonomy is also important when quantifying energy consumption, since it measures how much of the available ambient energy resources a building can harness. Currently, researchers at UC Berkeley are working to create an integrated building design process that combines the assessment of three internal air quality factors—thermal, luminous and ventilation autonomy—into a single workflow to help predict building performance.

These types of porous building solutions are not limited only to new buildings. Many pre-war buildings already feature operable windows, an added benefit when renovating or retrofitting. Building additions or portions of new constructions can also be designed to incorporate natural ventilation strategies. For example, the atrium at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA—which serves as the central gathering place for the campus and can accommodate up to 1,000 people—features operable windows while the connected buildings are sealed, allowing the adjacent buildings to reap the benefits of natural ventilation in a targeted biophilic space.

The operable windows in the atrium at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide thermal comfort and energy-saving benefits while enhancing connection to the outdoors.


Finally, to effectively harness the benefits of natural ventilation, it is important to focus not just on building functionality, but also building form. Designing to allow as many spaces as possible to exist in proximity to operable windows, for example, has synergies not only with ventilation but also daylight access—another highly critical aspect of human health and wellness in the indoor environment.

Avoiding pollution and increased energy use

It is important to note that while the benefits of natural ventilation are many, there is also the potential for noise and air pollution, and increased energy use that can counteract conservation efforts, if not implemented correctly.

Periods of high outdoor air pollution—wildfire smoke and pollen are the two most common issues, as well as noise pollution from construction or traffic—are a concern when relying primarily on natural ventilation. Before implementing operable windows, a local air quality risk review is critical, and some locations may wish to continuously monitor local air quality and signal building users when ambient air quality is poor. The ability to run “mixed mode” (switching back and forth between operable windows and mechanical ventilation) and having a well-designed mechanical ventilation system in place during periods of pollution is also important. For example, persistent wildfires in the areas surrounding the Westmark School often negatively impact air quality, so individual classroom spaces feature oversized doors that can open and close. When the doors are closed, students still receive the benefits of daylight and nature without breathing contaminated air. 

Increased energy use when operable windows are open can be detrimental to energy conservation—like driving a car with the heat on and the windows down—however, there are ways to incorporate operable windows while also mitigating the energy penalty. Automation or mechanization of windows or select windows within a space that serve as a signal for other manually controlled windows can help alleviate this problem. Window switches that signal open windows to maintenance staff and that can also prevent heating and cooling when the windows are open are another solution. Signaling systems like a red or green light are useful if tuned correctly and lastly, use of windows in spaces that have greater ownership—such as residences or private offices—have a lower likelihood of misuse.

NBBJ’s Seattle office features operable windows which utilize a signaling system that indicates when windows can—and should—be opened or closed.


Finally, changes in climate can also result in impacts to local air quality, increasing ground-level ozone and particulate air pollution. CO2 concentrations in outdoor air are rising and projected to increase due to continued emissions, exacerbating current challenges with high indoor CO2 levels, especially with mechanical systems where the ability to increase ventilation rates is limited. Operable windows provide a large jump in outside ventilation, which can help to maintain indoor CO2 levels, even as outdoor levels rise.

In conclusion

Because of the potential benefits, natural ventilation is increasingly being proposed as a means of saving energy and improving indoor air quality. Design solutions like operable windows and breathable facades that can be applied on a variety of building types and scales improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions in buildings while providing added benefits for the health, performance and safety of the people who occupy them.

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Want to Reduce Your Company’s Carbon Footprint? Start with Your Headquarters

April 28, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

This post, which is part of a series on how to reduce carbon in the built environment, was co-authored by Tim Johnson and Peter Alspach. The first post in the series served as an introduction, and the second focused on embodied carbon reduction.


The nature of work is changing in a myriad of ways, with more talent relocating to areas outside of cities and the seemingly permanent shift to hybrid schedules. As a result, corporations are rethinking their headquarters, designing them for a different set of uses and an evolving workforce. These same companies are also increasingly concerned with social responsibility, including their offices’ carbon footprint.

Recently, our firm was tasked with designing a net-zero building for a corporate client on the East Coast. While the adaptive reuse of part of the current headquarters served as a jumping-off point, the organization’s suburban location required an addition to the existing building as well as increased focus and diligence in managing elements such as embodied and transportation carbon—two main areas of concern in a net-zero energy facility. The client also specified that carbon neutrality be achieved through the construction and operation of the building itself rather than supplemental means such as the purchase of carbon offsets.

How can an organization reconcile the need to expand their presence with their obligation to decrease carbon emissions? Below, we explore strategies and solutions for companies to do so through the planning, design and construction of their buildings.

Innovate through Materials and Building Techniques

For our East Coast corporate client, the use of sustainable materials and building practices factored in greatly when planning and designing the addition to the existing headquarters. One environmentally friendly, cost effective and beautiful alternative to traditional building materials like concrete and steel is mass timber. Substituting wood instead of conventional building materials can reduce emissions by 69%, and using mass timber in half of expected new urban construction could provide as much as 9% of global emissions reduction needed to meet 2030 targets.

In addition to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, mass timber’s benefits extend to the building and construction process. It is well suited to offsite manufacturing and prefabrication—another highly sustainable building method that can reduce construction waste by 40% and carbon emissions by 35%—since much of the labor (cutting and assembly) is done in factories. It is estimated that because they are prefabricated, use of mass timber panels can bring significant cost savings for construction projects and reduce construction time by up to 25%.

Employ Alternative Energy Sources

While embodied carbon is of greater concern in the long run, operational carbon—a building’s everyday energy use—accounts for 28% of the built environment’s carbon footprint. Alternative energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal can significantly reduce a building’s reliance on fossil fuels. For example, the Thermal Energy Center at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA, employs a geothermal system comprised of hundreds of wells drilled 550 feet underground that serves as the heating and cooling source for the campus, eliminating fossil fuel usage.

Cities are also beginning to require the use of alternative energy sources in both new construction and adaptive reuse projects to meet their carbon reduction goals. For example, Boston’s BERDO 2.0 ordinance mandates that buildings of a certain size must report their carbon emissions to the city on an annual basis and pay a fee on any overages, and in the past 18 months Washington, DC, New York City, Denver, Seattle and St. Louis (among others) have all enacted building performance standards.


Microsoft’s Thermal Energy Center in Redmond, WA, taps clean energy deep underground for the organization’s new campus.


Curb Transportation Carbon with Amenities that Attract Talent and Benefit the Community

Transportation carbon is a concern when dealing with a suburban workforce that mostly commutes using cars. According to a Pew Research study from 2016, 21% of urban dwellers use public transit on a regular basis compared to only 6% of suburban residents. The movement toward hybrid work means fewer people commuting each day has positive implications for transportation carbon, especially when coupled with amenities that benefit the community and attract talent.

In addition, due to public and private investment making suburbs more dense, walkable, bike-friendly and less dependent on cars, as well as the competition to attract bright young talent who want to live and work in lively places, many companies are imbuing their suburban campuses with shops, restaurants, hotels, residences, affordable housing, community services and public parks. When going to work also includes a stop at the gym, a quick trip to the grocery store and a dinner out, the transportation carbon associated with making separate trips is reduced significantly—not to mention providing an experience that draws talent to the office.

Lastly, there is an increased trend in electric vehicle infrastructure required of commercial office projects. The electrification of the transportation sector is a key part of global carbon emissions reduction plans, and the build-out of the supporting infrastructure is vital to its success.


At Amazon’s HQ in Arlington, VA, the “helix”—a walkable ramp wrapping the building with trees and greenery planted to resemble a mountain hike—is open to the public on weekends, providing a green amenity for employees and the community alike.


Reuse, Renew, Reposition

According to JLL research, two-thirds of the national office inventory is more than 30 years old and likely to become obsolete, while 91% of net occupancy growth for the past decade is new and repositioned supply. An increased emphasis on energy reduction in buildings coupled with the fact that many aging commercial properties are transforming from assets to liabilities means that adaptive reuse, renewal and repositioning are viable strategies to help reduce the embodied carbon impact of the built environment, enhance a building’s value and decrease energy use and costs.

Implementing upgrades that increase sustainability and energy efficiency—such as replacing aging infrastructure, proactively adapting to regulatory changes and designing for resiliency—as part of a larger repositioning of the property creates a compelling product in the marketplace that appeals to both developers and tenants.

In Conclusion

Balancing the energy savings of sustainable building practices and renewable energy sources with a building’s embodied, operational and transportation carbon footprint is a complicated equation. However, large corporations have an obligation to address carbon emissions due to their outsized role in driving global climate change. By making informed decisions about materials, building techniques, energy and transportation, organizations can significantly decrease the carbon footprint of their buildings while also setting an example for how to create sustainable, responsible buildings and campuses.

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Sheds, Meds and Beds

From Beautiful Shells to Life Science Hubs, Evolving Uses for Tomorrow’s Mixed-Use Developments

March 28, 2022

Design Principal

The pandemic continues to disrupt commercial real estate, from remote work and social distancing to supply chains and inflation. As these challenges unfold and organizations evolve in response, we explore the future of commercial developments through the lens of three fast-growing sectors: sheds—industrial-oriented spaces such as production studios and data or distribution centers; meds—commercial life science buildings or medical office; and beds—mixed-use residential developments, as well as innovative design strategies for each type of development.

Sheds: Developing A Beautiful Shell for Creativity and Commerce

As the demand for content skyrockets and e-commerce sales boom during the pandemic, industrial spaces—for film and music production studios as well as distribution and data centers—have become even more essential to entertainment and tech companies alike. The flexible, open environment of warehouses can serve as a blank slate and provide the necessary space for entertainment and tech companies to produce on-demand movies and TV, as well as fulfill, pack and ship online orders. In addition, warehouses also provide an authentic sense of place and history, they can be more sustainable if they repurpose older materials, and they allow for greater flexibility because there are fewer columns than many modern workplaces. Yet these buildings are often siloed from their communities. Instead, they can become better neighbors—especially in urban settings—and by extension, be even more efficient and sustainable.

It is critical that production studios, fulfillment centers and data centers extend beyond a fortress mentality. Doing so transforms “shed” warehouse environments into those that are mutually beneficial to both the tenants leasing them, by driving partnerships and innovation, as well as the neighborhoods that surround them, by fostering creativity and investment in local services for current and future generations.

Furthermore, as urban building stock ages, film industry studios have the unique opportunity to purchase or renovate old studios into production spaces, offices and even community gathering places that are open to the public and provide a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process. For instance, a production studio that is relocated to an urban or a more walkable neighborhood could integrate into office or residential developments and offer space to host interactive exhibitions or partnerships with local nonprofits. In addition, studios open to the public can allow people to create and share their own content. One way is to maximize accessible public space by integrating production studios with public thoroughfares, like riverfront walkways, while also providing open space for concerts and gatherings.

Also, as warehouses are usually located in the suburbs, exurbs or more rural areas of the country, providing space for them in cities can be a more sustainable option—featuring more connected urban transit not just for employees to commute to work, but for the organizations delivering goods and products to and from these warehouses. In addition, as land costs rise and building uses evolve, these “shed” spaces can maximize tight urban sites by going vertical—building up rather than out, and combining mixed-use and production studios, fulfillment and data centers into one. For instance, locating these “sheds,” which are typically three to four stories, in urban areas and surrounding them with office or residential components can help compact their footprint. Wrapping these warehouses with space for different types of uses provides longer-term flexibility. In addition, with the future wide-spread adaption of driverless cars, unused parking garages could be retrofitted or repurposed into distribution centers.

Meds: Driving Life Science and Healthy Innovation

Perhaps now more than ever, health is driving innovations—and the commercial life science industry plays a central part, especially key in the discovery of treatments that increase life expectancy. While healthcare buildings such as hospitals, academic medical centers and specialty clinics are critical forces in this arena, funding for and activity around commercial life science developments is also increasing.

One emerging trend is life science tenants that relocate to key science clusters near leading universities, such as the “golden triangle” between Oxford, London and Cambridge in England or the high concentration of colleges in Boston in the US. There is also high demand for office space conversions, from heads-down zones into lab space and collaborative amenities that allow staff to serendipitously bump into one another to learn, brainstorm and exchange ideas.

For example, The Works repurposes a warehouse in Cambridge, UK’s, burgeoning life science and technology cluster into a unique research and office environment for a new fleet of businesses to collaborate and connect. One- or two-story layouts provide tenants the space they need to expand, while a double-height atrium that hosts amenity and breakout spaces encourages tenants to brainstorm and socialize. Similarly, the University Enterprise Zone, hosted by Queen Mary University of London and funded by Research England, creates an innovative space for emerging digital health, med-tech and AI startups. Dedicated workspaces for each tenant—as well as shared meeting rooms, convertible labs and maker spaces—can grow and adapt as future space needs evolve.

The Works in Cambridge, UK, represents a new approach to life science that promotes collaboration and connection between tenants to foster new discoveries. A central atrium serves as a place to socialize and brainstorm while a variety of layouts accommodate tenants’ current and future needs.


Yet while life science tenants rely on collaboration to foster new discoveries and cross-disciplinary research, they are generally more private than tech. They want synergies but need to maintain confidentiality and security throughout their work. To enhance privacy while still fostering connections between different teams and organizations, developments can provide separate lab and office spaces that also feature shared amenity zones. One project in south Seattle, S, is combining 1.26 million sq of Class A lab and office space across a six-building, 6+acre, creative-class cluster-development, located around transit-oriented nodes with a focus on innovative design principles, human health, and environmental well-being.

Commercial developments are also prioritizing healthy buildings for both people and the planet. This includes imbuing projects with five key qualities—light, views, ventilation, air quality and thermal comfort—while a focus on nature can restore and rejuvenate.

Beds: Building Connective Communities

Mixed-used residential developments are becoming increasingly important anchors in communities, serving as key neighborhood lifelines with a diversity of housing types, office space, restaurants and retail, as well as shared amenities and events programming. Mixed-use developments can also help address one of the world’s largest crises—a lack of space for housing—by increasing access to more affordable housing while providing developers and even tech companies with more stable investments. Mixed-use developments with residential spaces can help kickstart vibrant communities, providing not just places for people to live, but the amenities they and surrounding neighborhoods they need to thrive. In addition, some developers are opting to switch uses to help meet the growing demand for housing, for instance, through office-to-residential renewals and conversions. As cities see vacancies rise in Class B office buildings, there is a flight to high quality buildings that are mixed-use or provide amenities that align with the market need, opening up new areas of space for housing. And, with cities continuing to flex and change during the pandemic, we may also see post-pandemic housing transition to an extended stay model to accommodate a work-from-anywhere approach.

A focus on wellness—from physical to mental and community health—as well as connectivity is shaping mixed-use developments. This extends beyond fitness centers and outdoor community yoga to healthcare clinics, nonprofit centers, spaces for environmental and governance groups, and even schools. One example is the mixed-use development Gravity, which kickstarted an up-and-coming district outside of downtown Columbus, OH. Inspired by its eclectic and creative neighborhood, it builds a welcoming infrastructure of amenities, art and culture. Residential, office, retail and community spaces stitch the community together, with unique “pocket spaces” woven between the angular buildings that provide an array of amenities: a food truck zone, gathering space for outdoor movie screenings, vegetable gardens and even a graffiti wall. Projects like Gravity are creating equitable and inclusive spaces by uniting the community, providing inviting spaces for local and visitors, and offering vital resources for the neighborhood and beyond.

Developments like Gravity in Columbus, OH are creating equitable spaces by inviting the community in and offering amenities and resources that can be enjoyed by residents, tenants and visitors alike.


In addition, infrastructure improvements—expanding train lines, for example—are paving new opportunities for mixed-use, extending the radius where people can live and work without needing to drive. A catalyst for sustainable urban development, the Spring District in Bellevue, WA, is a transit-oriented LEED Neighborhood-certified mixed use development that incorporates spaces for working and living as well as walkable streets, independent retail and open spaces.

As our urban spaces continue to evolve, mixed-use projects create healthier, more resilient and connected communities than stand-alone projects.  “Sheds, meds and beds” hits on three unique areas that are changing our future cities. At the same time, it is critical to consider how we can better integrate new building types and sizes into our urban fabric. Cities are changing the zoning codes to allow for more density and program uses in urban areas, and the integration of these new archetypes will greatly impact how our cities function in the future. It is imperative that real estate developers, city planners, urban designers, architects and city dwellers challenge convention to bring together traditional and nontraditional programs to create new environments. Tomorrow’s next wave of urban environments demand opportunities to live, work, play, innovate, create and make together.

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