Addressing Wellbeing through Housing Policy

The other day someone asked me how—according to my research—Building Codes should be. This is not something I have paid much attention to because my focus so far has been to find alternatives to mandatory public policies. So, to be honest, I am not sure how a Building Code should look like, exactly. However, I would suggest it must have some focus on people’s Comfort and Wellbeing (i.e., on their Feeling of Comfort). Starting from there—even if I am not sure what the exact final result will be—I can explain the things I consider crucial at the moment of incorporating wellbeing into Building Codes.

Our home is where we “live our lives”. It is a very personal space where we are not mandated by others to wear certain clothes or to carry out specific activities. Hence, one of the characteristics of a comfortable home is that it lets us “live our lives”. In contrast, an uncomfortable home plays against us, often forcing us to choose between unpleasant alternatives.

For example, cold homes offer two horrible options: suffer the cold or spend more than we can or want on heating. Depending on your heating system, this last option might also include breathing unhealthy air, contaminated by combustion or other pollutants. Hot homes also exist, making us choose between spending money on cooling (if available), opening the windows, or simply suffering the heat. Unfortunately, lots of people are forced to choose the latter because of safety concerns, or issues with external noise, wind, or simply insects. There are also some dwellings in which, when children cry, the parents worry not only about them but about bothering the neighbours… and there seem to be no solution. Ultimately, day after day, uncomfortable homes deteriorate our wellbeing.

The good news is that most of these problems can be mitigated through a good design. However, doing so is not obvious and it does not happen automatically when, for example, installing more insulation. On the contrary, addressing wellbeing through housing policy requires a conscious decision that; first, leads to identifying these issues; and second, to solve them. This implies talking to and empathizing with people, and recognizing that socio-cultural diversity is as important as the R-value of a wall. This might be an uncommon approach to design a building code, but I know it is possible.

So, answering the question: how should, in my view, a Building Code look like? I guess it does not necessarily need to look any different to those available today. However, the approach taken during its design needs to be very different, going way beyond building physics and energy calculations. For instance, if the simulations used for determining the requirements assumed (i.e., expected) people to open the windows, then it is important to check whether people might actually do that. If they are not likely to do so for whatever reason (e.g., insects), then it is necessary to address the cause of this lack of behaviour (e.g., by also mandating the use of fly screens). If it was impossible to address the issue, then people cannot be expected to open the windows and the Building Code would need to be re-designed accordingly. Similarly, if a building code pretends to reduce excessive ventilation rates by requiring mechanical ventilation, then it is important to verify whether people consider these systems to be a good alternative to windows. If not, the reasons should be identified and addressed.

In summary, as always in pretty much everything I write on this website, a Building Code that addresses wellbeing should be designed for people, not occupants. In other words, it should not only account for the physical aspects of the building performance but also the behavioural ones.