Sustainable BuildingsHousingThe Challenge of Making Housing Healthy

The Challenge of Making Housing Healthy

Iris Fiebiger
Iris Fiebiger
Nature provides us with everything we need. Not just in terms of sustainable resources but also on an emotional level. Being outside and connecting with your surroundings brings so much joy. This is what I find worth protecting.

Making housing healthy is not a piece of cake. To give you an idea of the challenges you might come across, we have dug through a myriad of guides and condensed the top five challenges into bite-sized pieces.

Our surroundings impact our health. Since we spend up to 90% of our lives inside and two-thirds of this in our own homes (at least in America and Europe), it’s about time we make housing healthy. What sounds simple is tied to several challenges.

1. Developing a Healthy Definition

If we want to improve housing conditions, we first need to define what makes a home healthy.

One crucial aspect is, of course, the promotion of residents’ physical well-being. In a healthy home, there should not be:

  • insufficient ventilation,
  • poor heating,
  • noise pollution,
  • indoor pollution,
  • air pollution,
  • water contamination,
  • mould,
  • overcrowding,
  • injury hazards,
  • poor accessibility,
  • toxic materials, such as asbestos or lead,
  • pests.

However, all too often, we focus only on how housing influences physical health and forget about its impact on occupiers’ mental well-being. Insecure tenancies, fear of eviction, poor design, and high housing prices can cause or worsen mental health issues and, hence, must also be considered when designing healthy housing.

Image credit: Unsplash / Emily Underworld

Some take housing-related health a step further and even factor in residents’ social well-being. Socially healthy housing allows residents to be well-connected with others, e.g., by providing communal areas.

To sum up, a healthy home not only promotes residents’ physical well-being but also benefits their mental and social health.Meeting this requirement and making housing (holistically) healthy is not easy. There are many different aspects to consider, repairs to carry out, and policies to change.

A little tip: the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests identifying the factors your area is struggling with most and tackling those first. For instance, countries in colder climates might prioritise providing homes with sufficient insulation.

2. Promoting Collaboration

Who is responsible for making housing healthy? Residents themselves? The ministry of health? The housing department? Construction firms?The answer is: all of them. The problem is each actor thinks it’s not their responsibility but someone else’s.

To make homes healthy, however, all actors involved in housing must collaborate. As the WHO stresses:

“[…] successful implementation will require coordination between national, regional and local governments, and intersectoral collaboration between public, private and civil society actors, including implementing partners such as architects, urban planners, social housing services, consumer protecting agencies, and the building industry.”

Coordination and intersectoral collaboration, however, are not always easy and will require a lot of dedication. To make things easier, you could, for instance, form a healthy housing task force or steering group that interacts with the various stakeholders.

Image credit: Pexels / Fauxels

3. Finding Money

Making homes healthy is also – surprise! – tied to high costs. There’s good and bad news. The good news is the investment will pay off. The bad news is it will take several years.

According to research, improving 3.5 million UK homes with serious category 1 hazards (e.g., mould, pest infestation, a leaking roof, etc.) would cost around £10 billion. Healthcare savings thanks to these improvements would amount to £1.4 billion per year, i.e., it would take about seven years to pay off the initial investment (not considering other types of savings, such as potential energy savings).

Stakeholders may be hesitant to invest such big sums into projects that only pay off after a decade (and lead to profits even later).

But don’t despair, there are financing options available. This overview is specific to the U.S. but might serve as a starting point to identify various funding sources or as a framework for other nations looking to implement finance programmes of their own.

4. Raising Awareness

Even though much research has been conducted on the impact homes have on our health, the market has changed relatively little. Public awareness about the urgency of improving our homes is slim and, as a result, we are slow to act.

This needs to change. Housing-health-literacy is needed among all actors of the housing market. Increasing awareness for healthy home environments is tricky. You could, for instance, create a fact sheet like this one with data from your city or highlight how healthy housing leads to massive healthcare savings.

5. Updating Standards and Training Stakeholders

Making our homes healthier also requires change at an administrative level. Be prepared to fight for building standards to be updated (for inspiration, click here). And expect stakeholders to require training on identifying housing problems, building healthier homes, and remediating existing buildings. Otherwise, very little will change, and homes won’t be holistically healthy.

However, it’s a race against time. Due to climate change and ever more severe weather events, guidelines and training must be constantly updated, and real innovation is needed to keep homes and their residents healthy and safe.

The Challenge of Making Housing Healthy in a Nutshell

Creating a healthy home environment is tricky. You need to watch out for many different aspects and – among others – overcome these five hurdles:

  1. Defining what “healthy” means and which aspects you will need to tackle first.
  2. Facilitating collaboration between sectors.
  3. Gaining access to funds.
  4. Raising awareness for the impact homes have on our health and thereby increasing housing-health-literacy.
  5. Updating building standards and ensuring stakeholders receive the necessary training.

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