One of the biggest issues in the built environment today is linked to something that is invisible and completely taken for granted: the air that we breathe. Smog in our cities is becoming more familiar to many people, particularly our close neighbours in Asia. But how many of us really consider the way in which that has an impact on the indoor atmosphere in our offices, homes, conference centres, schools, childcare centres, hospitals, aged care facilities and public transport? All the places we spend the majority of our time in.

I believe business has to have a vision that goes beyond profits. That is easy to say but much harder to live up to. With all the talk of CSR and the triple bottom line, how many companies actually put these goals into the heart of their business strategy and operations? I believe one of the defining issues of our times is whether businesses can design things in a way that drives commercial success and delivers a positive impact on the planet and people’s health and wellbeing.

Let’s take it one step further: How many people question whether the man-made elements around us – the paint on the walls, the materials in the tables, chairs and floors for example – contain chemicals that could release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that may cause harm? How many people actually know what VOCs are or are even in a position to ask this question given most of our buildings are owned, designed and developed by those who ultimately will not use them? Furthermore, how many of us consider the dust particles, smaller in diameter than a strand of hair that could lodge inside your lungs or vascular system causing heart and respiratory conditions including asthma?

One of the big megatrends ahead of us is urbanisation, which makes this health issue even more relevant. According to the Australian Financial Review, the number of people living in Australia is expected to jump 60 per cent to 37.6 million by 2050. Sydney and Melbourne’s populations are projected to explode by 60 to 80 per cent to reach almost 8 million inhabitants each. Perth’s size is set to more than double to 4.6 million within the next 37 years. Cities have been growing at an average of 65 million people annually across the past 30 years – equivalent to adding seven cities of Chicago every year. Already, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. This is predicted to increase to 60% by 2030 and by mid-century, two thirds of us will be living in cities. And then consider that we spend 90% of our time indoors.

Not only is poor indoor air quality (IAQ) a threat to people’s health and wellbeing but it can also have a negative impact on productivity and attendance levels. In Australia it is generally accepted that toxic substances in the workplace can increase sick days and sap energy levels. Statistical evidence suggests unhealthy indoor air quality is costing Australian business about $12 billion per annum in lost productivity. On the flipside, an article by Dr Vyt Garnys from CETEC and Tony Arnel from NDY “the quality of the indoor environment of existing buildings can be improved so as to yield between 1‐15% gain in occupant productivity. Considering an average potential improvement of 7% this would lift national productivity in Australia by about $10 billion each year”.

And the problem of IAQ is going to get worse, according to one recent report by Professor Hazim Awbi from the University of Reading’s School of Construction Management and Engineering in the UK, who predicts that the number of Britons with asthma could almost double by 2050. He says, “Poor indoor air quality is connected with a range of undesirable health effects, such as allergic and asthma symptoms, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, airborne respiratory infections and cardiovascular disease.” We can apply similar logic here in Australia because according to Asthma Australia, the prevalence of Asthma in our country is higher than international standards and they state that the reason for this is unknown. A recent article published in The Fifth Estate: “Australian workplaces contain 227 substances that trigger asthmacites a Perth research study that found “between 1000 and 3000 new cases of asthma in Australia annually could be attributed to workplace exposures.”

This situation is clearly unacceptable. As a company that has worked to design eco-effective products according to Cradle to Cradle® (C2C) standards since 2008, these issues are not new to us. Indeed, C2C co-founders Prof.  Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough address the issue of design head on in their seminal book, Cradle to Cradle, first published in 2002. There they adopt the importance of designing products to be good from the start in terms of their impact on the environment and human health as well as their ability to be disassembled later for recycling. Braungart, whose consultancy EPEA has been assessing our products since 2008, has always stressed the dangers of poor indoor air quality.

Professor Awbi says the average person breathes in 500 litres of air an hour. With efforts to make buildings more energy efficient, he fears the tightening of ventilation (for the sake of energy efficiency) will make things worse. He predicts a rise in VOCs and incidences of asthma and says “some form of mechanical ventilation is needed”.

With C2C criteria, our goal is to only use materials that will contain positively defined materials with very low VOCs, designed to have a good impact on health and wellbeing and to encourage eco-innovations that improve IAQ.

I recognise that IAQ (or IEQ: Indoor Environment Quality as it is also termed) is not a new issue in Australia. Over the past decade organisations such as the Green Building Council of Australia, The Property Council and AIRAH have all strongly promoted the value of IAQ as have certain local and state governments. Rating tools such as NABERS and Green Star reward buildings that attempt to improve occupant satisfaction, comfort, reduction of contaminants, lighting and acoustics. More recently we have also seen the introduction to Australia of the Well Building Standard, which claims to harness the built environment as a vehicle to support human health, wellbeing and comfort.

We welcome greater transparency in the supply chain and the uptake of strategies like C2C and circular economy that promote the elimination of materials that are harmful to human health. I urge other producers of goods that make up the built environment to focus on this kind of strategy. Building green cities of the future means taking account of the air we breathe. Getting it right at the design stage is crucial. The goal for businesses today is to reimagine making things, so that they make good profits and do good at the same time. Braungart and McDonough expressed it well back in 2002:

“The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world. Thus the ‘right things’ for manufacturers and industrialists to do are those that lead to good growth – more niches, health, nourishment, diversity, intelligence, and abundance – for this generation of inhabitants on the planet and for generations to come.”

Ralph Jorissen is the Managing Director of Tarkett Australasia.

This article has been adapted using Australian examples from "The urgent need to design for health and wellbeing" by Roland G.A. Jonkhoff published in the Huffington Post on 12 November 2015.