Since COVID-19 won’t be the last virus that jumps from animals to humans, what can green designers and builders do or inspire?

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With the many threats humanity faces brought about by COVID-19, much emphasis in the green building sector is focusing on Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) improvements and workplace best practices. While these initiatives provide important opportunities to mitigate risks, there are other built environment tools and features that can help curb root causes that lead to the emergence and reemergence of infectious disease. Let’s briefly explore two significant action areas.

Reduce natural resource extraction. COVID-19, which in a matter of months has killed over 140,000 in the US and over 600,000 worldwide, got its start in animals. Like MERS, SARS, HIV, Influenza A and Ebola, the new coronavirus is zoonotic, the virus originated in animals and jumped to humans. But, according to scientists, the problem isn’t the animals, it’s us. Agricultural intensification, deforestation and urbanization are responsible because they bring animals in closer proximity to humans.

Green designers and builders already know we can minimize natural resource extraction. For example, we can:

  • Reuse and recycle materials
  • Use local materials
  • Promote passive and active solar design and construction and
  • Reduce impermeable surfaces.

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Make dietary and food production changes. In addition to these approaches, have we thought about the dramatic impact we can make by promoting dietary changes? Planners, designers and constructors can encourage and incentivize eating locally produced, plant-based foods.

According to the United Nations body on climate science, humanity can significantly help stem the devastating impacts of climate change by shifting to low-on-the-food-chain diets and food production. Here are some reasons why:

  • 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from land clearing, crop production and fertilization. Seventy-five percent of these emissions come from animal-based food production.
  • Converting forest to pasture for beef cattle destroys an area of tropical forest about the size of the state of Massachusetts each year.
  • Concentrated Animal Food Operation (CAFO) refers to an animal food operation with more than one million pounds of live animal weight that confines animals on site for more than 45 days per year. According to estimates, the number of CAFOs in the US is approaching 20,000. CAFO waste contaminates surface and ground water and contributes to air pollution. Recently, the American Public Health Association called for federal, state, and local governments and public health agencies to impose a moratorium on all new and expanding CAFOs.
  • The potential for transfer of pathogens among animals is higher when they are in confinement. Asymptomatic animals may carry microbial agents that can infect humans.

All of this points to animal food production, as practiced today, as detrimental to humanity and the planet.

LEED offers several credits that address food production issues. Given the enormity of these problems, the development of more credits can further incentivize our community to prioritize solutions. We can influence other green building rating systems, standards and codes to significantly contribute as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic, like any major crisis, prompts most of us to be more open to change in order to eliminate or mitigate risk. Every individual and every industry, including the building industry, must do whatever it can to not only curb the impact of COVID-19, but reduce the likelihood of future epidemics and pandemics. Too much is at stake for us to miss this opportunity.

Please join the conversation by leaving your thoughts below.

About the Author

Grady O’RearGrady O'Rear is President/CEO of Green Advantage, Inc., a non-profit credentialing organization that promotes high performance, healthy built environments in the U.S. and Canada. It offers three ANSI-accredited credentials: The Green Advantage Certified Practitioner® (GACP®) for construction supervisory personnel; the Green Advantage Certified Associate® (GACA®) for construction field personnel; and a Pre-construction Risk Assessment/Infection Control Risk Assessment (PCRA/ICRA) Certificate Program for healthcare pre-construction, construction and maintenance personnel.

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