Healthier indoor spaces are good for both you and the environment! On Balance hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Molly Ranns get a unique perspective on sustainable, inclusive, and more climate-friendly workspaces from Nicole DeNamur. Indoor spaces impact our health and wellness in more ways than we may realize, so Nicole tells us what we don’t know and offers insights into how to foster environments where everyone can do their best work.
Nicole DeNamur is an attorney, educator and sustainability consultant based in Seattle, Washington.
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Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network, I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Nicole DeNamur join us today as our podcast guest. Nicole was an attorney, educator and sustainability consultant based in Seattle Washington. She maintains several sustainable building credentials, is an award-winning contributing author, and much of her work focuses on creating sustainable, healthy and inclusive spaces. And with that, Nicole, could you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Nicole DeNamur: Yeah. Thanks so much for that intro, JoAnn, I really appreciate it. Yeah, like you said, my name is Nicole DeNamur and I am based here in Seattle, Washington and I probably will maintain an annoying number of sustainable building credentials. I’m a LEED Green Associate, a WELL AP and faculty, a Fitwel Associate and an EcoDistricts AP. We are rich with acronyms here in Sustainable Building so It’s okay if you don’t understand what all those are, and I’m happy to explain any of them. It’s definitely something we have a lot of here. I’m also really privileged to be an honorary member of the AIA here in Seattle. I won that award recently really for building connections between the legal community and the sustainability community. That’s a big part of what I do and kind of hopefully we’re here to talk about today. Those are kind of the I guess other highlights. I really consider myself a translator and a bridge builder between various communities to try to drive change with respect to sustainability.
Molly Ranns: Nicole, thank you so much for being here with us today. Can you help us understand how you got into this work?
Nicole DeNamur: Yeah, story time, right? So, I’m actually kind of always been an environmentalist. I’m really pleased to be on this podcast. I don’t remember if I shared this with you all but I got my undergrad degree at the University of Michigan in Environmental Science, and I grew up in a really rural area of Wisconsin so I’ve always been really connected to the environment and compelled to work in sustainability. I think a lot of folks that’s kind of a winding road and that’s definitely true for me. So, once I started practicing law here in Seattle, my first roles were in construction litigation and I really enjoyed that because it’s one of the few areas of law that were three-dimensional. I can see buildings; you can stand in them and there are these kinds of physical assets, and that was really neat I think aspect for me to fall into.
What was interesting or a little bit frustrating part of that journey was when LEED kind of hit the sustainability and Sustainable Building Construction Community. There was definitely a sense of these projects are little bit too risky or maybe we shouldn’t work on them because the too risky. I’m generalizing here admittedly, but just for purposes of kind of sharing my own personal experience. And that didn’t resonate really well with me being an environmentalist and really kind of thinking about how I was going to plug into the climate change space. And so, I really wanted to be a positive voice with respect to sustainability and sustainable building. And our built environment is responsible for about 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s a lot of challenges there but there’s also a lot of opportunities and that’s really what kind of drew me into that space.
So I was working mostly on the contractor/subcontractor side, and then I got really involved in the design community as I mentioned AIA Seattle here, as well as kind of the owner community. I teach a sustainable development class here at the University of Washington. We have a master’s in real estate science. So I’ve kind of tried to have a foot and all three aspects of the construction and development triangle, so development, construction and design. And as I kind of went through that journey developing this class, really kind of digging into some of the challenges, risk and as I said opportunities with respect to sustainability and sustainable building, I found myself at a place in my life and my career and I had a lot of really good support from the firms that I’ve worked from as well as my teaching colleagues in the sustainability community here. I feel really, really fortunate for that and I decided to launch my own sustainability consulting company in January of 2020.
I shall be the first to admit it’s a little bit of a challenging time to start a business, but it was really kind of focused on those intersections, the collaboration, translating and bridge building among these different community’s design, construction, law, development to really drive the innovation and change that we need with respect to climate change. A big part of my ethos is kind of getting away from working in towers and towards working collaboratively and together. Climate change is a big problem, it’s a big challenge and we need everybody working together on it. So that’s kind of my winding road to get there and it’s been an adventure and it’s kind of still is.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, that is very impressive. You have a lot of experience Nicole.
Nicole DeNamur: I definitely have a unique lens I think that I applied with work.
JoAnn Hathaway: Indeed. What are some of the ways that indoor spaces impact our health and wellness?
Nicole DeNamur: Yeah, I really appreciate this question because I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t have any sense of. So any chance that I get the opportunity to kind of share.
So every time I share this statistic, people are kind of floored by this. So, we spend 90% of our time indoors. That’s a North American pre-pandemic average. So you can imagine, most of us have probably been spending more than 90% of our time indoors with the pandemic and all those challenges. So, pre-Covid, again, that’s about a half to a third of time in office spaces when we were really going to office spaces. So, it always shocks me on how little effort and attention we put into these spaces where we spend just so much time. And this really kind of leads to this conversation of how are we going to get people back to the office and really drawing them back to the office by creating these spaces that support health and wellness.
So we have this kind of odd cyclical relationship we’re buildings as I mentioned earlier contribute about 40% of global climate emissions, yet we’re retreating to these spaces as our climate changes to seek refuge, right. Even here in Seattle, I’ve lived here for more than ten years and have seen our climate change to be significantly warmer than it has been in the past. It’s kind of this odd relationship with buildings where they’re creating so much of what’s actually causing climate change and then we’re spending so much time in them to get away from climate change and really trapping ourselves kind of indoors with things like really high pollutant levels.
There’s a couple of studies that show that indoor pollutant levels can be two to five times higher inside than they are outside. So we’re really kind of trapping ourselves in these spaces with all these negative things. And the thing that really gets me excited about this work is that there’s so many opportunities. It’s not that hard to make better indoor spaces, and along with that is spaces that are more inclusive and just make people feel better and perform better and keep them healthier and support their wellness
Molly Ranns: Nicole, what are a few key strategies that help to foster those healthier spaces that you speak about?
Nicole DeNamur: Okay, there’s a lot. So, like I said, we’re rich with acronyms and I try to kind of break things down, but I’ll talk about a couple of them. But there’s definitely just like LEED. Most people have kind of a baseline familiarity may be working LEED officer, you’ve been in a LEED building or you live in an apartment building that is LEED certified. So just like LEED really focuses on energy and water performance and things like that, as well as health and wellness. We also have kind of third-party certification programs that focus on health and wellness. I referenced that I’m a WELL AP or Well Accredited Professional. There’s also Fitwel. Those are third-party certification programs where you’re kind of working under a framework.
And then there’s also kind of academic frameworks like Harvard School Public Health has the nine foundations of healthy building. So there’s lots of different ways that we can kind of think about or use kind of these shorthand for ways of describing a healthy building. We commonly see within those factors are things like a high focus on air and water quality. Again, I mentioned two to five times higher indoor pollutants or pollutant levels are indoor versus outdoor. Things like the access to natural daylighting, biophilic design which is folks, this is a podcast, you can’t see me but I actually have some fresh flowers behind me incorporating natural elements into the spaces because we crave that access to nature.
As well as things that support thermal health, safety and security, active spaces, things like standing desks, stairways, always being mindful folks who are having mobility challenges, nutrition when you’re having access to in a cafeteria or vending machine, access to gyms and things like that. So there’s a lot of different aspects of kind of play in the key ones to really focus on I think are air quality and water quality because we’re in this pandemic and we’re going to be in it for a while but there’s lots of different ways to look at it and I think it’s kind of important that people pull from those common themes.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much Nicole. We are now going to take a short break from our conversation with Attorney Nicole DeNamur to thank our sponsors.
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JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We’re thrilled to be here today with Nicole DeNamur, attorney, educator and sustainability consultant as she talks about the creation of sustainable, healthy and inclusive workspaces. Nicole, why are healthier spaces so important particularly to businesses like law firms?
Nicole DeNamur: There’s a lot of different ways that indoor spaces impact our health and wellness and I think what’s really important for the legal community to really understand is the research keeps piling up that shows the negative impacts traditional buildings have on our health and wellness. So there’s a couple studies that I think are worth highlighting here. First is one that’s called the Cog Effect Study.
So this was a study that basically looked at how traditional office spaces impact the ability to make things like strategic decisions, strategy and other choices. So, what the researchers did, I’m going to oversimplify this study by just give people the highlights is they took kind of a traditional office building and they compared that to one really lowered levels of volatile organic compounds or VOCs which is one of our most common indoor pollutants. It comes out of everything from printers to carpeting to all the other fixtures in our office space. Lots of negative impacts on health and wellness and then they also in a kind of a third, what they called the Green Building plus days(ph), they decrease the VOC levels and open a window basically the functional equivalent of that, they increase the ventilation rates. So again, remember I said earlier that air quality was really the one thing to focus on, this Cog Effect Study is where that research is really grounded.
So what they found at the end of the day and again, I’m simplifying this for purposes of fourth time here together was that cognitive scores on average were 61% higher on those green building days. So when they lowered the VOC levels, people’s cognitive scores actually went up by 61% when they lowered the VOC levels and increased the ventilation rate, you could think of this as the functional equivalent of if you’re at home you’re opening a window to get some fresh air, those cognitive scores actually went up by 101% and I think for service providers like law firms, what’s really interesting is the testing that they did for this cognitive scores which I keep talking about, the largest effects were seen for things like crisis response, information usage, strategy, all these higher-level kind of decision-making skills that are really critical to law firms. And we’re not talking about really invasive or high-tech things, we’re talking about increasing ventilation rates and being mindful of the things that we bring into these office spaces, everything from cleaning products to the furniture fixtures and paints that you’re choosing.
It’s pretty shocking data to me and I think also kind of dovetails into a conversation about risk and liability and the places that you’re putting people in and just caring about your employees. So I think that’s the biggest example that I like to share with people with respect to impact or what are the impacts on the occupants.
Another one is a really interesting. I have worked in downtown office spaces and been freezing cold. I don’t know if other folks have experienced this. There was an article that came out that was basically asking, is your thermostat sexist? And it comes from this really analysis of the building standards and what we call thermal standards which are based on the metabolic rate, clothing choices of men in the 1960s. So in the same thermal environment women consistently show this higher level of dissatisfaction because women generally have a lower metabolic rate.
So we’re thinking, are you uncomfortable in this space? Are you able to do your best work? Are you setting everyone in your office up for success? Which the folks have any take away from this podcast I hope it’s that everyone deserves the right to do their best work and we can change office design in small and large ways in order to support everyone in these spaces. And so this kind of thinking more about thermal comfort and how can we foster environments where everyone can do their best work is a key part of the messaging that I hope to share with folks today and those are two I think good examples of how healthier spaces can Impact performance.
Molly Ranns: Yeah, those studies are fascinating Nicole. What are some intersections with health and equity?
Nicole DeNamur: I appreciate this conversation too because I have to say, I never thought I would talk about restrooms as much as I do in my life now as a sustainability consultant, but that’s a really important part of these conversations as well. And it’s one of the reasons I got into this work and I acknowledge I have kind of a specific lens and I bring my own experience and considerations to this work and I always want to make sure that I invite other voices into the space so I could share about restrooms and my own personal experience there. There’s lots of other ways that buildings exclude people so I just kind of like to make sure that I say that.
So one example again, based on my kind of lived experiences is restrooms and gendered spaces in particular. And so those present a lot of problems for folks who may not identify as either one of those spaces, right? We traditionally have a men’s and women’s restroom. There’s lots of historical reasons why that’s the case that we don’t have time for today. But my work as an advocate for more inclusive building design, I really look at the research. And so, one study that I rely heavily on is the 2015 Trans Survey, which is a kind of using the language that the survey is the largest survey of the trans community in America. And I got some really shocking data about how these gendered spaces impact those folks. And so what we’re looking at here is really how does poor building design impact health and wellness and this study really draws in a direct connection. I think the other important point for people who are listening is this is 2015 data, right? We are in 2022 now and this survey is it’s either live right now or it will be soon.
They’re going to be recollecting data. That’s important because 2015 was before there were some of the most recent attacks on the trans community. So we know this data is probably not going to look better in the future but it’s important that we have it as advocates so we could say this is why we go to leadership and say this is why we need more inclusive for example, restroom spaces. We need more inclusive office spaces, period. Restrooms are just one example.
So the data that comes out of that is that more than half of the respondents to this survey in 2015 avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience. Obviously, I’m reading this data because they don’t have it memorized, but nearly a third of respondents limited the amount, they ate, and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year. So poor building design is actually causing folks to not eat and drink. So they are not harassed and unsafe in those spaces. That’s really shocking to me that I think something that a lot of people need to be aware of.
The last one is 8% reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or other kidney related problems in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms. These are disheartening at best statistics, right? But it’s important that people know about them because this is how we can translate poor building design to really negative health impacts, and it demonstrates just how much we can do better. So let us then create more inclusive restrooms. It’s not that difficult. There’s lots of guidance out there that are better for everyone. And what’s really great I think about inclusive spaces is they benefit of much wider swath of people. So, for example, traditionally we’ve seen only baby changing stations and what’s been limited as a “women’s restroom”. Other folks need to take care of infant’s, right? And so that’s kind of another classic example. And so we can create these spaces where just everyone can do the one thing that we all do and it has real positive health impacts and safety impacts for folks who are using those spaces.
So there’s one example I’d like to highlight, as I said, I never thought I would end up talking about restrooms as much as I do as a sustainability consultant but we’ve really seen sustainable building and I think this is a positive trend kind of expand to include how do we think about and how to create more equitable spaces? How do we create more resilient communities? How do we kind of think more broadly about resource conservation, as well as the people that are in those spaces and making sure everybody’s healthy and safe.
JoAnn Hathaway: So Nicole, how can we do better and what are some of the risks and opportunities?
Nicole DeNamur: I appreciate that. There’s lots of ways we can do better and that’s why I get so excited about these conversations. The most important thing is having more voices at the table. You know, like I said earlier, I apply a specific lens. We all bring our own biases and assumptions to all these conversations. You’d be amazed that every time I talk to a potential client or some type of audience about inclusive restroom design that someone many people inevitably say, “I had no idea that was a problem. I had no idea.” If you haven’t experienced that challenge, then no, you didn’t know it was an idea. And again, I have my own lens that I apply to this work. There are many little voices that need to be part of these conversations that’s why it’s really important to make sure that we include as many voices at the table as we can.
I think that’s the first thing and then the second thing is I’ll be the first to also say, it’s kind of uncomfortable for me to talk about my personal experience in restrooms and talk about things like kidney infections, but it’s really important that we do daylight these statistics and just how unsafe certain spaces can be for people and how little effort it takes to make them better. So, I think just educating folks is why I appreciate any opportunity to come on a podcast. I blog about this stuff. Obviously talked about with our clients. So there’s I think two really important points.
The third one is we can spend the whole podcast on this but as law firms and other service providers are looking at how does ESG or Environmental Social Governance kind of play into these larger conversations on more sustainable, healthier and equitable spaces? We see things like potential employees what we call interviewing the building, asking questions about what is this space? I can tell you that in the first person who looks around and says, “Was there an inclusive restroom? Do I feel like I can feel safe here?” We also look at office design, like does it support a neuro diverse workforce? Does it support folks who are experiencing all kinds of different challenges in their life?
So I think there’s a lot of opportunity to see how these different healthy building strategies and more equitable strategies also tie into larger environmental social governance metrics as we see clients asking law firms to participate in ESG survey and data and things like that. And so there’s a lot of I think potential risk of being left behind if you have an office space that doesn’t welcome everyone into it, clients and lawyers and staff. There’s also a real Opportunity to say, “Hey, we’re taking a leadership role in the space. We’ve taken a look at our office. We’ve talked to our folks and we have an understanding what’s really important to both our employees and our clients and other stakeholders.”
“We’re making these changes through office design and to really create a welcoming space.” And I think that’s a real opportunity. It gets me excited to talk to law firms and lawyers because I think the actual office designs is a part of the conversation that often gets left behind. Traditional office spaces are designed for a kind of certain slice of the world to do really well and we need a much broader slice. Everyone deserves the right to have a place where they can do their best work, to be set up for success and there’s a lot of ways that building design plays into that and in a lot of exciting opportunities I think
Molly Ranns: Nicole, you talked a lot about how important it is to have education and self-awareness. Where can the legal professionals who are listening to this podcast, you know the last students, the lawyers, the judges, where can they go get more information? Where should they begin?
Nicole DeNamur: Yeah, there’s a couple of resources. A lot of the statistics I’ve shared today including the Cog Effect Study, the Harvard Foundation, nine foundations of a healthy building and thermal comfort coming from a researcher, Joe Allen who’s from Harvard School of Public Health. Another colleague recently wrote a book. So I direct people there. As well as the resources that my company puts out. I am on Medium if folks are familiar with that platform. I do a lot of kind of free information and blogging with respect to all of these issues, how can lawyers and law firms do better? What are the impacts and what healthy buildings really mean from a risk management perspective?
And then I guess the other thing I would say to from an advocacy standpoint is, I often run into folks who are understandably overwhelmed by sustainability or healthy buildings and feels like the big thing. How do I participate? How do I even start? And I can imagine law firm leaders who want to engage and don’t know where and I always say, “Start small, start somewhere, figure out which material to your organization. Sustainability, healthy buildings, equity strategies are all really broad.” And I don’t want to stall progress by people getting overwhelmed so I always say, “Start somewhere. Start small. Do what you can. If it’s an Excel spreadsheet, start there.” There’s lots of technology to support these things, but talk to your stakeholders and figure out what’s most important and then just start there. So, I always want to make kind of sure that I say that and then we have lots of websites or lots of tools and resources on our website as well. So there’s information out there, it can be overwhelming, we’re happy to help. There are also other free resources and just start somewhere.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank Our guest today. Nicole DeNamur for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Nicole, if our guests want to follow up with you, how should they do that?
Nicole DeNamur: Yeah. So they’re welcome to visit our website which is https://www.sustainablestrategiespllc.com. They can also email me directly. So it’s my first name Nicole, N-I-C-O-L-E, [email protected]. And then as I mentioned we’re also in Medium. So if you go to Medium and search for sustainable strategies, you’ll find us there and those are I think the top three good ways to get in contact with us.
Molly Ranns: Nicole, thank you again. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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