Mold: The Unintended Consequence of Sustainability

by Cheryl Ciecko, ALA, AIA, LEED AP

With today's highly-engineered and energy-efficient designs, as well as technologically-managed mechanical and enclosure systems, indoor air pollution from dampness and mold can create some potentially-hazardous health conditions for building occupants. In addition to poor air quality, moisture leads to the deterioration of building components.

By creating extremely tight building enclosures, architects and builders have also created environments where moisture can accumulate and mold and bacteria can flourish. While building designs have become more technical, actual construction processes have remained the same. In the past, buildings and building materials have gotten wet, but natural airflow has always been enough to dry them out. Today's super-tight, energy-efficient structures still get wet but are no longer able to dry out naturally. 

The prevalence of home dampness cannot be established in the absence of a gold standard, according to the World Health Organization, but occupants' and inspectors' reports indicate that building dampness and its repercussions likely affect between 10% and 50% of buildings in the most affluent countries, with even higher percentages in poorer countries.

The effects of mold resulting from excess moisture can be devastating, affecting more than 20% of people, particularly the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Medical experts have identified a number of illnesses, infections and disorders as resulting from exposure to water-damaged buildings, mold and mycotoxins. 

And while some organizations have published best practices or guidelines to prevent mold, there are no government standards in place to regulate  water damage, or mold and bacteria in buildings. In most states, there is also no legislation or licensing required for water damage cleanup, restoration or mold remediation. As a result, toxic mold resulting from water damage in buildings is on track to be the asbestos of the 21st century in terms of health effects for building occupants.  

Architects, however, have the tools and expertise to design mold-resistant buildings, which in turn can offer excellent air quality. Awareness that moisture can come from many sources within the building as well as the entire enclosure needs to be considered. In addition, site and location-specific solutions are critical to meet the unique challenges of various climate zones. By understanding and applying the fundamentals of moisture management in the context of building location, architects can design buildings that are both sustainable and healthy. 

For the full article, check out the Fall 2017 issue of Licensed Architect and see the next issue, which will explore specific design choices that can affect moisture and water damage in buildings. For more information, visit