The Netherlands is a densely populated country. The number of residents has now passed the 17 million mark and is continuing to grow. In addition, more and more people are moving to towns and cities and that means not only that the four largest municipalities will continue to expand, but that medium-sized municipalities will continue to grow as well. This is causing huge pressure on the space and organisation of towns and cities. In order to maintain a high quality of life in towns and cities it is important to think carefully about how they are organised. This means more than just reserving space for greenery and water. Buildings also play a role in the quality of life in a town or city. Shops, offices, homes and other premises are all part of the built environment.

Buildings and/or homes can be a source of nuisance for the immediate surroundings and people's health. For example cooling or heating installations which make a lot of noise when turned on and possibly cause noise pollution. These may, for example, cause problems for people who live above shops. Residential neighbourhoods may experience odour nuisance from wood-burning stoves or open fires.

The environment in buildings also has a significant influence on people's health. All kinds of substances which are released into the indoor environment, such as moisture, tobacco smoke and radon, may accumulate if there is insufficient ventilation. The concentrations of substances are often higher in the indoor environment than outside and may have an effect on people's health.

Accessibility of a building plays a role primarily for people with disabilities. People in wheelchairs find it easier to move about if the buildings they have to use are accessible for them. This means shops and government buildings as well as community centres where they can attend social activities.

Building materials and installations

Both the inside and the outside of a building play a role in terms of a(n) (un)healthy living environment. The building materials of a building can be a health hazard. The best known example is asbestos. In the Netherlands, the sale, usage and processing (cutting, drilling, sanding, or dismantling) of asbestos has been prohibited since 1 July 1993 due to the dangers for people's health. Before that time asbestos was frequently used as, among other things, a building material. Breathing in asbestos fibres can, in the long-term, cause mesothelioma (cancer of the membranes of the lungs, chest wall and, to a lesser extent, the abdomen), lung cancer and pneumoconiosis.

Wet cooling towers are an example of installations close to or on a building that could cause a health risk. The installations are part of cooling systems which are used to remove excess heat from production processes and buildings by nebulising water in an open construction. Wet cooling towers are well-known sources of legionella bacteria.

Foundations

Many buildings which were constructed before 1970 have wooden foundation piles. As long as these wooden piles are standing in wet soil they retain their strength. However, in periods of drought, the groundwater level may drop so low that these piles come into contact with oxygen. This can result in fungal growth which causes the piles to rot. Rotting can be prevented by keeping the groundwater level (artificially) high, or by repairing the foundations. The latter solution is very expensive. Rotting foundation piles can be a source of huge stress for homeowners. This stress can lead to health issues.

Indoor environment

The air inside a building also has a significant influence on people's health. The air in towns and cities is not always of a high quality. Consequently, airing your house by opening windows may not seem to be a good idea. Often the opposite is true however, namely that the quality of the indoor air is worse for your health than the air outside. Various substances play a role in the indoor environment. One of these is moisture that can lead to mould formation in the event of insufficient ventilation. Substances which may be a health hazard are also released when you use the (gas) cooker or open fire.

Cooling and heating installations can cause noise pollution. Noise in our residential environment can be annoying and disturb people's sleep. In the event of long-term noise pollution it is difficult to find rest and be able to relax. Continuous stress and sleep disturbance can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. Odour emissions from wood-burning stoves and open fires can lead to a broad range of health effects such as respiratory problems. In the first place odour is a nuisance and therefore has a negative effect on people's well-being and daily activities.

Building location and accessibility

The location of buildings in an urban environment has an effect on how people experience it. There are a lot of high-rise buildings in the densely populated centres of major cities like Rotterdam and The Hague. These can cause annoying windy conditions for people at street level. On the other hand the proper flow of wind is important when it comes to cooling down city centres on hot days.

Exercise is good for the health of all people, including people with a disability. It is important that the right facilities are accessible in order for this to be possible. People in wheelchairs, for example, are more likely to venture outside if they know that the places they are going to are properly accessible.

Use of asbestos prohibited in the Netherlands

Since 1983 a ban has been in place on the production and use of friable products containing asbestos. Since 1 July 1993 all commercial processing of asbestos has been prohibited in the Netherlands. However, asbestos is still present in many buildings and premises which date from before that time. The main focus of the asbestos policy is to prevent exposure to asbestos. In addition, the government is investigating how asbestos can be responsibly removed from the living environment. At the same time municipalities, citizens and companies are being encouraged to comply more with the rules for asbestos removal.

Wet cooling towers

For the majority of wet cooling towers, the municipalities are the designated enforcers on the grounds of the Environmental Management Act and environmental authorities at the supervisory bodies. The provincial governments are the enforcers for the wet cooling towers at a limited number of (larger) facilities. Lastly the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate is responsible for supervising and enforcing in the case of several dozen wet cooling towers at certain Ministry of Defence facilities. The Environmental Management Activities Decree contains information on what you should do with regard to the risks associated with operational wet cooling towers.

Healthy housing construction

Various Municipal Health Service guidelines have been drawn up for the indoor environment, including the Healthy housing construction (2007) guidelines which defines measures aimed at:

  • Minimising the influence of outside air pollution and surrounding noise through the use of structural measures.
  • Preventing poor quality of the indoor environment by tackling building and finishing material sources.
  • Improving the quality of the indoor environment by removing hazardous substances via ventilation facilities.

In addition to the Municipal Health Service guidelines, the Buildings Decree 2012 also includes a number of regulations which can be used to assess the health aspects of a particular building. For example there is a description of how a building must have an external partition construction to prevent noise. There are also descriptions of how internal and external partition constructions must comply with certain air and water tightness qualities, that it must be possible to ventilate rooms and facilities properly and that a certain amount of daylight has to be available.

Environmental effects

The Spatial Planning Act states that zoning plans must be established in order to ensure proper spatial planning. For example, no regulations apply to wind nuisance. However, if a zoning plan permits buildings with a height of 30 metres or more, an investigation into wind nuisance has to be carried out.

Accessibility

Article 4.24 of the Buildings Decree 2012 describes how, in the case of a building with a designated use, there has to be an accessibility area, depending on the function and size of the building in question. An accessibility area is described as an 'area in the building which is independently usable and accessible for people with a physical disability'. Article 4.26 then describes the requirements in terms of the accessibility of the accessibility area. For example, an accessibility area in a building must be directly accessible from the adjacent site (usually this means from outside) or along a specially created route.

There are a number of aspects which you can take into account in your own home. If you intend to make any alterations you must, just like contractors and architects, observe the rules laid down in the Buildings Decree 2012. If you own a property which was constructed before 1993, it may contain asbestos. In the Netherlands, the sale, usage and processing (cutting, drilling, sanding, or dismantling) of asbestos has been prohibited since 1 July 1993 due to the dangers for people's health. In almost all situations asbestos has to be removed by a certified company. Read more here about identifying asbestos.

When fitting cooling and heating installations, you should take the adjoining homes and buildings into account.. You can find more tips on how to reduce noise pollution on the find out more page on noise. You can find more tips on how to prevent odour nuisance on the find out more page on air.

If you want to create a healthier indoor environment, it is important to ventilate regularly and properly. You should also ensure that geysers, boilers and central heating boilers are regularly serviced.