Joseph Allen

Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science

Department of Environmental Health

My vision:

I believe that we have to force a collision between these two disciplines: building science and health science. The indoor built environment (homes, offices, schools, hospitals, airplanes, laboratories) plays a critical role in our overall exposure and health, both due to the amount of time we spend indoors (~90%) and the ability of the buildings to positively and negatively influence our exposure. The goal is to improve the health of all people, in all buildings, everywhere, every day. I propose moving from the term Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for businesses to Health Performance Indicators (HPIs) – making health explicit in all aspects of decision-making. I see health as the primary motivator for action. Learn more about my Healthy Buildings program at:


My story:

For several years in private industry before joining the faculty at Harvard, I led teams of scientists and engineers investigating, and resolving, hundreds of indoor environmental quality issues, from ‘sick buildings’ to cancer clusters to all types of chemical/radiological/biological hazards. I learned two important facts: 1) too often we are responding to issues after there is a problem, and 2) we cannot solve these problems without a multidisciplinary approach. I have an interest in the dynamic interplay between the indoor environment and health and am continuing this line of research at Harvard, with a focus on optimizing indoor environments for health benefits. A natural extension of my research on buildings and the indoor environment is the consideration of the products we use in those environments, and how those influence our exposure and health. This interest started with my doctoral research on novel flame retardant chemicals in consumer products and continued with an investigation for the Consumer Product Safety Commission on “Chinese Drywall”. Most recently, I have extended this line of research by flipping the question; instead of asking how do we fix problem buildings after they occur, I am asking – “how do we optimize indoor environments for health, well-being and productivity?” This effort is highlighted by our recent work on the impact of green buildings on cognitive function, in which we found an association between high performing indoor spaces and cognitive function of office workers.

Building for Health at Harvard:

We are aggressively moving on this vision. I started the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. One of the first goals of my program was to synthesize 30 years of public health science into identifying what it is that makes a building ‘healthy’. The result: the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building.

We designed a new course, The Impact of Buildings on Health, Productivity and Sustainability at the Harvard Chan School, cross-enrolled by students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). I am the faculty advisor to a new student group – Built Environment and Health Student Consortium (BEHSC). We developed a new executive education course – Building for Health – to train business leaders on this topic.  I am the faculty advisor for a new initiative led by Harvard’s Office for Sustainability – Harvard Healthy Building Materials Academy. And the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Design are now offering a joint degree program. The Healthy Buildings movement is on.

Sensors for Health:

I started Harvard Sensors for Health, a group that is developing methodologies for deploying real-time sensor networks in and around buildings, all toward the goal of understanding the factors that shape human health. We advocate a “Buildingomics” approach. “Buildingomics” is the totality of factors in the building-related environment that influence human health, well-being and productivity of people who work in those buildings. With high spatial and temporal monitoring arrays, we are able to develop health scores for buildings, and move one step closer to understanding the key factors that drive health in buildings.

Select Research: 

J G Allen NIH Bibliography

Green buildings and cognitive function

Health Performance Indicators (HPIs)

Impact of Green space around schools and chronic absenteeism

Flavoring chemicals in e-cigs

Legionnaires’ disease and risk in hospitals

Flame retardants and thyroid disease

Elevated corrosion rates in homes with “Chinese drywall”

Airplane cabin and passenger comfort

Airplane pilot mental health and suicidality


Wall Street Journal / Washington Post / the Atlantic / NPR / Fortune / BBC / NY Times / CBS / Reddit, r/science / Telegraph / Time / Discovery / Reuters / Harvard Gazette / STAT News / Motherboard / Economic Times / Gizmodo / [Perez Hilton!] / Naked Scientists / China Real Estate Business / Fox News / Lancet Respiratory Medicine / Newsweek / LA Times / CNN / US News & World Report / Al Jazeera / Harvard Gazette / Boston Globe / National Geographic / Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Review: Stale Office Air is Making You Less Productive

Op-Ed, Washington Post: Playing Games with Toxic Chemicals

The Environmentalist Papers – a scientific defense of the environment and health

National Geographic – Urban Expeditions

Schools for Health: Foundations for Student Success


Faculty Advisor, Harvard Healthy Building Materials Academy

White House Roundtable on The Health Benefits of Nature

Sustainability for Health Leadership Series (link)

Master of Public Health degree focusing on “Sustainability, Health and the Global Environment” [link]

Course, Spring Semester – “The Impact of Buildings on Health, Productivity and Sustainability”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Research Strategy Review – “Harmful Physical and Social Environments”

Faculty Advisor, Built Environment & Health Student Consortium (BEHSC)

Department of Energy, “Buildings of the Future”

Advisory Committee, Healthy and Affordable Materials Project (JPB Foundation grant)


Bachelor of Science (B.S)., Boston College

Master of Public Health (M.P.H.), Boston University

Doctor of Science (D.Sc.), Boston University


Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH)