Back to Maastricht

The coming years will see tens of thousands of homes in the Netherlands undergo extensive renovation and modernisation. While the main goal is to improve energy efficiency, researcher Juan Palacios is interested in understanding the impact of home renovations on residents’ health. He will spend the next three years working on this topic, supported by a prestigious Veni grant.

The School of Business and Economics (SBE) had cause to celebrate when the Dutch Research Council (NWO) announced its Veni grant recipients last August. It’s not every day that two SBE researchers—Max Löffler and Juan Palacios—are awarded grants. “For a researcher, getting a Veni is like hitting the jackpot,” Palacios says. “The criteria are very strict; out of hundreds of applications, only 13% are approved. And it takes up to a year to develop your research proposal—writing, rewriting, expanding, presenting … ”

Societal impact

The most important criterion for the NWO is societal impact. “It has to be research that can be translated into, say, government policy,” he explains. “I want to show that renovating old, run-down rental properties not only reduces energy bills, but also improves residents’ health. A well-insulated and ventilated house with good central heating can be kept comfortable all year round, which is important in winter, but perhaps even more essential in summer, when you’re dealing with heatwaves and extreme temperatures. Heat stress causes all sorts of physical and psychological issues, as does financial strain due to skyrocketing energy prices. This can lead, in turn, to social isolation and psychological distress. We’re studying whether residents are healthier after a home renovation and place fewer demands on the healthcare system.” 

Familiar territory

Palacios has a budget of over €280,000. The grant covers his own salary and allows him to hire assistants for data processing and communication. “We’ll collect three years’ worth of data from Statistics Netherlands, general practices, healthcare institutions and housing corporations to assess the health impact of energy-efficiency interventions.”

The topic is familiar territory for Palacios. After completing his bachelor’s in economics in his hometown of Madrid and a master’s in econometrics in Essex (UK), he found his way to Maastricht for his PhD. “During a visit to Shanghai, I was struck by how bad the air quality was. There was thick smog almost every day. Air pollution is harmful to human health, there’s no doubt about that. You’re safe indoors, but only if it’s a well-ventilated school, office or home. That’s what gave me the idea to study the relationship between health and the buildings in which we spend most of our time. And to translate the findings in economic terms.”

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Eichholtz and Kok

Looking for a PhD position, he came across a planned research project by two UM professors with the same idea, Piet Eichholtz and Nils Kok. “I applied, we had a good click, and I started in June 2015. I wanted to show that living, studying and working conditions have an impact on human health and functioning.”

The results he presented four years later were very concrete. “We analysed large amounts of German data spanning three decades. Living in poor-quality houses turned out to be detrimental to health, especially for older people. They went to the doctor a lot more often than older people living in better quality homes. And after home renovations, there was a dramatic drop in visits to the doctor.”

Poorer performance

Two other studies in the research project took place in Limburg. “In one, we used sensors to collect data from primary schools on air quality, temperature, CO2 levels, humidity and so on. We found that children in poor-quality classrooms had lower educational outcomes than their peers in better buildings. The other study involved the new municipal office in Venlo, a sustainable building designed with a focus on indoor environmental quality. Employees who moved to the new building turned out to have fewer health issues and take fewer sick days than their colleagues who remained in the old building. In other words, all three studies showed a relationship between human health and the indoor environment.”

Dream job at MIT

After completing his PhD, Palacios was appointed as a postdoctoral researcher at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston—a dream job, at one of the world’s top universities. But Eichholtz and Kok invited him back to Maastricht. “They approached me to write a research proposal and a Veni grant application for a study on sustainable real estate and healthy buildings. It was a fantastic opportunity that built directly on my PhD research. I said yes, also because I missed Maastricht—the hospitable people, culture, nature and the surrounding environment; perfect for cycling and exercising. And of course, the international university with people from all over the world. It’s so inspiring and valuable. I feel at home here and I’m glad to be back.”

He still spends 10 weeks a year in Boston, as a lecturer and researcher at MIT. “It’s an ideal combination. At MIT I mainly focus on innovations in housing, so I learn things there that we can use in Maastricht.”


Text: Jos Cortenraad
Photography: Arjen Schmitz

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