Continuing the Case for Sustainable Design
Green building as a design approach emerged around twenty-five years ago as a result of the sustainability movement reaching the mainstream. This inaugurated an entirely new market of design, architecture and technology. Today, this industry is worth a trillion dollars worldwide and is set to expand rapidly.
If it wasn’t evident before the pandemic hit, it is now: the built environment has a huge role to play in building a healthier, more sustainable world, from combating climate change to improving human health.
The lockdowns and isolation have given us a greater appreciation for the role our surroundings play in our health and wellbeing. As we have seen, there’s no choice to be made between environmental health and human health – the two are inextricable.
Amidst the ambiguity of this last year, one thing is clear: We will all go back to work with new expectations about the buildings where we live, learn, work, and play.
What is a healthy building?
Not too many decades ago, people used to sit in cubicles all day, and smoking was largely allowed in the office. The workplace of today looks very different as a result of a cultural shift caused by greater awareness of the impacts of offices on the environment and on human health.
The healthy building trend is a branch of the green building movement, which is characterized by a holistic design approach that considers views a building and its inhabitants as deeply intertwined.
Research has shown that our physical and social environments have a greater impact on our state of health than our lifestyle and behaviours, our access to healthcare or even our genetics. Given that we spend more than 90% of our time indoors, those environments have a profound impact on our health and wellbeing.
In this way, buildings and those who tend to them – owners, developers, and facilities managers – can be frontline caregivers, able to function in and of themselves as agents and promoters of health.
Organizations also benefit from the health impacts of green buildings, as people are their greatest asset. In the war to attract and retain talent, as well as to ensure people’s health and safety in the face of crisis, organizations must consider how design, construction and operation decisions can positively contribute to their employees’ health, happiness, satisfaction and productivity.
Ultimately, harmonizing health, energy efficiency and resilience results in stronger organizations and healthier communities – and it starts with better buildings.
What makes a building healthy?
Today, we see an explosion of innovation and creativity around how to make buildings greener and healthier.
Using evidence-based approaches, several aspects have been found to improve both the sustainability of a building as well as the wellbeing of its occupants.
One of the most common complaints among workers regarding their environment is related to lighting – a workspace is too dark, lacks natural light, uses too many harsh fluorescent lights, etc.
Design elements like large windows, skylights, glass doors and walls, open concept spaces, and lighter wall colours can all enhance natural light, both improving the wellbeing and creativity of occupants and decreasing electricity bills.
Task lighting and dimmers have also proven to be effective methods of saving energy and increasing employee productivity.
There has also been a trend towards developing lights to match the circadian rhythm. Research shows that blue light during the day best mimics natural daylight, and so adding blue-enriched lights to an office space can increase productivity and lead to higher-quality sleep.
This one is a bit more difficult if your office is located in an urban downtown core. However, strategically locating your office building near a park or another natural space can increase the satisfaction of your employees with their office experience, as well as improve their mental wellbeing through easy access to refreshing spaces.
If office location is not flexible, highlighting nearby natural features from within the building, such as with optimal window design, can provide some of these benefits.
Research has revealed that biophilia has distinct physiological and psychological impacts on people. Integrating elements that tap into this connection has been found to reduce stress and improve productivity as well as creativity in the workplace.
Bringing the outdoors indoors includes everything from simple changes such as introducing more living plants and natural daylight, to more involved features such as green walls and timber exteriors, to design-oriented approaches such as carefully curated patterns and colours that evoke nature.
At the same time, one of the best ways to promote environmental sustainability is to incorporate natural elements into a building design. For example, installing plant walls makes a building more energy efficient because it has a very specific impact on IAQ. This also provides people with a relaxing, soothing image to look at, making it both aesthetic and useful at the same time.
Another new, more high-tech way of integrating nature into a building’s design is through biomimicry, otherwise known as basing a system or structure off of biological processes.
Good ventilation is essential for creating a green building with a small carbon footprint and also has a huge impact on health, as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past, rather than creating spaces with optimized ventilation, designers have simply aimed for the bare minimum.
Luckily, this is changing as more and more research shows the correlation between airflow and cognitive function, with studies finding that when ventilation is significantly increased, a worker’s productivity significantly increases along with it. Fewer sick days and higher productivity and efficiency are commonly cited as positive benefits of optimal ventilation.
Thermal comfort, including temperature and humidity, also majorly affect health and wellbeing. Work environments that are stuffy, humid, and warm have been proven to stifle productivity, cause fatigue, and result in dry skin.
When deciding on an optimal temperature for any given space, it is important to consider the people who work there. Weight, age, and gender can all play a role in how a person experiences temperature. Understanding the makeup of the people who work there, as well as the impact of a specific building’s design, are both critical when gauging optimal temperatures.
The layout of the interior of the building is just as important as the exterior in promoting health, if not more so. An optimally laid out space saves energy as well as promotes physical health by encouraging employees to get active.
Moving printers, copiers and other communal equipment to a central space instead of giving occupants their own equipment not only requires users to walk farther to pick up their printed material, but also creates a mini-meeting space where occupants can bump into colleagues for impromptu conversations (and reduces the amount of equipment you need to maintain and energy you use).
By making staircases inviting and convenient, you can nudge more people to make greater use of them. Using elements that provide visual interest and lighting makes the stair experience more inviting, and as a result, more people will be inclined to use them. Locating communal spaces like kitchenettes and lounges near the stair landings whenever possible can draw occupants to the stairs for convenience and community.
What is the cost of a healthy building?
Talking about costs and benefits is where most issues arise when implementing such initiatives.
It is important to be careful in choosing a baseline against which ‘extra over’ costs are determined. Often, baseline costs are established for a minimally compliant building. Compared to the baseline, every enhancement is considered extra which doesn’t sound so good when pitching to the C-suite.
In addition, factoring in the human and environmental costs of an ‘unhealthy’ building is a lot more complicated than the price tag on more efficient equipment, for example.
However, with some data analysis, the long-term picture becomes crystal clear: about 90% of a company’s operational costs are locked up in its people, so there’s huge potential to unlock the benefits around health and wellbeing that can be driven from savings associated with increased productivity and wellness.
The benefits of green buildings are well recognized by employees, too. Leveraging the ways in which these initiatives impact corporate image and employee satisfaction can help garner buy-in and communicate the multitude of ways in which more sustainable buildings can contribute to the longevity and competitiveness of organizations.
Human health and wellbeing must be incorporated into broader systems change the approach towards buildings and cities, alongside net-zero carbon and energy efficiency targets, if we are to accelerate the transition to a healthy and sustainable future.
More healthy building resources:
Our team at Horizant has the tools you need to support your office’s transition to green systems and structures. Data management software not only shows where you can optimize your ROI but can also provide real-time analysis and user-friendly reporting to track project effectiveness and efficiency.