Did you know? Buildings can make us happier and more productive

Did you know that we spend nearly three quarters of our life indoors?  For most of us, nearly half of that time is spent at work.  This is astounding considering the current conditions of the workplace.  An office with poor ventilation, no daylight, bad HVAC and terrible lighting… Sound familiar?  A recent study by the World Green Building Council (WGBC) shows that over time, these conditions start to take a serious toll on both our mental and physical health.

So what do we do about it?  What are the solutions?

Healthy Buildings Are A Basic Necessity

For years we have looked at buildings as a functional necessity to house “components”, when in actuality they are critical environments which can either improve or decline our health.  I am going to dissect for you some areas where we can improve the built environment in terms of wellness and hope that you will consider incorporating some of these into your office or real estate project.  We will also explore emerging design trends for high performing buildings and look at how they can drastically improve our workplace.

Per the WGBC report, here are some areas to focus within your building to maximize worker productivity:

Indoor air quality: A comprehensive body of research suggests that better indoor air quality (low concentrations of CO2 and pollutants and high ventilation rates) can lead to productivity improvements of 8-11%.

Thermal comfort (Does your space feel hot or cold?): Research demonstrates that thermal comfort has a significant impact on workplace satisfaction and modest degrees of personal control over thermal comfort can return single digit improvements in productivity.

Lighting and views of nature: Several studies have estimated productivity gains as a result of proximity to windows, with experts now thinking that views from windows are probably the more significant factor, particularly where the view offers a connection to nature.

Noise and acoustics: Research suggests that being productive in the modern knowledge-based office is practically impossible when noise provides an unwanted distraction. This can be a major cause of dissatisfaction amongst occupants.

Interior layout: The way the interior of an office is configured (including workstation density and configuration of work space, breakout space and social space) has been found to have an impact on concentration, collaboration, confidentiality and creativity.

Active design and exercise: Health can be improved through exercise, and so active design within a building, and access to services and amenities such as gyms, bicycle storage and green space can help to encourage healthier lifestyles of building occupants. An example of active design can be standing desks, collaborative work spaces, a urban/campus environment (encouraging walkability between buildings) or even strategically locating stairs to encourage their use instead of elevators.  More info on Active Design can be found here – http://centerforactivedesign.org/guidelines/

Given these numbers, the total sum of the opportunity for improved productivity is in the 10-20% range which could prove to have large impacts to your company’s bottom line.  This is in addition to ability to gain or retain more talented employees.

Why Green Buildings are the solution:

Green buildings are designed and constructed to limit the amount of energy and natural resources used while at the same time creating the healthiest living environment possible for the occupant.  The term “green” is used because the buildings are better for the environment.  Statistics also show that in addition to these benefits, the buildings can save owners/operators of the buildings a lot of money over the duration of the facility.

Green Buildings Can Reduce

Green Buildings allow for balance within your building.  You can evaluate all of the critical impact areas of your facility:  Site, Energy, Water, Materials and Comfort – And choose what works best for you.  Green Building rating systems such as LEED® can provide you with a road map to create an ideal work environment for you and your business. To learn more about LEED® and the green building rating system, please visit www.usgbc.org.

Emerging design trends are increasingly focused on occupant wellness and healthier environments.  The Living Building Challenge and the WELL Building Institute are definitely worth looking into if you are planning a new project.   Their philosophies push the limits past conventional design and force us to be creative in our approach to our buildings and how we interact with them.  Philosophies such as Biophilia (that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems) are now being used to design spaces and Green Buildings are being built to regenerate instead of degenerate our resources.  The hope is that one day all buildings are healthy, interactive, creative, generative and accessible to all people.

Twelve West Office - Portland, OR

Twelve West Office – Portland, OR

Let’s talk ROI:

What is the most expensive “component” within your business?  Is it energy?  Is it the building? Actually, it is the people!  Your employees… Salaries, Healthcare, Benefits… Cost of personnel is 90% of running a business. That means the cost of the building is only 10% of the cost of operating a business but it has the largest opportunity to make a positive impact on the personnel.  It’s time we begin investing more into the comfortability of the workplace and making it healthier for our employees.  Studies prove that the healthier and more comfortable that our employees are, the happier and more productive they become.  This means retaining and growing talented people and creating a work environment which helps them instead of hurts them.

Operational Cost Breakdown

Findings of the WGBC report conclude:

Costs of ill-health vary by sector and country, and are rarely comparable, but the impact is clear:

  • The annual absenteeism rate in the US is 3% per employee in the private sector, and 4% in the public sector, costing employers $2,074 and $2,502 per employee per year respectively.
  • Poor mental health specifically costs UK employers £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence.
  • The aggregate cost to business of ill-health and absenteeism in Australia is estimated at $7 billion per year, while the cost of ‘presenteeism’ (not fully functioning at work because of medical conditions) is estimated to be $26 billion.

How to start… Conduct a workplace survey:

I challenge you to start by creating a simple workplace survey of your employees and get feedback.  The survey will allow you to measure what is working well at your business in terms of the building, comfort, workplace habits, expectations and happiness.  This survey should be confidential and will serve as a baseline.  From here you will be able to target areas that seem to be the largest potential impact for your business and start to slowly make improvements.  Like any system or process improvement, you must track the impact, report back to the group and continue to monitor these improvements until you receive the desired outcomes.  It may be a good exercise for your leadership to reexamine your company philosophy and goals around employee happiness and productivity.

Areas of focus for the survey may include:

  • General information about the employee (age, sex, department, distance from work)
  • Impressions of the building/company in general
  • The role of sustainability
  • Building fabric and systems
  • Office Design/Layout
  • Location/Amenities
  • The workplace and me
  • Employee engagement
  • Move-in questions after occupancy

For more resources, please visit:

World Green Building Council – www.worldgbc.org

Whole Building Design Guide – www.wbdg.org

International Well Building Institute – www.wellcertified.com

Living Building Challenge – www.living-future.org/lbc

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