It is commonly estimated that we spend approximately 90% of our lifetime indoors (1). During the current COVID-19 Pandemic, we can all collectively attest that this percentage has sadly increased.
The places we live have become simultaneously our home, our office, our schools, our gym, and more. Whilst being at home has played a key role in protecting our health from the spread of the coronavirus, our homes are not always supportive of our well-being. Reports from the EPA share scientific evidence indicating that the air within buildings can be much more polluted than the outdoor air, especially in the largest and most industrialised cities (2).
Reading about this can spike anyone’s cortisol level, but it poses the questions, could my house or workplace be impacting the way I am feeling? Is the air I am breathing clean? What about my water? Are the lights too bright? Are these noise levels too high?
The large majority will not be able to answer these questions by themselves, but most will want answers when returning to their workspaces.
The workforce has now strong, unnegotiable requirements and expectations from their workplace. The workplace needs to keep them safe. With staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically accounting for about 90% of business operating costs (6); the health, well-being, and in turn, productivity of its users has quickly become a matter of priority on all companies’ agenda. With strong case studies supporting the benefits of health and well-being frameworks – in retaining, attracting talent, and diminishing absenteeism by facilitating a better environment – investors have been quick to place such frameworks on the table, observing how benefits outweigh costs. With energy and rent representing only the remaining 10% of business operating costs, efficient buildings are no longer enough.
Healthy buildings have been an ongoing trend in the real estate industry for nearly the last decade but the introduction of specific health and well-being standards such as the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel have created neatly packaged frameworks, easily integrated throughout building design, construction, and operation. Additionally, with the growing investor interest in assessing the on-going performance of their real estate portfolios, through schemes such as GRESB, the introduction of health and well-being modules has validated the value and opportunities created through the thoughtful implementation of policies focused on enhancing the health and well-being of building occupants (3).
WELL includes a series of offerings, including the WELL Building Standard, as well as the WELL Health-Safety Rating and WELL Portfolio. The Standard was created by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and is third-party verified by the Green Business Certification, Inc (GBCI). It is rigorous, with detailed requirements for each feature, and can be used for a single asset or a portfolio of assets or at the organizational-level (4).
Fitwel, created and administered by the Center for Active Design, includes subjective assessments of building-level policies and relies on self-reported assessments. The program offers a one-off certification with no continuous monitoring (5).
Both WELL and Fitwel are awarded points for a portfolio’s GRESB rating, though only WELL earns full points for GRESB’s Building Certification indicators (6).
In addition to monitoring the more obvious areas of air, water, and materials in a building, health and well-being policies address areas less obvious to building designers. These include canteen menus offered, wearable technology for monitoring occupant’s movement and sleep, stress management plans, and maternity/paternity policies, for example. Perhaps two under-appreciated sources of adverse health outcomes, that may be particularly relevant while we are all stuck in close quarters – all day long – are elevated noise levels and poor lighting.
WELL states that it is only in recent years that it has been determined that exposure to noise sources, such as daily traffic and transportation has been shown to hinder occupants’ productivity, focus, memory retention, and mental health. Some of the solutions can include planning and commissioning of an isolated and balanced HVAC system, fortification of façade elements, adding mass, and glazing to partition elements and replacing areas of hard surfaces in a space with absorptive materials. These measures can reduce reflected sound energy and better facilitate acoustical privacy or, conversely, improve speech projection. Alternatively, consistent background noise levels can be introduced into a space using a sound masking system, thus improving the signal-to-noise ratio in favour of acoustical privacy between occupants (4).
Lighting has been the focus of much research surrounding the links between increased time spent indoors and the deregulation of our circadian rhythms (our internal clocks that synchronize physiological functions on a roughly 24-hour cycle), causing anxiety, depression, stress, and insomnia, all of them linked to decreased levels of productivity. As stated in the WELL standard, currently, lighting conditions in most spaces are designed to meet the visual needs of individuals but do not consider circadian and mental health. Integrating daylight and electric light to create lighting strategies focused on human health, along with traditional requirements for visual acuity and comfort, can lead to healthier and more productive environments (4).
The Future of health and buildings
The wellness industry was predicted to be the next trillion-dollar market by McKinsey back in 2012 (7). Post pandemic, the implementation of health and well-being schemes must become an industry standard to manage both contagious and non-contagious disease, including some of the most endemic illnesses of our time such as heart disease and mental illness. The pandemic has proven the need for an evolving workplace, a place that supports creativity, problem-solving and the development of new ideas. Health and well-being tools are shifting the current space, offering new sensory experiences which will reflect as an embodiment of company brand and culture. This will directly translate in buildings being valued by their capacity to enhance people’s health and wellbeing. Now is the time to stop designing offices, but instead designing the office experience.
This article was written by Divya Hariramani Herrero, Innovation & Energy Consultant at Longevity Partners
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