Health & Happiness in Buildings

I attended a very good discussion this week hosted by the UK Green Buildings Council at the Wellcome Trust. The title of the discussion was Greener Buildings, Better Places, Healthier People. It was part of World Green Buildings Week and it was introduced by Jane Henley CEO of the World Green Buildings Council.

The speakers were

  • Rab Bennetts OBE, Director, Bennetts Associates
  • Nigel Bunclark, Director, Workplace Management, Network Rail
  • Dr Fiona Adshead, Senior Sustainability and Health Advisor, PwC and former Director of Chronic Disease and Health Promotion, World Health Organisation
  • Mark Russolo, Director of Public Affairs, UL Environment

There was an intorduction by Charles Griffin, Head of FM from the Wellcome trust describing the building that we were in and how it came to have some of the features that it has. He cited the influence of Neils Torp and his idea of arranging office buildings along a ‘street’, see his BA headquarters as an example. This idea signalled a move away from the rather inhumane, artificially lit and completely air-conditioned boxes of the 70’s and 80’s.

Jane Henley spoke about how difficult it is to discuss health , well-being and buildings as we don’t really have metrics for dealing with it. It is a topic that defies measurement, which is frustrating for many in the green buildings movement as they have focussed a lot on issues such as energy use, building physics, and rating systems like BREEAM, all of which require fairly sophisticated measurement and evidence bases.

She pointed out that in the average workplace, life-cycle costs breakdown in the following way: the building energy cost is approximately 5% of the cost, the building itself is 10% and the workforce is the rest. This suggests that there are huge financial gains to be had from even small productivity gains that might result from happier employees.

Rab Bennets spoke about how popular narrow plan buildings with openable windows are, compared to deep plan offices with air-conditioning. In his experience such simple buildings have better staff retention, better health and lower levels of absenteeism. The problem is how to measure this and equate one with the other in a way that is comprehensible to agents and investors. Their natural inclination is to fill a site with a deep plan office because they sell office space by the square meter, not high quality well lit and naturally ventilated office space.

Mark Russolo spoke about how Congress is likely to pass a law banning US Govt agencies from using LEED as a target for buildings because the new version of LEE is introducing airborne pollution measurement. Studies have shown that US offices are up to 6 times more polluted than the external air surrounding the buildings, a metric that ought to  anger any workforce. Have any similar studies been done  in the UK. London’s air quality isn’t brilliant either.

Nigel Bunclark from Network Rail said that in his experience the best approach is to talk to employees, to ask them annually how they are feeling about their working environment, take steps to improve it and to constantly check that what you have done is working. His organisation will only take BREEAM Excellent buildings if they are new and BREEAM Very Good if they have been refurbished.

There was a suggestion from the floor that a campaign aimed at office workers may be a direction to take rather than trying to measure the unmeasured. An education campaign that aimed to educate workers about the benefits and risks to their health arising from their working environment might be more powerful than any attempt to introduce tools or rating systems.

In the days that followed the following article appeared in the Metro. Since this is read by millions of commuters every morning, perhaps this is the place to start?

Given that we spend more of our lives in our homes than we do in our offices, (at least if we are being sensible), then all of this applies there too. What are the implications for internal air quality in our homes from the materials we are routinely building with today? What impact has more/less daylight on our health?

This week also saw the launch of the Photon Project at the Building Centre. This is an EU funded study into the effects of daylight on people and has been running for some time. The next phase will see people living in glass pods for a period of weeks while undergoing health monitoring. At HTA we are carrying out a POE on a pair of houses we designed for VELUX that will test the impact on people of living with a 7% Daylight Factor. The results so far are a strong vindication of the idea that people like to live in well-daylit spaces. Its disappointing that the current Govt has not taken any steps in the Housing Standards Review to promote well-being and health in buildings. Perhaps this is also an area where people power needs to be harnessed.

Clearly there is a lot of activity in this space, and wel done to the Green Buildings Council for bringing it to the fore. Their job now is to bring together the work that has been done already and create some momentum in green design towards buildings and places that are good for people’s health.





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