As we spend more time indoors, we are falling increasingly out of step with the rhythms of our natural environment.
Gone are the days when nature’s cues, like the sun dipping over the horizon or the light growing dim, were the definitive signals that it was time to pack up and head home for the day. Most of us spend our days indoors – and for many of us, this means working in artificial light and inhaling stale air.
But what impact does this growing disconnect with nature have on our health and well-being? And what role does green building play in our quest to stay happy and healthy?
Despite our reputation for a love of the outdoors, Missing Trees: The Inside Story of an Outdoor Nation, commissioned by Planet Ark in 2013, found that one third of Australians aged between 14 and 64 spend less than two hours each week – just 18 minutes a day – engaged in outdoor recreational activities. A quarter of children under the age of 16 are outside for less than two hours each week. The report also found that for every hour we spend enjoying the outdoors, around seven hours are occupied on the internet or watching TV.
There are obvious impacts on our waistlines, but less obvious and perhaps more insidious effects on our mental health.
For the last few decades, environmental psychologists have gathered evidence to support the positive impacts of greenery on our health and well-being. According to American biologist Edward Wilson, humans have an innate need to connect with nature. Wilson coined the term ‘biophilia’ to describe this need.
Recent research from the University of Exeter Medical School, which tracked the experiences of more than 10,000 people over 17 years, found that people who live in urban areas with more green space tend to report greater well-being, less mental distress and higher satisfaction with life.
Another study on the impacts of biophilic design on workers’ behaviour at the University of Oregon found that on average, employees whose workspaces provided a visual connection to nature by overlooking trees or landscapes took 11 fewer hours of sick leave per year compared to the control group whose offices and desks provided no view of the outdoors. The workers who enjoyed a visual connection to nature also took shorter breaks than their control group counterparts.
Another recent study in Canada has found that contact with nature can improve concentration levels in both adults and children, accelerate recovery from illness and even reduce the risk of dying.
The biophilic hypothesis is particularly strong in the healthcare sector. For example, studies into the impact of daylight penetration in healthcare spaces in Canada and Korea have found a patient’s average length of stay in a sunny room can be up to 41 per cent shorter than that of someone recovering in a dull, artificially-lit ward.
A stunning example of biophilic principles at work can be found in the design of the new Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. Sitting adjacent to Royal Park – Melbourne’s oldest and largest park – the natural world has been seamlessly integrated into the hospital interior, with children’s gardens, water features and abundant planting adding life and colour to interior and exterior spaces. One of the greatest triumphs of the interior is a 7.5 metre high aquarium, visible from the main foyer and emergency rooms below, which provides a delightful distraction for patients.
The business case for good indoor environment quality in offices is just as strong.
The 2003 Heschone Mahone study of office workers, for example, found that call centre workers with window views processed calls 12 per cent faster. A Dutch study into the impact of indoor plants on productivity in 2001 found not only improvements in air quality, but showed that staff also processed their work more efficiently and their concentration improved.
Prevention is much better than a cure, and dollars devoted to green features that prevent us from getting sick in the first place and contribute to our overall well-being are certainly well spent.
The WELL Building Standard (WELL) is a new building assessment tool that is gathering momentum. Launched in 2014 and third-party certified through Green Business Certification Inc – which administers Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) in the United States – WELL focuses on the potential of our built environment to support human health and wellness, assessing buildings against seven categories of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.
Many of the environmental wellness indicators that are certified under Australia’s Green Star rating system are similar to the human wellness indicators assessed by the WELL Standard. WELL’s emphasis on metrics like air quality, ventilation, daylight penetration, microbe and mould control, pollution management, glare control and active design, directly correlate with credits in the Green Star IEQ category.
In Sydney, Macquarie Group’s 6 Star Green Star 50 Martin Place building has signed up to be the first Australian office to achieve WELL certification. As it and other Australian buildings begin to achieve ratings that meet the WELL Standard, expect to see parallels emerge between the achievement of high Green Star ratings and high WELL ratings.
The emergence of the WELL Standard highlights what sustainable development professionals have known for years: what’s good for the environment is good for people too. By facilitating connections to nature in our built environment we create real opportunities for workplace well-being and preventative health by design.
By focusing on wellness, building designers, owners and managers can set themselves up for sustainability success.