What Are Unhealthy Buildings Actually Costing Us? 2

Monday, September 12th, 2016
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With our increasingly busy lives, workplace and lifestyle are deeply interlinked. Our fast lives make us time poor, there are services now for grocery and beauty product delivery, pre-prepared dinners and school lunches. These busy lives mean more time working, and at work. So how healthy are our workplaces?

The WELL Building Standard is helping shift the well-being focus from purely organisational to the physical environments in which people work. Changing the physical environment can’t magically fix all issues from poor productivity, but it can help.

A US study showed the cost of poor well-being at 25 to 35 per cent of the payroll from absenteeism, turnover, low engagement, delays and the like. Promoting well-being costs organizations less in the long run. But it is much bigger than that; this is not just about organisational productivity but prolific economic costs of poor health.

Lifestyle and the environments around us contribute to chronic illnesses. Sedentary behavior, poor diet and stress are major contributors. We spend around $27 billion per annum on chronic disease.

If we want to provide spaces where people truly thrive we need major shifts in thinking. The design metrics of persons per/square metre do not take into account performance and health.

Physical activity

On a global scale, physical inactivity is predicted to cost $67 billion annually, including $135 million in lost productivity. We know it’s a problem, but are we really doing enough? Obesity is the second top risk factor (behind diet) for chronic disease.

Hitting the gym before or after work doesn’t curb the health impacts from prolonged periods of sitting. Before a day is gone, it is easy to have been sitting for three of four hours with minimal movement.

Whilst designing out the ability for sedentary behavior is ideal, such as adding central staircases and premium end of trip facilities, not every workplace has this option. Most of our buildings are decades old and high cost fitouts aren’t an option.

Small changes can enable easy and continual movement for staff all day, and it helps if leaders are on board:

  • make stairs accessible, fun and easy (not locked off  or difficult to locate). Check out Step Jockey to help gamify step taking
  • provide a variety of workspaces people can move around to during the day – standing desks, break-out areas, kitchen areas
  • promote outdoor walking meetings – a brisk 15-to-30-minute walk in a close location to get the hear rate pumping
  • centralise printers, bins and other services so people need to get up
  • provide communal lunch areas to encourage less desk lunches
  • make it fun; if it feels like hard/extra work, it is harder to motivate people

Depending on location, active transit (public transport and walking or cycling) can be limited. The proximity to childcare facilities and other amenities are also important, otherwise people spend longer in transit to work, and exercise time tends to be the sacrifice.

Getting people moving pays off. Very few organisations commit funds to well-being programs, despite the fact that they have been shown to have an ROI between 144 and 3,000 per cent.

Indoor environment quality

Sick building syndrome is long gone, right? Surprisingly, no. Just because nobody complains or you can’t see it doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there. A US study showed 23 per cent of office workers experience SBS symptoms, and costs  go into the billions.

I have walked through rabbit warren cubicle offices, those with minimal daylight, or where air intake vents are near smoking areas, and offices with broken shades on dirty windows or musty smells in the corridors. I recall seeing a gentleman wearing a cap because the fluorescent lighting in his windowless room gave him a headache.

We are surrounded by synthetic toxins every day – printer fumes, carpets, furniture, dust, electronics, air pollution, the list goes on. We would never eat anything with these ingredients, yet we breathe them in all the time. These contribute to respiratory illness, headaches, low performance and difficulties concentrating. This has been well documented in offices and, frighteningly, in schools, with inadequate ventilation rates contributing to illness and low performance scores in children.

A 2015 Harvard study showed elevating levels of fresh air into a controlled office environment resulted in a 61 per cent productivity improvement. Whilst the study relied on a small sample (24 people) it shows quite a phenomenal outcome: poor air quality can easily go unnoticed, yet it can have a big impact on performance – not to mention long-term health issues such as respiratory illness and asthma.

These issues can fall between the cracks (literally), but have long-term implications.

Mental well-being and stress

Work stress can come from a number of factors, and can be even further exacerbated by the physical environment – noise levels, interruptions, ergonomic issues, thermal comfort and other factors. All of these compete for our attention, detracting from the forever sought ‘flow.’

I am often asked, “how do you separate work stress from home stress when looking at productivity?” There is no magic formula, especially when home and work life are so closely linked. Consider the fact that late night exposure to light results in poor sleep quality. If staff are checking their emails late at night, that can actually contribute to poor sleep and performance during the day.  It requires much broader thinking outside of a 9 to 5 workday.

We know more now then every about the connections between neuroscience and architecture, and this space will continue to grow. According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the design of the cubicle office defied human needs changing.

“Depriving people of sunlight, restricting their views, and seating them with their backs exposed is not a recipe for success—it’s a recipe for chronic anxiety,” he said.

From an evolutionary perspective, certain types of space provide us with a feeling of safety, or anxiety. We like to see what is going on around us to minimise threat, we like being close to nature, and we operate better with sunlight.

As we spend more time in the workplace, it needs to cater beyond merely a desk to complete tasks. Human-centered design requires a deeper understanding of physiological and psychological needs to create healthy, high performance spaces.

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  1. A.z

    Great piece – too much coverage of sustainability and "smart" buildings focuses on things like efficiency, when it's improving those spaces as environments for human habitation that should be key.

  2. Angela Petruzzi

    Fully agree with you Samantha. Sick building syndrome rears its health issues in many ways and due to many factors, especially in buildings with little or no ventilation. New furniture and coatings need to be scrutinised more closely as these heavily influence the IAQ. You mention ingredients and eating, wouldn’t it be a great idea for the coating industry to openly declare the ingredients in their products allowing the consumer to make the final and informed choice? Sustainability should encompass not just the building envelope itself but ultimately create or improve the work place for those occupying the space.