This blog was written by Harry Knibb, Principal Consultant - Sustainable Places, Energy and Waste
Some of my colleagues have contributed to a great article over on ‘The Possible’, a magazine for those with a professional interest in the built environment, exploring these questions.
Illustration: Simon Pemberton
As the article points out, Standards such as WELL and Fitwel provide a framework for conversations about wellness, but don’t in themselves explain why this is now becoming a priority for so many building owners and employers.
The momentum for change, the article argues, seems to have sprung from a timely confluence of trends. Building occupants are increasingly aware of how their environment affects them, and this, in turn, makes tenants and owners more focused on the issue.
“Wellness can also be a powerful point of differentiation in vibrant but less established property markets,” says author of the article, Tony Whitehead. This is a good point and the fact that it’s WELL that has been chosen to differentiate Varso Place tower in Warsaw – Poland’s tallest building – is a powerful example.
The article continues: “The presumption behind all this is that a happy, healthy workforce is more productive and less likely to take time off through illness or to change jobs than a tired, stressed and unhealthy one.” I was interested to see whether the team felt the science really proves that wellness design boosts productivity.
I agree that research into specific factors appears to be the most convincing. The research by Harvard University that Meike Borchers highlights, clearly suggests a direct link between improved air quality and higher performance in cognitive tests.
Lighting is more controversial. Could specially tuned lighting that changes during the day help maintain people’s natural circadian rhythms? I’m with Jay Wratten on this one. There’s still much we don’t understand, and for the moment it may be safest simply to provide people with as much natural light as possible.
But as the story in The Possible shows, links between building design and wellness are becoming widely accepted. My colleagues make the case that wellness certification could help companies reduce the costs of providing private health insurance for employees, or even enable owners to defend a legal action from someone who felt a building had damaged their health.
The point about institutional investors in real estate having a similar interest in using certification to minimise their risk is a good one, too. For me, it’s significant that some 30% of participants in the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark system for assessing the environmental performance of portfolios, have adopted its new health and wellbeing module.
As my colleagues point out, yes, there are concerns about a more sinister side to wellness - that unscrupulous employers could potentially misuse the tools at their disposal to try and boost productivity at the expense of health. There’s also a privacy issue, and the value of data for fine-tuning building environments must be balanced against people’s desire to maintain a degree of anonymity.
Wherever it takes us, the pursuit of wellness is certain to touch on sensitive issues around big data and its power to both control and empower. As my colleagues conclude: “Navigating this unknown territory is set to be one of the greatest, but potentially most rewarding, challenges of building design for decades to come.”
Check out the full article, The Pursuit of Wellness, over on The Possible here.
You can also take a look at our Healthy Buildings Toolkit for useful advice on how to make your buildings healthier for the people within them.