How can buildings have positive impact on wellbeing?January 2020

If someone asked you if you want to feel happy and physically comfortable then you would probably be puzzled. While we might quibble about precise meanings and distinctions between “happiness”, “pleasure” or “wellbeing”, we tend to see these things as intrinsically and obviously desirable.   There is also a consensus that where people are reasonably happy they are generally likely to be more productive, though this is somewhat harder to prove.

This has clear implications for buildings and for the services that support and maintain them. Surveys in countries like the US and the UK confirm just how much of an indoor species we have become. The average American spends more than two thirds of their time at home on a typical day and the situation in Europe is similar.

The great majority of jobs in developed countries are predominantly indoor occupations. Around 18% of our time is likely to be in an office or factory, in a bar or restaurant.
 If you add on the time that we spend in cars, buses, trains or other vehicles that leaves just 8% of the average person’s time, or about two hours a day, which is spent genuinely out of doors.

What all this means is that, if you want to create a society where most people are happier, healthier and more productive then most of the time you will be talking about improving people’s lives while they are indoors, whether they are working, playing or doing something else.

This sounds compelling in theory but creating buildings that promote wellbeing is more complex. Traditionally a non- residential building is seen as a cost, whether it is the cost of designing and building, commissioning or running and maintaining it. The organisations which incur each of these costs will expect to receive some sort of return from them and the way that we run businesses means that we expect to be able to measure both the cost of and the return on an investment. This is encapsulated by the famous maxim of business guru Peter Drucker. “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it…If you can’t measure it you can’t improve it.”   In some ways this is an oversimplification. Can someone “measure” the quality of their personal relationships? And if they can’t, does that mean they can’t do anything to make those relationships better?

This bias also creates a bias towards returns that we can easily measure. If someone invest in insulation or in a new Building Energy Management System (BEMS), then in principle it is possible to compare energy bills “before and after” and draw the appropriate conclusions. If, however, someone invest in measures designed to improve employee productivity and wellbeing, or employee retention then things immediately become more complex, and it is also likely to take longer to know if they are having any effect at all. Employee productivity is often hard to measure directly, let alone to attribute causes to.  How much is an increase in productivity attributed to the building and how much to other factors? The net effect is that while a typical company may spend up to 90 times as much on the people it employs as on energy bills, it is often the latter that gets more attention.

Academic institutions including Harvard University in the US and the University of Warwick in the UK have carried out tests carefully designed to measure the effects of changes to buildings such as levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and improved ventilation on people performing complex tasks such as crisis response, information seeking, information usage and the breadth of approach and strategy. They found that the indoor environment had a clearly measurable effect on performance.

Any serious attempt to improve wellbeing in buildings needs to define in more detail what it actually involves. The International WELL Building Institute™ (IWBI™) has developed the WELL2 standard which identifies more than 100 aspects of wellbeing which can in turn be grouped into ten dimensions.

Producing and maintaining a building that promotes wellbeing will tend to involve three key areas of activity.

The design of the building and the way it is constructed will be critical in setting parameters many of which will be hard to alter later.

The building services and their technology, which will include HVAC, lighting, security and building automation will be key in overcoming any issues not resolved at the design stage.

Even a well-designed building, deploying the most appropriate technology, is likely to struggle if the disciplines responsible for running the building and the organisation are not playing their part effectively, that is to say, HR and Facility Management, which will include service and maintenance.

When BSRIA looked at the relative importance of design, building services and technology and the human organisation, a clear pattern emerged. The design of the building is particularly important where movement, sound and materials are concerned. These are all basic “building blocks” which are hard to improve post construction.

Building services such as Building Automation Controls (BACS) and HVAC are especially important when it comes to improving air quality, thermal comfort and light ; given the importance of artificial lighting in most commercial buildings.

“Human” services, such as HR and FM really come into their own when it comes to matters of community, mind and water. A healthy, well run building will need the design, the building technology and the “human” services to work together effectively.

Where an existing building is being refurbished then it will be much harder to change the basic structure and technology and services such as BACS will become even more central.

Regulatory pressure has been critical to improving the energy performance of buildings. Given governments’ growing interest in wellbeing and improved working conditions – as opposed to simply maximising output, it will be interesting to see whether there is similar pressure to make buildings “healthier”.

All of this helps explain why wellbeing in buildings is becoming more of a talking point. As of December 2019, 3,921 projects are applying WELL across 58 countries. However, BSRIA’s experience is that actual building projects focussing on wellbeing are still something of a niche area, often reserved for prestige projects that are custom-designed for specific clients. There are some telling reasons for this.

Firstly, we can sense that wellbeing tends to involve managing and coordinating a number of building systems. This in itself increases complexity. The building systems themselves also need to be more granular if they are going to meet each individual’s comfort needs as far as possible. BSRIA is seeing increasing levels of convergence between building systems, especially those involving heating, cooling, lighting and blinds. Artificial intelligence can help to create “smarter” and more converged systems, but is still in its early stages and far from being a “silver bullet”.

Maintaining a “comfortable” environment can mean different things to individuals; what feels too hot for one person may feel too cold to someone else. To cater for this, systems need to be able to collect data on individuals and also to fine tune the environment in a very localised way in order to meet those individuals’ requirements.

Collection of data about individuals’ status also raises questions of data privacy. In order to share data about their personal state, people need to be confident both of the benefits and also about the security of that data.

Smarter and more converged systems generally require more care and knowledge to implement and to maintain. These skills will be harder to find and are likely to come at a higher cost.

And all of this means that the headline “cost” will be higher.

Upfront costs are likely to be a particular issue when the building is funded by a developer, who will generally only invest in areas like comfort where it is required by law or where they can be confident of securing a higher price or rental as a result.  In many cases there is still work to be done in convincing the end client to pay more for a building promoting wellbeing.

In conclusion, while the movement towards “well buildings” is real, it is still at a relatively early stage,  and it is likely to take a combination of greater education of the end client, linked with perhaps a degree of regulatory pressure, to persuade building managers to make the hard cash investments needed to make well buildings the norm.

 Author:  Henry Lawson

Henry Lawson Market Research Consultant


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