Healthy Buildings: Good For People and Balance Sheets
As the Covid lockdown eases and businesses, schools and public buildings reopen their doors, the environmental health of buildings that have stood largely empty for a year will be under close scrutiny. But it’s not just protecting building users against the spread of Covid-19 and other viruses that’s at stake. Healthy buildings are a key factor in sustainability, individual wellbeing and business performance.
Who hasn’t experienced that feeling of lethargy in the office? It could be from lack of sleep or a particularly good lunch, but it could also be from environmental factors in the building itself.
Lighting, ventilation, noise levels or contaminants in the air could all be conspiring to drain the energy from your building occupants. And whether they are your workforce or your customers, it’s bad for business.
That’s why there is a strong emphasis on healthy buildings right now. It ties in closely with the sustainability agenda and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and there are economic implications, of which building owners, developers and investors should be aware.
Why Healthy Buildings?
Beyond the obvious ethical argument for creating a built environment that is conducive to the wellbeing of those who live, work or visit, research has shown that there are a number of strong economic arguments for investing in better building design and performance.
One is the efficiency of the building itself. Healthy building design embeds efficiency in every aspect of the building performance, resulting in significant savings in energy and maintenance costs, as well as capital expenditure.
Another is the effect on building occupants. Research has shown that people who work in a building for eight to 12 hours perform better and are more productive in healthy buildings. The effect on cognitive functions, including concentration, strategic thinking, troubleshooting, and decision-making, can be dramatic.
A 2016 study* into the effects of carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on the cognitive functions of 24 office workers found that their cognitive scores were 61% higher when VOC concentrations were reduced, and 101% higher when carbon dioxide levels were controlled.
This leads directly into productivity. A UK report by the World Green Building Council** (WGBC) states that “a comprehensive body of research can be drawn on to suggest that productivity improvements of 8-11% are not uncommon as a result of better air quality”.
Employees who work in healthy buildings also cost less in healthcare expenditure, due to their increased level of overall wellbeing. When they do have to spend time in the hospital, they experience better outcomes in healthy buildings, meaning shorter stays and, therefore, less absenteeism. Another WGBC report*** from 2016 cites the case of construction firm Skanska UK, which saved $36,000 in absenteeism costs in 2015, and reduced the green payback period of an office move from 11 to 8 years by achieving 3.5 times fewer building-related sick days, alongside increased employee comfort and satisfaction.
For the company as a whole, a certified healthy building is proof of a commitment to Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals, which in turn leads to market differentiation that translates into higher profits. And for building owners concerned about making their assets pay, certified green buildings are proven to attract higher rents and have lower vacancy rates than non-green buildings.
These are all strong arguments for investing in a healthy built environment, and the return on investment is usually soon realized. Where there are incremental costs (and with good design there often are none), these are typically returned within a fraction of the life of the building and can be recouped sooner still if all available incentives and resources are maximized during the design.
What Makes a Healthy Building?
Indoor air quality is one of the key factors in what makes a building healthy. Covid-19 has brought this into sharp focus, with the spread of the virus exacerbated by poor ventilation. But it’s not just a case of opening the windows to let the fresh air in. Without proper controls, an excess of outdoor air coming in will increase energy demand, overload equipment, and could even cause more harm to occupants.
Temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels play a major part in occupant comfort and health too. Buildings need to be upgraded with high-efficiency equipment, such as variable speed drives, demand control ventilation, dedicated outdoor air systems, and advanced controls and automation to strike the ideal balance of occupant comfort and energy and carbon reduction.
Along with appropriate ventilation and airborne illness prevention measures, the choice of sustainable building materials can make a critical difference, putting fewer volatile organic compounds into the air, resulting in healthier air and occupants.
Lighting is the third environmental factor that impacts occupant comfort, wellbeing and performance. Some forms of artificial light, particularly fluorescent lights, have been shown to have physical impacts, including stress, eye strain, low energy, fatigue and sleep loss, all of which have an impact on productivity. By maximizing natural light; for example, through skylights or clerestories; and integrating LED lighting that dims as the natural daylight increases, a healthier lighting level can be achieved – and a more energetic workforce results!
Healthy Building Benchmarks
All the measures we’ve mentioned above should be taken into account when designing new buildings, but they are not exclusive to new buildings. Efficiencies in air balancing, heating, ventilation, energy consumption, waste management etc can be implemented retrospectively to bring older buildings into line with the latest standards.
WELL, Green Globes, and LEED are the three most recognized certification programs for healthy and green buildings respectively. They help building owners plot a course to a healthier built environment, providing guidance on the measures they need to take, such as upgrading HVAX systems to ASHRAE Standard 62.1, and validating their attainments through accredited third parties, like e2s.
Making buildings healthy is an investment that has often been passed over for fear that the upfront costs won’t be recouped, but that is certainly not the case today. The proven increase in performance and productivity underlines the investment value for building owners.
With the heightened public awareness of public health and energy efficiency, there has never been a better opportunity for Government to drive this forward, by building collaborations among stakeholders with health and energy interests and working with utility companies to develop incentives and technical assistance programs to upgrade our buildings across the board
Healthy buildings are good for people, good for the planet and good for investors too. Why wait?
Are your buildings costing you money in sickness?
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*Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments
**Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices
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