Building healthier places to work

31st March 2017

Transform web

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Business & Industry ,
  • Built environment ,
  • Property ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management ,
  • Air


Sarah Young

Greg Chant-Hall discusses how a new standard can improve buildings and raise employee productivity

We spend about 90% of our time in buildings, whether it is our homes, our offices or when we are out socialising. But in some respects life indoors can be more harmful than outdoors. Indeed, the US Environmental Protection Agency has found that concentrations of some pollutants can be two to five times higher inside.

Whose responsibility it is to improve the environment of offices and buildings is a moot point. Whether it is that of facilities managers, the HR department, the sustainability team, or the chief financial officer’s or all or none of these is open to debate. Less vague is the expectation of senior management for staff to be ever-more productive. And this long-term value can be generated by addressing occupant health.

Impairing performance

Take something as prosaic as fluid intake. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition reported in 2012 that being dehydrated by just 2% could impair performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor and immediate memory skills. Even if you have maintained your fluids, you may wish to ask yourself what was in that cup of water. And, while you are considering this, what about the quality of the air you are breathing?

Research has found that addressing poor buildings and indoor environments and the behaviour of occupants can be beneficial for many reasons, principal among them economic.

  • In the US alone, the savings and productivity gains from improved indoor environments were estimated in 2015 by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health at between $25bn and $150bn a year.
  • A study of commercial building owners by McGraw Hill Construction in 2014 found that 47% claimed healthcare costs were lower; 66% reported improved employee satisfaction and engagement; 56% lower absenteeism; and 21% higher employee productivity.
  • A report from the World Green Building Council, also in 2014, said improving air quality in buildings boosted staff productivity by between 8% and 11%.
  • The Heart and Stroke Foundation said in 2015 that healthy workplaces could lead to improved employee productivity, reduced absenteeism and staff turnover and fewer accidents.

Better by design

A healthy and productive workforce makes good sense and this is inextricably linked to the health of the buildings in which people spend most of their time.

The trouble lies in knowing what a healthy building looks and feels like. We cannot see the air quality and can rarely taste the difference in water quality.

One way is to measure the health and wellbeing features, and certify performance to provide a nutrition label for buildings. One such benchmark is the WELL Building Standard, which was launched in 2014. There was only one certified building in the UK at the start of 2017, although this is likely to change soon with a couple more in the running.

the environmentalist reported in January that BRE is reconfiguring a building at its Innovation Park in Watford to create a ‘healthy research’ facility to test the real-world health and wellbeing of occupants. It will align the requirements of BREEAM, BRE’s environmental assessment method and rating system for buildings, with the WELL Building Standard.

For the certification process, the standard uses the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), an organisation spun out of the US Green Building Council (USGBC). There are multiple synergies with the USBGC’s certification programme for buildings LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED-certified buildings are resource-efficient, use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

WELL considers 11 human body systems, and more than 100 features, in the concepts of air, water, nourishment, light, comfort, fitness, and mind. The system is designed to address issues that affect the health, comfort and mental wellbeing of occupants through design, operations and behaviour.

Other options are also available, with further developments expected. One of these is FitWel, a simple, web-based scorecard consisting of more than 60 benchmark criteria, organised by sections of a building from the lobby to the cafeteria. Another tool is Portico, launched in October 2016 by Google and the Healthy Building Network. This is a database of 2,500 products that have satisfied the requirements of Google’s healthy materials’ initiative.

Performance monitoring is an essential element of any healthy building, and should be carried out when possible in a real-time environment. The WELL Building Standard requires performance verification by a qualified assessor every three years to maintain the building’s certification.

Working together

From an environmentalist’s perspective, healthy buildings work harmoniously alongside green buildings. The rating systems are complementary and dual certification delivers both environmental sustainability and human health.

Businesses need buildings to be healthy if they want a thriving workplace. With the cost-base for the workforce averaging 90% of company overheads, compared with 1% for energy, it makes sense to invest in improving facilities to create healthy and sustainable spaces.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

SBTi clarifies that ‘no change has been made’ to its stance on offsetting

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has issued a statement clarifying that no changes have been made to its stance on offsetting scope 3 emissions following a backlash.

16th April 2024

Read more

One of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Andrew Winston sees many reasons for hope as pessimism looms large in sustainability. Huw Morris reports

4th April 2024

Read more

Vanessa Champion reveals how biophilic design can help you meet your environmental, social and governance goals

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

A project promoter’s perspective on the environmental challenges facing new subsea power cables

3rd April 2024

Read more

Senior consultant, EcoAct

3rd April 2024

Read more

Around 20% of the plastic recycled is polypropylene, but the diversity of products it protects has prevented safe reprocessing back into food packaging. Until now. David Burrows reports

3rd April 2024

Read more

IEMA presents a digital campaign to share knowledge and inspire action in sustainability

2nd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close