Studies have mapped out a strong connection between the design of a building to the health of its occupants. Shilpa Chandran speaks to experts in the fields of design and sustainability to understand this connection further.
On average, people spend around 90% of their time indoors, according to research. That figure could be even higher in the GCC where inhabitants are forced to shelter from extreme temperatures that can reach up to 50 degrees during the summer. So when it comes to the well-being of its occupants, building design really does matter.
The ‘healthiness’ of a building depends on a variety of factors – from fresh air and natural light to greenery and happy colleagues. But the best measure is how the occupants actually feel. Do they feel good spending time in the building? Do they leave at the end of the day ready to go home and enjoy their family and hobbies? Or do they feel depleted and exhausted with symptoms of sick building syndrome?
Several studies have revealed a strong connection between the design of a building to the health of its occupants. The COGfx Study, conducted by a research team in the US and supported by United Technologies Corporation (UTC), goes even further by linking the impacts of some buildings on the cognitive function of its occupants.
"We know green buildings conserve natural resources, minimise environmental impacts and improve the indoor environment, but the study results show they can also become important human resource tools for all indoor environments where cognitive abilities are critical to productivity, learning and safety,” says John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at UTC.
A more recent report conducted by a team at WSP in the UAE, observed that indoor spaces, such as schools and offices, show higher than average occurrences of total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs), a high amount of which can cause ailments including headaches, fatigue and nausea.
Sick building syndrome (SBS), first reported in the US in the 1980s, has been proven to result in significant annual costs and productivity losses due to ill-health symptoms attributed to the indoor environment.
“Sick building syndrome, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and loss of asset ROI are all significant threats. In extreme cases — such as bacterial contamination of air or water — people can become sick enough to require hospitalisation,” says the Sustainability Team at KEO International Consultants which is led by executive director Holley Chant, LEAD AP. “More commonly, people will experience mild, chronic respiratory problems, have problems concentrating, or experience low moods. Well-established research shows that employees take more sick days in buildings with poor environmental quality.”
Measures to prevent legionella (see box) and other microbial infections in buildings are good in theory, but in practice they require systems that are regularly inspected and maintained throughout their operational life, KEO says.
“An increasing amount of research shows that previous definitions of “adequate” fresh air are actually less than optimal, and people perform better on mental tasks with higher rates of fresh air intake,” says the KEO Sustainability team, which also includes sustainability manager Shakir Ismail, and consultant Peter Stair. In fact KEO recommends that companies go beyond minimum air quality standards and ensure that all HVAC systems are routinely and properly maintained.
“Most building codes in the Gulf region require minimum levels of fresh air intake and air filtration. These are based on respected international standards, such as ASHRAE, but they might actually be less than ideal,” KEO says.
Other factors that affect building occupants include environmental measures such as humidity, the presence of chemical-emitting materials, and personal factors like job stress and allergies. Further, research by McKinsey found that inactivity is also a big threat to public health, directly attributable to 9.4% of all deaths worldwide, or 3.5 million people every year. The management consultancy also found that the percentage of older workers in the labour force is on track to double from 1980 to 2030, underlining the importance of designing spaces and built environments that support ageing populations and adapt to changing needs over time.
These findings indicate a growing urgency to addressing the matter with suitable actions by both governments and the private sector. Which - slowly but surely - is seems to be happening.
Technology has brought about the development of innovative applications that help people monitor their health, interact with buildings, and measure building environmental performance. With the use of apps, smart phones can measure light levels, sound levels, and UV air pollution. Sensors are also used to monitor indoor air quality.
Similarly, new technologies are now available which will allow occupants to monitor and collect data regarding their living quarters such as indoor/outdoor temperatures, and the CO2 levels, and demand for changes or improvements.
“We are going to continue pushing technologies to promote high energy efficiency systems, those that reduce the carbon footprint of buildings where there are high efficiency air conditioning and ventilation systems, high efficiency elevator or lift systems, says UTC’s Mandyck. “We make available and offer tech that clean and purify the air. We make sure that building managers and even occupants can see those levels and understand what they need.”
Green buildings have been associated with improved productivity at home, in school, and at the offices. This has helped usher in an era of sustainable building design and other strategies to improve the health and productivity of occupants.
Experts today believe that green buildings must be designed from inception to minimise environmental impact throughout the building life cycle. And that doesn’t work for office goers alone. Through the COGfx Study, the research team hopes to encourage tenants to ask for green buildings while looking at office locations and lease options. “The push is for developers to understand the benefits of green buildings and the pull is for the tenants to be asking for them,” says Mandyck.
The Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC) recently conducted WELL Building Standard training for local designers, architects, real estate professionals, and others to understand the evidence-based medical and scientific protocols to design, construct, and operate buildings in ways that prioritise people’s health and happiness.
“Dubai and the UAE has always been at the forefront of innovation and in sustainability, which is evidenced by their existing green building standards,” says Kate Rube, vice president of technical solutions at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and facilitator of the training. “By placing people at the heart of design, construction, operations, and development decisions, we have the ability to add value to real estate assets, generate savings in personnel costs, and enhance the human experience, health, and well-being.”
Green Building Movement
The first green building council was formed in the US in 1993. Several countries followed suit, and now a quarter of a century later, the list has expanded with 100 national green building councils around the world. EmiratesGBC was formed in 2006.
The US Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a sustainable design or “green” building rating system aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of buildings and improving occupant health. New standards such as the WELL Building Standard Certification have been developed to complement existing rating systems such LEED, BREEAM, Estidama (Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council), Green Globes and others.
WELL is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring features of the built environment that impact the health and wellness of the people who live, work, and learn in buildings. These are especially important here in the GCC, given how much time we spend indoors.
“Green buildings are completely changing the conversation in the buildings industry,” says Mandyck. “There is a directional movement in the built environment when we speak about health and well-being, particularly relating to green buildings. It is this new dimension that has the potential to greatly accelerate the green building movement.”
Last year, Dubai Municipality announced Al Safat, a building ratings system designed to promote human and environmental health by strengthening the planning, design, implementation, and operation phases of buildings. The concept aims to achieve a smart, sustainable city status for Dubai by 2021.
Compelling research such as the COGfx Study will help industry, green building councils and governments work in unison to create and sustain healthy living spaces. UTC’s Mandyck hopes to use the study to encourage green building councils to help accelerate the green building movement in the Middle East.
“We have been sharing the study a lot in the Middle East region with the goal that people can take the data and think about building greener buildings,” he says. “We have done several in-region briefings where we brought together key opinion leaders, government officials, real estate development officials and building owners in person. We know data drives decisions and so we are committed to bringing the best data we can to the market place so that people can make better decision when it comes to buildings.”
The Big 5 Hub September issue is available HERE