Sustainable building: how to make your office work for you

The building you’re working in right now could be making you sick, stressed and less productive than you can be. Through some relatively straightforward design and refit actions you could dramatically increase your performance and that of your colleagues and staff. 

In the UK, we spend, on average, between 80-90% of our time indoors. With around 20 hours per day spent within a building it seems odd, that until recently, limited attention has been given to how the design and layout of buildings impact the people within them. The fact that poor design can reduce enjoyment of spaces seems obvious, but it is only now that the building industry is waking up to how homes, work environments and leisure spaces can be designed to maximise health, well-being and, crucially for businesses, productivity.

This is happening at the same time as many organisations are trying to reduce costs through consolidating office space, increasing occupancy levels, and reducing floor area per employee. Done poorly, this can result in ‘workhouse offices’ full of row upon row of workers in large, noisy, anonymous, open plan spaces. Employees are left unhappy, distracted, unproductive and increasingly likely to get, or call in, sick. If done well, balance can be found between increasing workplace density and staff well-being; delivering buildings that are efficient, healthy and productive.

The results can be staggering. Recent studies have shown that taking account of well-being in office design can result in improved productivity, staff retention, reduced absenteeism, and staff stress levels. With staff salaries and benefits making up 90% of a typical company’s operating costs – these changes can have major positive impacts on the bottom line.

Landlords should also take note – with many reporting increased building value and rent potential from buildings which take account of well-being design features such as:

  • Lighting levels and amount of daylight
  • Thermal comfort – temperature, air speed and humidity
  • Indoor air quality and ventilation rates
  • Noise and acoustics
  • Access to windows and views
  • Visual comfort – colour, texture, and variety in space design
  • Access to amenities

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) has produced a report looking at the business value of delivering healthy, green buildings. Reviewing studies from across the world, reported benefits include:

  • 101% increase in cognitive performance for workers in a green, well-ventilated office
  • Workers in offices near windows reported getting 46 minutes more sleep per night
  • 4-6% fall in staff performance when offices are too hot or cold
  • 5% variance in sick leave between two offices – one with higher levels of daylight and access to views through windows

With figures like that, Finance Directors, Human Resources and Estate Managers should all pay attention. As the WorldGBC states, “a better understanding of how buildings impact people should drive improvements in the workspace, which may be one of the most important business decisions to be made”.

To date, most attention on healthy buildings has been on new build and major refurbishment projects. This is not surprising since this is the time when large scale changes to office design can be made. Staff are also more open to new set-ups when they are entering a new office environment or one which has undergone wholescale change.

There are existing building performance assessment methods and standards (such as BREEAM, LEED and the Well Building Standard) which already incorporate some well-being aspects, and are available to organisations undergoing such large-scale projects. However, this focus risks ignoring the vast number of existing offices which are not due a refit, or where budget does not allow such investment. Even in these circumstances there is much that can be done and we are increasingly being asked by clients to include well-being assessments and recommendations into our energy audit work. The cost of doing so is low compared to the potentially very high payoffs.

For me, using a wider definition of sustainable buildings to not only include energy and resource efficiency, but also direct and indirect impacts on health and well-being is an obvious progression. It mirrors our desire to support clients to move away from a negative approach to sustainability – using less, turning down, telling off – to a positive view of how sustainability can enhance our lives and help individuals and businesses perform better.

Find out if your buildings have the power to improve your environment and make you healthier, calmer and more efficient. Make sustainability work for you.