Build green, build healthy

Green building certifications have been around for more than 25 years, with the first of its kind, BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) celebrating its 25 years last November.

Although green building certifications are typically associated to environmental benefits, energy and use reduction and resource efficiency, they also include indoor environmental parameters related to building occupants’ health and wellbeing. Besides, their ultimate target is to improve our natural and built environment and make it a better place to live in, for us and for future generations.

From a domestic perspective, indoor environmental parameters and building design aspects related to health and wellbeing are very significant, given the amount of time that people spend in their homes; in the UK this reaches approximately 50% of our time. Moreover, homes typically represent the biggest single financial commitment in terms of their purchase and running costs. The new Home Quality Mark (HQM) certification for domestic properties has been developed for home owners and aims to inform them on their home’s running costs, environmental footprint and most importantly on its impact on their health and wellbeing. The HQM addresses lighting, as well as air quality and thermal comfort. All those parameters are becoming increasingly important in a changing climate which brings more hot summers in a world of ageing population.

On the other hand, in the non-domestic sector, and despite the perceived additional capital cost of green buildings, there are considerable health benefits which go far beyond energy and resource efficiency. Health and wellbeing benefits of building occupants actually make the business case for green buildings, especially when considering that staff costs constitute 90% of a business’s costs, while energy is only 1%. Quantifying the benefits of green buildings to their occupants would reinforce the position that green buildings are the way forward.

Green building certifications such as BREEAM already address health and wellbeing in a variety of ways. They address aspects directly related to health, such as visual and thermal comfort, indoor air quality and acoustic performance, with requirements that might vary across different building types depending on their occupants’ needs.

Moreover, BREEAM addresses the enhancement of the ecology and outdoor space as well as building users’ safety against flooding. Green buildings tend to be future-proofed against climate change, for example by targeting thermal comfort conditions even for scenarios of very hot summers. Finally, cycling and active transport methods are rewarded, with an aim to encourage more active lifestyles and improve health aspects.

During the past few years, the UKGBC in collaboration with commercial organisations has analysed health and wellbeing in office and retail buildings and identified important characteristics that contribute to higher productivity and improved user satisfaction. The basis of this analysis was existing research, but also case studies where data was analysed to identify the correlation between indoor environmental parameters and building users’ satisfaction.

More specifically, the UKGBC report Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, highlights the connection between environmental parameters and increased productivity, which is described in the following paragraphs.

The benefits of indoor air quality are well established, with research suggesting that productivity can increase by 8% to 11% as a result of better air quality. Indications of good air quality include low concentrations of CO2 and pollutants, as well as high ventilation rates. Thermal comfort is also very significant when designing for occupants’ health and is very closely related to indoor air quality. Therefore, clearly attributing increased productivity and other benefits to one of those two parameters is quite challenging. Studies suggest that employees’ satisfaction of their physical working environment are closely correlated to thermal comfort; additionally, higher levels of user control are also considered to enhance users’ experience. The same principle regarding user control seems to also apply in the case of lighting and other factors. Lighting and daylighting are very significant in increasing occupants’ satisfaction and there is a considerable amount of evidence reinforcing this position. It is worth differentiating here between lighting and views out: although in the past the focus was on lighting levels, it appears that views out are highly beneficial especially when they offer a connection to nature.

Another aspect of encouraging health through building characteristics is related to active design and access to amenities such as gym, bike storage and green spaces. Although there is limited evidence proving the correlation between active design and productivity, according to the same report, there is indeed research demonstrating the link between cycling to work and reduced numbers of sick days.

On the other hand, there are numerous parameters related to the quality of the built environment which are nevertheless hard to quantify. These include the look and feel of the workplace and the interior layout, which can be perceived very differently from people of different age, gender and culture. Especially when it comes to the layout, there is very little evidence proving which are the characteristics that could increase productivity. Finally, biophilia, a term which has been gaining recognition during the past few years, suggests that humans have an instinctive bond to nature and hence explains the positive impact of green space and nature on health. The UKGBC’s report on the retail sector, references case studies where a very strong correlation was found between lighting, thermal comfort, biophilia and customer satisfaction in retail environments.

All this does not mean that green buildings automatically provide environments where occupants are more satisfied. However, it would be fair to say that there is a virtuous circle of good design which works well for the planet, energy and resource efficiency, as well as the individual building occupants and their personal health and wellbeing.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 5, 2016.


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