Understanding the relationship between sustainability and wellbeing

The importance of sustainability in the construction industry has come of age. What was initially considered by many to be a tick-box exercise has fast become a major design requirement. For many years the potential environmental impact of a project has been the catalyst for numerous key decisions. However more recently the focus of conversation has changed to encompass the impact that the built environment has on the health and wellbeing of occupants and users. For global businesses such as Sika, it is imperative that we not only consider the health and wellbeing of our employees, but also that we provide sustainable solutions that enable others to do the same.

When considering the built environment sustainability is generally accepted to be vitally important, but for many years the main focus has been on the creation of high-performance building fabrics and addressing the impact of global warming and resource depletion. As such, another important impact has on the whole been ignored – the impact of buildings on occupants. We spend a lot of time indoors – it is frequently stated that as much as 90% of our time is spent in artificial environments such as buildings and vehicles, and recent research has shown that at work, 90% of employees admit their work is affected by the quality of their environment.

As a leading manufacturer of products working across multiple industry sectors (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4IKlZmXERg) and as a responsible employer, the health and wellbeing of our employees at Sika is vitally important. However, equal to this is the positive impact that our sustainable solutions enable project teams to incorporate into their designs.

So, what should we be doing to improve the impact that buildings have on occupant wellbeing? Possibly, the most obvious measure relates to indoor air quality. This can be addressed for example by specifying products such as floor and wall finishes, furnishings, interior paints and adhesives that offer low or zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compound), formaldehyde and chemicals of concern content. By careful choice of the building products we use, we can at a stroke improve indoor air quality and have a major influence on the health, wellbeing and productivity of building occupants.

However, as the World Green Building Council states, “there is a difference between environments that are simply not harmful – i.e. the absence of ‘bad’ – and environments that positively encourage health and wellbeing, and stimulate productivity.”*

Exposure to different light sources and levels can affect the circadian rhythm, the inbuilt cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, wake, eat and regulates many physiological processes. As such, circadian rhythm disruption has been linked to increased BMI, obesity, mood disorders, depression and decreased duration and quality of sleep. In turn, exposure to daylight in buildings can reduce work stress and dissatisfaction, and in healthcare settings has even been linked to a reduction in pain medication requirements and a shorter average length of stay.

Thermal comfort has been identified by many as having a significant impact on workplace satisfaction. It has been suggested that higher temperatures are less tolerated and have a greater impact on productivity than colder temperatures. However, user control over one’s thermal comfort by opening a window or rooflight to increase the air flow/speed across the occupant’s body, for example, increases a person’s tolerance of temperature extremes.

Further to this, there is a growing recognition of the benefits of considering Biophilia – the relationship between humans and nature and the effect that contact with the natural environment has upon our health and wellbeing in building design. Although closely linked to the effect of daylight, views of nature are thought to lower stress, improve cognitive function and enhance creativity.

Appropriate consideration of these areas during the design phase will potentially go a long way to improving occupant’s wellbeing, but in a drive to prove the positive effects of thermal comfort, biophilia, indoor air quality and the like, we run the risk of narrowing our focus by separating them out. As a result, we are at risk of missing out on the big picture as all of these factors are actually intrinsically linked – increasing plant-life indoors increases air quality and biophilia opportunities; increasing glazing increases biophilia opportunities and natural light, and depending upon window type – airflow, therefore improving thermal comfort and air quality etc.

Industry standards such as BREEAM and the WELL Building Standard are one way of making sure we think about all of these elements as a holistic solution rather than their individual benefits. To further this, it is interesting that at the end of last year, it was announced that these standards, both of which promote an all-encompassing approach to sustainability and wellbeing, would mutually recognise specific credits.

This collaboration will make it easier for projects pursuing both standards, which could be what the industry needs to help create a drive to improve our indoor environments with a structure and process that lets us identify the right products and benchmark best practice for indoor environments.

Every day we spend a vast amount of our time indoors and every day design teams and specifiers are making decisions about buildings that affect our health and wellbeing. It’s reassuring to know that as a global brand, Sika has a clear understanding that all aspects of sustainability and wellbeing impact each other and that the company strives to provide solutions that help others foster this approach.

From green roofs and low VOC/emissions flooring systems and wall coatings, to sealing and bonding systems that enable the incorporation of increased glazing areas Sika provide sustainable solutions that enable others to positively impact on building occupants health and wellbeing.

It is this wide appreciation and understanding that will help to drive the improvement of building interiors and ultimately lead to improved occupier health, happiness, productivity, retention and wellbeing.

To find out more about the impact Sika are making every day, visit http://gbr.sika.com/en/group/about-us/sika-everyday.html or for information on sustainability visit http://gbr.sika.com/en/group/sustainability.html

*Health,Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices: The next chapter for green building – World Green Building Council.