Site Lines – The real value of human-centred design

‘Human-centred’ buildings offering users better technology or greater material comfort will always be the exception rather than the rule as they are costly and challenging. This is a perception Atkins is trying to counter, as Rebecca Wicks reports.

The needs of a building’s occupants may not always be a central focus of its design or the materials specified for it, especially when certain ‘comforts’ are associated with higher costs for innovative technologies and luxury finishes. However, international design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins is at the forefront of turning this perception around.

Atkins’ ‘human-centred design’ approach focuses on ensuring that the needs of building users are at the forefront of design decision-making. The firm’s evidence based approach is underscored by years of research including a recent partnership with a team from Imperial College London that investigated its economic benefits in the context of ongoing benefits to users, as well as research into materials produced with Oxford Economics and the Institute of Making at University College London.

Using an interactive digital survey the company invites a broad spectrum of building users and commissioning teams to identify their priorities against nine primary physical and perceptual wellbeing factors. This, says Atkins,

“helps to inspire early, informed design decisions towards improving wellbeing, energy efficiency, as well as lowering costs and ultimately providing an environment where fiscal rewards can be reaped from increased productivity, staff retention, and reductions in stress and sickness.”

With the ability to show such quantifiable outcomes from such an approach, it’s not surprising that Atkins has employed it across its major projects since its launch in April 2016. The firm’s UK head of design, Philip Watson, has insights about the elements comprising specification for human-centred design for holistic spaces, in particular, innovative materials.

Biophilia & natural materials

Biophilia suggests that we need contact with the natural environment to sustain our health and wellbeing. Research into biophilic design shows that upon merely entering a workplace that incorporates nature, people are more likely to feel happy and motivated. Atkins’ Watson says:

“Natural materials – those still in their organic state such as unpainted timbers or unreconstituted stones – make us feel calmer, reduce blood pressure and heart rates, and reduce stress.

Timber is one of the most obvious and yet rare natural materials, being a material used in its pure form in construction, and it is seeing a major revival in architectural design across the globe.

“Timber naturally has a lot of advantages,” says Watson. “It is non-toxic, does not leak chemical vapour into the building, and is safe to handle and touch.” He adds: “Timber also ages naturally and doesn’t break down into environmentally damaging materials.”

Biomaterials & mycelium

Given the positive physiological benefits of using natural building materials, there is increased interest in materials derived from living, or once-living, materials; namely biomaterials. Mycelium – an environmentally friendly, organic fungus – is one such material currently being researched and developed for construction applica- tions. While so far its use has been limited to experimental furniture and smaller-scale structures, Watson says it has great potential: “It literally lies beneath our feet with the potential to be harnessed as a robust and durable building material. Consequently, it’s abundantly available!”

He adds:

“There can be a huge reduction on the reliance on fossil fuels, the embodied energy required for fabrication and the waste left at the end of the product’s life. It is 100 per cent biodegradable and can be recycled as soil.” He believes this sort of “bio-fabrication” could support a carbon neutral building process, “eliminating products such as artificial insulation used in walls, MDF and other non-load bearing structures.”

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this is the realisation that the development of materials such as Mycelium shows a changing attitude within the construction industry towards more sustainable, environmentally conscious materials. Watson says:

“It indicates a desire within the industry to create and foster a more “cradle to cradle” attitude towards building.”

Material toxicity

While many natural materials have a demonstrably positive effect on users, materials can also have a detrimental effect on wellbeing. Watson highlights emerging concern relating to materials that contain toxicants (toxic substances emitted into the environment) and/or emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

“Toxicants can assert their effects during the manufacture, use or disposal of a product, and may be carcinogenic, or otherwise impact the respiratory, neurological, endocrine or other systems.” He gives examples of paint emitting VOCs, particleboard containing formaldehyde, flooring containing phthalates, and furniture which is often coated in flame retardant. “Each of these is likely to contain toxicants, and this is only the tip of the iceberg – the vast majority of manufacturing ingredients are poorly understood for their health impacts.”

Research has demonstrated however that reducing exposure to toxicants has real, measurable health benefits. Watson elaborates:

“A recent study shows that minimising VOC emissions in an office environment can significantly improve cognition; positive news for an employer whose operating budget is almost entirely tied to employee costs and productivity. Eliminating formaldehyde has shown potential to reduce asthma symptoms by over half.” He adds: “Many studies claim that overall, these kinds of interventional measures are much more cost effective than clinical treatment of illness.”

Watson asserts that the industry “has grown more confident when speaking about the environmental impacts of the products we use. Data related to recycled content or regional materials, for example, have become commonplace.” However he adds that “the same cannot be said about data related to human health impacts. We need to understand more about this as an industry.”

It’s not just the end-user’s wellbeing that needs to be considered. Every year, more than 500 construction workers die from lung cancer attributed to silica dust alone, and an estimated 4,000 deaths from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease are from past occupational exposure to fumes, chemicals and dust. Watson says:

“Clearly choice of materials affects the working environment, from the need to cut concrete blocks and the dust that creates, through to the specification of paint, resins, and adhesives, suggests the move to cleaner offsite construction methods may have considerable benefits.

Detail is key

When asked about the main challenge faced by those tasked with material specification for human-centred design, Watson believes it lies in the level of consideration designers will give to understanding the materials they specify;

“how thoughtful designers are at considering wellbeing right into the detail of material specification; making sure that the materials involved are sustainable, and non-toxic in assembly, construction, and disposal.” He continues: “Cost is always a consideration, but I think if people are committed and prepared to spend a little more time researching their material choices and not just picking things because it’s what they used on the last job, benefits can be reaped.

Watson concludes:

“Challenging contractors and their supply chains to use natural materials and is the key,” advocating open access to a database or library that documents the qualities of materials, their sourcing and application such Portico in the US – which he says “would be of great help to designers.”

The future is smart

Watson believes that smart materials, specifically thermo-bimetals, will have a role to play in the future of human-centred buildings. Described as “self-actuating responsive materials that enable buildings and other architectural structures to adapt to their environment,” thermo-bimetals are a lamination of manganese and nickel. When heated, one metal will expand faster than the other, resulting in a curling displacement, meaning panels can open and close in response to heat generated in the surrounding environment.

Watson describes two possible locations:

“By integrating thermo-bimetals into window systems a self-regulated shading system could enable a window to shade itself only in the areas that are affected by sunlight, and they could also as a safety device, shutting the air out of a building in a fire.”

He is excited to see technology moving forward to help facilitate and replicate the effects of daylighting, natural materials and water features where it’s not feasible to use natural materials. He concludes:

“Technology can be used to change the colour, reduce glare and get better distribution of lighting. Having full control of LED systems can enable the colour temperature to be changed depending on the time of day or night. Sound systems can play the sound of water to reduce noise in the office. In Japan, there are buildings where every now and then, a breeze will come through the space; not from a window, but generated by controlled building services.”

Research and development into materials partnered with a progressive approach to specification is paving the way for a much more enlightened future for human-centred design.