The business case for occupant well-being

John Spicer, technical sales manager for Armstrong Ceilings, discusses the market drivers for a new focus on how building design and construction impacts on the health, wellbeing and productivity of occupants.

The economics of the built environment have become as complex as building design itself. While they provide shelter, act as communication and data terminals, and are centres of healing, education, justice and community, buildings are expensive to build and difficult to maintain effectively over their lifecycle.

Yet the business case for getting it wrong, in terms of a building being designed or performing so badly that it impacts on the health of the people who work in it, is obvious.

Some 90 per cent of a typical business’ running costs are staff, so it makes sense to look after the health and well-being of employees; but an influential study by the World Green Building Council into health, well-being and productivity in offices shows the impact of not looking after employees’ health and well-being.

For instance, poor mental health costs UK employers £30bn a year through lost production, recruitment and absence1. Research carried out in Australia¹ found the aggregate cost to business of ill-health and absenteeism is estimated at more than £3.5bn per year, while presenteeism (not fully functioning at work because of medical conditions) costs over £13bn.

A 2014 study by the British Council of Offices (BCO), Making the Business Case for Wellbeing, identified nine key bugbears from office workers about their workplace conditions as being acoustics, lighting, sedentary working, decor, air quality, temperature, social areas, privacy and cleanliness. Main obstacles to wellbeing were identified as follows:

  • buildings that were open plan and too noisy
  • a lack of natural light, fresh air and colour
  • awkward design
  • no control over temperature
  • no relaxation or meditation areas
  • too many people walking past
  • office clutter

Factors comprising good indoor environments are indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting/daylighting, and noise/acoustics – failures on these can result in physical problems leading to lack of productivity. The repercussions of a poor indoor environment include headaches, breathing disorders, fatigue, discomfort, eye strain, poor concentration, and all contribute to lower productivity.

Seminal research in 2003 into indoor air quality identified 15 studies linking improved ventilation with up to 11 per cent gains in productivity as a result of increased external air rates, dedicated delivery of fresh air to the workstation, and reduced levels of pollutants.

Similarly, in a 2011 lab test1 which mimicked an office, a range of tasks were carried out with the presence of airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Increasing ventilation from 5 l/s to 20 l/s improved performance by up to eight per cent. High CO2 levels, which can also occur as a result of poor ventilation, have been found to increase tiredness and negatively impact decision-making.

Good floor-to-ceiling heights not only feel like large spaces but also help to improve air quality, as air combined with good ventilation allows air to mix well and reduces CO2 build up. Appropriate ceiling materials include low-VOC tiles.

How good design can benefit wellness

In terms of thermal comfort, a 2006 analysis of 24 studies on the relationship between temperature and performance² indicated a 10 per cent reduction in performance at both 30˚C and 15˚C compared with between 21˚C and 23˚C, leaving little doubt as to the impact this factor has on office occupants.

Phase change material (PCMs) create thermal storage when their wax inner core melts from a solid to a liquid during the heat of the day and, because heat rises, the ceiling is the perfect place to install PCM ceiling tiles. The process is reset when the PCM is reversed back to a solid at night.

In terms of acoustics, the BCO study rated this aspect as one, if not the major, bugbear and a study by Office Wars 2015 Orangebox found that when noise is over 85 dB all work suffers.

In areas requiring collaboration, ceiling canopies and vertical baffles are appropriate solutions to complement low or high furniture systems within and between areas, while in areas requiring focus, mid-to-high sound absorption and attenuation-rated ceilings to complement moderate to high furniture panels can be considered.

In areas requiring privacy, ceilings rated for high attenuation (to weaken sound waves) and moderate absorption, complemented by high attenuation-rated walls are appropriate.

In terms of visual comfort, a study³  in 2011 investigated the relationship between view quality, daylighting and sick leave of employees in the administration offices of a university campus. Taken together, the two variables explained 6.5 per cent of the variation in sick leave.

Highly light-reflecting ceilings contribute to daylight harvesting and can increase the amount and uniformity of light reflected deeper into the building space. For instance, when the light reflectance of a ceiling is increased from 0.75 to 0.89, daylight levels for spaces four to six metres away from the window are increased by 15-20 per cent. Window glazing can also be reduced by 11 per cent to cut back heating and cooling costs.

This is where we need to make the case for user-centred design, where individual team members consider the project holistically and how people will interact with it.

The integrated approach means that an interior is designed by the whole team at the same time so all options can be considered and improved upon.

¹ Health, Well-being & Productivity in Offices: World Green Building Council.

² Effect of Temperature on Task Performance in Office Environment:  William J Fisk, QH Lei & Olli Seppänen.

³ Daylighting-Bias and Biophilia: Quantifying the Impact of Daylighting on Occupant Health: I Elzeyadi.