Occupant wellbeing – the next frontier for the built environment
By Danielle Warfe
13 March 2019
Building performance describes how well a building addresses its requirements for sustainability and occupant safety, health and amenity. Traditionally, building performance has focussed primarily on the structural adequacy, fire safety and energy efficiency of a building, where high-performance buildings are those with a relatively low carbon emissions and environmental impacts. Occupant amenity, let alone occupant wellbeing, hasn’t had as much of a look in and tends to be addressed more sporadically, or seen as a bonus in something of a “go forth and occupy” mentality.
We spend 90% of our time indoors, and this is likely to increase as population growth leads to higher-density living. Nearly two decades of research shows that when buildings are optimised for human health and wellbeing, there are, unsurprisingly, quantifiable benefits for human health and wellbeing. Yet there has been a gap between research and practice, and only recently are buildings being increasingly and explicitly designed for occupant health and wellbeing.
Cost is often a reason put forward for not investing in high-performance buildings, but the savings are enormous: over 40% of operational costs are saved due to reduced employee absenteeism and stress, and a further 40% from improved employee productivity and retention. That’s not including savings for owners and community more broadly from the more efficient use of resources and reduced carbon emissions derived from improved building operations, as well as the reduced environmental impacts from more sustainable building materials and greater connectivity to the natural environment. In acknowledgement of what high performance should mean, rating schemes for the performance of commercial buildings are increasingly including physical and mental health metrics alongside resource efficiency and environmental impact metrics.
The emergence of digitally-integrated building systems and building visualisation tools show great promise to optimise for human health and wellbeing. These tools enable integration across design elements previously treated separately, manifesting a “digital twin” of your premises (see Intelligent Placemaking, Gensler, 2019). Combined with input from all stakeholders, including occupants, such technology will not only support more holistic, multifunctional and accessible solutions for occupant wellbeing and amenity, but will provide the means for monitoring, testing, adapting and improving such solutions. Which means more happy people, a more resilient built environment, and a very exciting future.