What are unhealthy buildings actually costing us? Part 2

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on the costs of unhealthy buildings.

Indoor Environment Quality

Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ) refers to the surrounding environment inside a space – the temperature, air quality, light levels, layout of the space and more recently, exposure to nature or ‘biophillia’.

IEQ became prevalent in the 70s with the onset of Sick Building Syndrome following calls for buildings to be more tightly sealed to conserve energy, thus reducing air quality and causing illnesses in buildings occupants. So sick building syndrome is long gone, right? Surprisingly, no. Just because nobody complains or you can’t see it, doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there. A US study showed 23% of office workers experience SBS symptoms, and costs  go into the billions.

I have walked through rabbit warren cubicle offices, those with minimal daylight, or where air intake vents are near smoking areas, broken shades on dirty windows or musty smells in the corridors. I recall seeing a gentleman wearing a cap because the fluorescent lighting in his windowless room gave him a headache.

We are surrounded by synthetic toxins every day – printer fumes, carpets, furniture, dust, electronics, air pollution etc. We would never eat anything with these ingredients, yet we breath them in all the time. These contribute to respiratory illness, headaches, low performance and difficulties concentrating. This has been well documented in offices, and frighteningly in schools, with inadequate ventilation rates contributing to illness and low performance scores in children.

Last year’s Harvard study showed elevating levels of fresh air into a controlled office environment resulted in a 61% productivity improvement. Whilst a small sample (24 people) it shows quite a phenomenal outcome, poor air quality can easily go unnoticed – yet have a big impact on performance – not to mention long term health issues such as respiratory illness and asthma.

These issues can fall between the cracks (literally), but have long term implications. It is important to be aware and mindful of IEQ factors in the workplace.

Mental health and stress

Work stress can be made up from a number of factors, and even further exacerbated by the physical environment – noise levels, interruptions, ergonomic issues, thermal comfort etc. All of these compete for our attention, detracting from the forever sought ‘flow’.

I am often asked, how do you separate work stress from home stress when looking at productivity? There is no magic formula, especially when home and work life are so closely linked. Consider the fact that late night exposure to light results in poor sleep quality. If staff are checking their emails late at night, that can actually contribute to poor sleep and performance during the day. It requires much broader thinking outside of a 9-5 day.

We know more now then every about the connections between neuroscience and architecture and this space will continue to grow. According to psychologist Ron Friedman the design of the cubicle office defied human needs… “Depriving people of sunlight, restricting their views, and seating them with their backs exposed is not a recipe for success—it’s a recipe for chronic anxiety.” Why? Because from an evolutionary perspective certain types of space provide us with a feeling of safety (or anxiety), we like to see what is going on around us to minimise threat, we like being close to nature, and we operate better with sunlight.

As we spend more time in the workplace, it needs to cater beyond merely a desk to complete tasks. Human centred design requires a deeper understanding of physiological and psychological needs to create healthy, high performance spaces.  If we want to provide spaces where people truly thrive we need major shifts in thinking. The design metrics of persons per/square metre do not take into account performance and health.

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Dr Sam Hall

Dr Sam Hall

Sam is the founder of Spaces Alive. She's an advocate for re-imaging our cities and buildings to prepare for the future of work and study.