The impact of green design on building occupants and employees

by Ofentse Sefolo
The impact of green design on building occupants and employees

Most South Africans in the built environment know the ins and outs of local and even international Green Star Rating Systems. In the past, much of the focus was on sustainable design to minimise the consumption of resources, on material selection, green features within the building as well as outside the building, and on the inclusion of community members.

A relatively new part of the green equation focuses on employee wellness. The occupants of the building benefit from green buildings in a number of ways thanks to improved working environments including increased exposure to natural daylight, plants within buildings, better acoustics and higher air quality, among other sustainability initiatives.

10 inspiring stats about how worker productivity and occupant comfort are improved by design

Some key findings from the World Green Building Council reports are as follows:

1. Worker productivity increases by 23% where there is better lighting
2. Worker productivity increases by 8–11% with improved ventilation
3. Performance drops by 6% when it’s too warm and by 4% when it’s too cold
4. Workers who have access to a window sleep an average of 46 minutes more every night
5. Students achieve 5–15% higher test scores and learn 20–26% faster when they have access to daylight
6. Workers are 18% more productive when they have access to daylight
7. Mental function and memory improves by 10–25% where occupants have a view of the outside
8. Hospital stays are 8.5% shorter where occupants have an outside view
9. Worker performance drops by 66% when exposed to distracting noise
10. Calls in call centres are processed 6–12% faster when workers have an outside view

Many companies in South Africa are spending money on employee wellness programmes, including initiatives such as offering gym subscriptions or other incentives to stay fit and healthy. Research has shown mixed success rates as the take-up rates among workers tends to be low, which means these programmes aren’t providing a return on investment for employers. Lost productivity because of time away from work, absenteeism, chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes, are some of the main driving factors for companies to boost the wellness of their staff. Employers are also smart enough to know that ‘presenteeism’ (when workers show up for work despite suffering from mental health issues, headaches or back pain) isn’t doing anyone any favours.

As a designer and architect, it’s important to be mindful of employers’ increasing awareness and drive to improve employee wellness and to offer solutions as to how your services can help them achieve their goals. Designing workplaces to support wellness is one of the new main drivers behind sustainability design as the results show that a human centric, green design can have a profound impact on the health and well-being of employees. Instead of trying to compel an employee to take a yoga class or go for a walk during lunch, workplaces can ‘opt in’ to a workplace that has been designed to support their health and well-being throughout the day.

The shift to well-being focuses on preventing health issues instead of trying to treat them once a person is already suffering from an illness. Sitting, for example, has been cited as “the new smoking” as studies show that it can increase the likelihood of disease. Increasing movement within a building can encourage workers to move around more during the day, which is the type of “nudge” that can bring more results than simply providing workers with information about their health. Factors such as lighting, air quality, materials, physical activity, food and furniture are all things that can improve employees’ health. While this type of advice may not have traditionally fallen into the architect or interior designer’s area of expertise, the fact that green rating systems are taking wellness seriously means that it is an area where professionals in the built environment will need to upskill themselves.

The new Discovery headquarters in Sandton is a prime example of a sustainable building that puts employee wellness at the heart of its green pursuits. The five-star Green Star rating that the building received from the GBCSA (Green Building Council of SA) is a testament to green features employed during the design and construction phase.

Some of its features include a rooftop running track, yoga decks, a fully equipped gym, multipurpose courts, indigenous landscape gardens, indoor CO2 air monitoring, occupant control and daylight optimisation, and connection to the exterior.

In New York, Delos is using gamification and technology to increase the wellness of employees in their office.

Sensors in the stairs record the number of trips staff members take during the day and every time a worker uses the stairs, a drop of water is added to an electronic “waterfall” display. The more times employees take the stairs, the bigger the waterfall. Other companies are displaying their office’s water and electricity consumption on digital scoreboards to give employees a real sense of the resources being used.

Being able to guide clients on designing environments that support and encourage employee well-being is the new frontier of green and sustainable design. This way, companies can ensure that wellness isn’t something that workers have to opt-in on, but rather something that is built into their lifestyle.

Expert tip: As a designer and architect, it’s important to be mindful of employers’ increasing awareness and drive to improving employee wellness and to offer solutions as to how your services can help them achieve their goals.

Thanks and acknowledgement are given to www.energyramblings.com, www.worldgbc.org, www.theconversation.com, www.bizcommunity.com, www.discovery.co.za and www.delos.com for some of the information contained in this article.

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