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Designing Buildings for Wellness

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Whether inside or outdoors, our surroundings can have a profound impact not just on our mood, but our overall well-being. People seek peaceful respite in nature to re-energize and refresh their spirits, partly as a change of scenery from their office or home, where they spend the vast majority of their waking hours. Knowing this, owners and design firms are taking a harder look at how a building’s design can affect its occupants’ health, wellness, and even productivity.

“In building, wellness is the new sustainability… The goal is to make our built environment more physically healthy for people,” Jonathan Penndorf, a Washington, D.C. architect with the firm Perkins+Will told National Geographic

Global engineering consultancy Arup recently teamed up with global wellness pioneer Delos to create the new BUS Wellbeing survey, to help evaluate how a building’s design impacts its occupants’ well-being. The survey assesses factors including air quality, lighting, and access to nature.

In building, wellness is the new sustainability… The goal is to make our built environment more physically healthy for people. 

“The BUS Wellbeing Survey provides a simple way to track how investment in building design and performance is related to human health. Without global benchmarks, these investments cannot be evaluated and compared,” said Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, Senior Vice President of Delos.

The goal is to help establish global standards around occupant wellness, which complement companies’ and owners’ efforts around improving the overall indoor experience.

Build to Create a Healthy Habitat

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Since many buildings are sealed up tightly to avoid heat or air conditioning escaping, air circulation indoors is generally poor. This means allergens, pollutants and germs have nowhere to go. Chemical off-gassing from new paint, carpet, or floor cleaner can also impact the air we breathe. In fact, the EPA says indoor air can be 2-5 times more toxic than the air outside.

“We’re chronically under-ventilating our indoor environments, despite years of evidence suggesting we should do the contrary,” former Harvard public health researcher Joseph Allen told National Geographic.

The National Institute of Building Sciences, WBDG, recommends addressing indoor air quality through improving ventilation systems, controlling moisture, and actively monitoring air quality for CO2 and airborne contaminants.

Light is Everything

Lack of natural light is another common complaint for building occupants. Nobody loves sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day with nothing more than the all-encompassing glow of overhead fluorescent bulbs. Engineers and architects are taking this into consideration, incorporating more open spaces and windows in their buildings to allow more natural light to flow in. They’re also incorporating more dimmers into lighting designs to allow occupants greater control over the brightness and intensity of indoor lighting, and installing timers to allow indoor lights to be turned off completely when there’s adequate sunlight available.

People understand the world around them through the information they collect via their five senses. One of the most obvious is the light we receive from the spaces we inhabit.

“People understand the world around them through the information they collect via their five senses. One of the most obvious is the light we receive from the spaces we inhabit. Designers work hard to provide the right lighting environment, and understand that light is important for our well-being, as well as to support the activities we undertake,” Caroline Paradise, head of Atkins design research told the Telegraph.

Socializing has proven mental health benefits, so buildings are being designed to encourage people to take a moment to shoot the breeze with their fellow occupants. Whether a shady outdoor space with benches or a sun-filled indoor room filled with plants and couches, creating a designated gathering place is a sure way to get people talking and feeling more engaged throughout the day. 

Whether it’s engaging the senses, encouraging conversation or improving environmental factors, considering a building’s impact on its occupants’ health is a growing global phenomenon. It’s likely that moving forward we will see a stark departure from the hermetically sealed buildings of yesteryear in favor of something much more open, inviting, and healthy.

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