Why we need to focus on healthy buildings right now
The current pandemic presents an opportunity to use smart building technology to address welfare for people and planetary health. In the first of a series of articles, Paul Wells sets out the business case for healthy buildings
With some notable exceptions, our office buildings have often been designed and built as cheaply and efficiently as possible to be functional containers in which to put people to work. With a concern for employee wellbeing having been on the rise before Covid-19 struck, the current crisis seems likely to keep health at the top of the agenda as people slowly return to work. This has two primary aspects. The first is the health of the people within a building, requiring the careful consideration of the impact that the building interior has on the people spending time in it. The second is a wider environmental consideration. Buildings account for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions; the significant impact of global lockdowns on CO2 emissions and resulting improvements in air quality show that we could be doing better.
‘The significant impact of global lockdowns on air quality shows that we could be doing better…’
There are clearly improvements to be made, and with the conversation currently revolving around what the ‘new normal’ might look like, it makes sound commercial sense to act now before we simply revert to our old ways. How we make our buildings healthier is linked to the use of increasingly sophisticated smart building technologies; a healthy building isn’t necessarily smart, but it helps. At the simplest level, a smart building is one that uses sensors to create smart silos of information that enable us to control how our buildings are being used seamlessly and instantaneously. This allows a number of key benefits to be enjoyed. It is important to explore these benefits as part of creating a compelling business case for making healthy buildings a priority.
Enhancing wellbeing and productivity
With most of our time spent indoors, the buildings we occupy are an important factor in both physical and mental health. Scientific evidence on the links between buildings and health has grown substantially in recent decades, covering a wide range of potential risks including inadequate heating, ventilation and air quality, moulds, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) etc. Beyond simply preventing us from becoming sick, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that buildings can actually enhance wellbeing and productivity. As people are an organisation’s greatest asset they are also its largest expense; therefore if their performance is impacted by the spaces that they occupy, this creates a direct and powerful connection between healthy buildings and the overall bottom line. In this context, even a one per cent rise in productivity could have a significant impact. This is known as the 3/30/300 rule.
Prioritising health and wellbeing at work has been a historic issue. A recent study published by Health and Wellbeing concluded that 64 per cent of employees thought their working environment was having a negative impact on their health. However, organisations are now waking up to the fact that much greater gains can be made by placing more emphasis on human factors such as enhanced wellbeing and satisfaction; a recent survey of business leaders showed that 90 per cent were interested in promoting the wellness of their employees. Providing greater control over aspects of the internal environment, smart nudges, personalised information and on-demand servicing can all be achieved using smart technologies.
Reducing carbon emissions
Construction and real estate has been identified as a key sector in need of transformation in order to achieve climate targets to limit global warming to below two degrees centigrade. Worldwide, buildings account for 36 per cent of global final energy use and 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions (including upstream power generation). According to the World Green Building Council, the global average of building energy intensity per unit of floor area therefore needs to be at least 30 per cent lower than current levels. While some countries are moving towards this goal – for example mandating that new buildings have to be carbon neutral at the very least – others are falling behind.
Set against this, the world is expected to build 230 billion square metres of new construction over the next 40 years – the equivalent of adding the city of Paris to the planet every week. Improving the energy usage of our buildings is therefore one of the biggest opportunities to make a difference.
Cost saving benefits
In addition to wellbeing and environmental advantages, a healthy building strategy can reduce the ongoing operational costs of running a building – or many buildings across the whole of a company’s real estate portfolio. Networks of smart sensors allow for control of lighting, temperature and ventilation at a local level, responding to real-time needs or weather conditions. For example, if a building is under-utilised, directing employees to a single floor and turning off light and heat in unused areas – or automatically moving louvres to reduce solar gain and the subsequent need for cooling.
‘Understanding how buildings are being used has advantages amid increased levels of home working …’
Understanding precisely how buildings are being used by their populations has additional advantages – particularly if there’s a longer-term shift towards increased levels of home working. In addition to environmental controls, the same sensors can provide increasingly granular data into patterns of movement and occupancy that enable real estate assets to be used more efficiently. This can ultimately reduce the need for new building stock; ultimately, the most zero carbon building is one that isn’t there.
In addition to reducing costs, we see an increasing reputational advantage to implementing energy saving measures across building portfolios with companies able to present a positive and forward-thinking face to the world. The continuing need to attract and retain the best talent makes a competitive edge important and the environmental agenda is an important concern for younger generations who will be coming into the workforce. This also plays further into the need to make buildings smart, as employers will need to meet high expectations around seamless connectivity and experience in order to attract the best talent.
Looking to the future
Clearly, the route to a better future starts with a compelling business case for making healthy buildings a priority. However, as identified at the beginning of this article, this has not always been the case. The next article in this series will explore what has been holding us back.
Paul Wells is CEO at IM&M, a leading provider of intelligent building solutions to lower your carbon emissions, create better working environments, improve efficiencies and integrate your systems. More on IM&M Suite here.