Guest Blog – Health and Wellbeing in the Built Environment

A lot has been written about health and wellbeing in the built environment, particularly over the last few years. All of the major industry institutions, property owners, investors and organisations involved with the construction and management of buildings are becoming fully engaged with this topic. A lot of what has been written makes total sense, why wouldn’t people be healthier and feel well in a building that provides optimum environmental conditions? And if they feel well then why wouldn’t they perform better and become a more valuable resource and contribute more to their organisation?

There are many factors that contribute to health and wellbeing in the workplace. A person’s wellbeing is a complex combination of their physical, mental, emotional and social health factors. The built environment can have a significant effect on a person’s physical health, but less so with the other factors, which are more influenced by an organisation’s structure and management processes, as well as issues outside of the workplace. 

In the developed world, people spend around 90% of their lives in and around buildings, and within organisations, staff are the most valuable asset typically accounting for 90% of business operating costs. There is a growing body of evidence that improved health and wellbeing leads to improved productivity, along with attracting and retaining staff and other benefits. So even a small improvement in productivity can have a significant benefit on the bottom line of any business. 

So how can buildings affect health and wellbeing?

With a new build development, it easier to include in the design elements that can have a positive impact, such as indoor air quality, lighting, acoustics, reducing VOC’s, (volatile organic compounds that are emitted from materials), water quality, and other additions such as cycling facilities, gymnasiums etc. It is not so easy to add these elements to existing buildings, but it is becoming easier to demonstrate an attractive business case to retrofit equipment and improve management processes based on reduced operating costs. By making improvements such as improved controls to provide better air quality or lighting for instance, this will also have an impact on energy and maintenance costs. And as evidence grows showing improved productivity, the return on investment will become even more attractive.

In addition, the disruption that the internet of things and AI is beginning to have in the industry, improvements will be easier to achieve. 

It is important to ensure the ongoing operation is such that sufficient monitoring and feedback is introduced as part of the management process. This could be automated, or manual, or a combination of both, but the process needs to ensure that the indoor environment is maintaining the correct conditions, and that the occupants are comfortable. It is not uncommon to have a change in use of a space in a building, without the building services and controls being amended to suit, resulting in poor conditions. 

Our software solution, arbn well, monitors indoor air quality for health and productivity. This involves installing a measuring and occupant engagement service, which produce results to help make improvements. The algorithms used in the system identify potential trouble spots before occupant complaints and health issues arise. 

More and more studies are being completed that begin to show how organisations that care about the environmental impact of their buildings as well as the health and wellbeing of their staff and take action to improve the quality of the workplace, are rewarded by improved productivity and loyalty, which can have a big return on investment. From a study of a major construction company that shows a reduction in absenteeism which saved £30K after improvements, to a large property company that has reported reduced absenteeism and improved productivity, with 88% of staff feeling that it supports their wellbeing and enables them to work productively, a significant increase before the improvements.

However, in my view, these improvements won’t happen unless the correct quality of building management staff are employed, from the facilities/building manager, to the engineer maintaining the equipment, and that the correct type of maintenance contract is drawn up that includes all the necessary tasks required to maintain the environmental conditions required, and not just maintaining the equipment. 

In my experience it is common to see industry standard maintenance agreements put in place that don’t include at “added value” aspects such as ensuring appropriate energy targets are met or testing of indoor air and water quality on a regular basis. Managing buildings correctly is becoming more and more challenging due to the complex nature of the some of the equipment, and the shortage of experienced engineers. This challenge can be overcome by ensuring the appropriate management processes are put in place and obtain the correct professional advice. 

By Mitch Layng of Layng Energy Solutions

EMA Energy Manager of the Year 2016