Thinking outside the cube
Recognizing proven health risks and benefits, today’s building designers are moving beyond the brick and mortar to positively impact worker wellbeing.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Humans are programmed to be both active and social, and the sad reality is that office space is often not conducive for either. People sit in front of computer screens or on the phone for eight to 10 hours a day, often in cubicles or their own offices with little social interaction.
Luckily, the latest in building design and architecture has been taking note of these issues for years, and it doesn’t take a new building create a healthier work space.
‘Sitting is the new smoking’
The hazards of inactivity have long been studied, from increased risk of heart disease to obesity to herniated disks. Unfortunately, according to a Mayo Clinic article from James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., exercising a few hours a week at the gym or participating in any other vigorous activity hasn’t proven to be the panacea either. The trend, he says, is less sitting and more moving overall.
Levine suggests employees stand while talking on the phone or eating lunch, use an adjustable-height “sit-stand” desk, preferably with a specialized treadmill underneath their feet, or conduct active in-house meetings while walking laps around the office rather than sitting around a conference table.
The construction and design industry has been aware of these issues for years, and the latest standards are helping to create workspaces that will better foster movement, collaboration, and overall building and human health.
According to the Institute for Environmental Entrepreneurship, LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] is an independent, third-party verification rating system providing a method of standardization and oversight for environmental performance designed for new and existing commercial, institutional and residential buildings. Performance focuses on human and environmental health in five key areas including sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.
After October 31, 2016, the new LEED v4 certification will take effect and improve upon previous versions.
The United States Green Building Council launched LEED’s first rating system, LEED v2, in 2000. Eric Romano, workplace studio director at Eppstein Uhen Architects, remembers those early days. “In the beginning, it was so hard to get LEED documentation, and now it’s just standard practice.”
LEED provides a greater awareness and more transparency of building materials and chemicals being used in the design and construction process of a building, including recycled content and where things were made. The difference between v3 and v4, he explains, was mostly in the documentation requirements to provide disclosure and materials transparency.
“LEED does a great job in being all-encompassing because it deals with external and internal environments, but it doesn’t deal with things like the nutrition of human occupants or fitness. It does give credit for having bike or shower facilities, but not to the extent the WELL building standard would.”
Romano (EUA) says LEED offers the most holistic, broad, and achievable sustainability certifications compared to more recent certifications now available. “A building owner or client that simply wants to be sustainable but doesn’t have the appetite to go all-in would have no where else to go.”
Joni Juergens, territory manager for Patcraft Commercial Flooring, a division of Shaw Industries, has been following sustainability for years. “In the late 1990s, a push started for recycled products and the recyclability of products, so in other words, what happens when those products reached the end of their useful lives?”
The flooring industry began looking at off gassing, or the chemicals coming out of new carpets and how it affected safety. “Those things have changed dramatically over the last several years,” she says. “That was the low-hanging fruit.”
Then came The Red List, a list of 23 chemicals that should never be used in interior finishes of buildings. “For us, that was the first time we had something to talk about in regard to what’s dangerous to put in our buildings. The Red List gave the architecture and interior design industry something to shoot for as an industry.”
There are many Red Lists now across a variety of industries. The list for building construction changes as science dictates and is part of a Living Building Challenge, a global sustainable building certification program created in 2006 by the International Living Future Institute. It includes a list of chemicals that have been designated as harmful to living creatures or the environment.
The Living Building Challenge (LBC) is a rigorous certification that few buildings have yet achieved, and certification comes only after a building has been operating for at least a year. It is comprised of seven performance areas or petals: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty. Each petal is subdivided into a total of 20 imperatives, each focused on a specific sphere of influence.
A new LBC version 3.0 continues to raise the bar, focusing on communities and encompassing things like resiliency, regeneration, equity, community, materials transparency, and living future (car-free, net zero water usage, etc.).
Many projects have used components of LBC, Juergens says, incorporating living walls (plants) to clean air, for example, but few buildings have achieved the full certification. “Someone wanting an LBC building has to be very, very committed to doing what is required. It’s a really tough standard. LEED is more accessible.”
Other certifications and standards also exist such as WELL Building, or Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C), which means returning a product back to its original intent. C2C goes beyond recycling. “Aluminum cans are a great example,” Juergens explains. “There’s value in that piece of aluminum. The manufacturer wants that aluminum back so it can make more cans. So at the end of a product’s life, if it goes into a dumpster, that’s called cradle-to-grave, but if it goes back to the manufacturer, that’s cradle-to-cradle.”
To meet the C2C standard in carpeting, for example, a product must run through a cycle 200 times without degradation of quality. “It must test out like brand new nylon,” she explains, “and you have to reduce the amount of energy and raw materials it takes when it goes through the cycle.”
Until recently, cradle-to-cradle wasn’t generating mass appeal because LEED didn’t give much credit to C2C products, Juergens notes. “With LEED v4, it will matter more, and that’s really great.”
The WELL Building Standard is not necessarily new, but it’s becoming more and more popular. WELL is the world’s first building standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness, and is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI).
Because humans spend as much as 90% of their time inside buildings, WELL is a standard based on medical research that shows the impact buildings can have on the humans that occupy them. It focuses on keeping humans inside the buildings safer based on air quality, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. As of November 2015, nearly 80 projects encompassing 20 million square feet either were either registered or certified under WELL Building Standard version 1.0 in 12 counties across five continents, according to the IWBI.
Clearly, the modern workplace continues to evolve. Technology now allows many workers to work from anywhere Wi-Fi is available, and flexible hours help with work-life balance. But just as Yahoo president and CEO and Wausau-native Marissa Mayer discovered when she required all remote-working Yahoo employees to return to the office, there remains a need to bring workers back to the core.
In 2014, Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm, and Randstad, a large HR services and staffing company, announced results from the first worldwide study focusing on the workplace preferences of both Generation Y (ages 21 to 32) and Generation Z (ages 16 to 20). Interestingly, while Gen Z grew up with technology, the study found that 53% percent said they prefer in-person communication to tools like instant messaging and video conferencing.
Among their top five considerations when choosing a potential employer was where they worked, preferring active office spaces that promote collaboration and bring the outdoors in, whether through windows, balconies, or courtyards.
It’s widely known now that sedentary behavior is simply not good in any regard.
Humanscale, a designer and manufacturer of ergonomic products to improve health and comfort at work, has conducted numerous studies to support an active workplace. “Thanks to science and research, we know that sedentary behavior causes a host of health and wellness problems, from poor circulation to premature spinal disc degeneration, and is detrimental to our long-term wellbeing,” the company reports. Sitting all day may be unhealthy, but standing all day can damage health, too.
The answer, ergonomists claim, is a balanced and ongoing effort to stay active both inside and outside of the office, according to the World Green Building Council (WGBC). “There is overwhelming evidence which demonstrates that the design of an office impacts the health, wellbeing, and productivity of its occupants,” states WGBC’s Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices report.
The study’s summary of evidence includes indoor air quality, thermal comfort, daylighting and lighting, biophilia (a human’s instinctive bond with nature), noise, interior layout and look and feel, active design and exercise, and amenities and location (e.g., accessibility to child care or transportation) as important influencers on employee health.
How much CO2 is in your office, for example? Studies suggest high levels can lead to tiredness or impact decision-making. An analysis by Carnegie Mellon concluded that improving ventilation (allowing natural air in or improving heat and air conditioning) can result in 0.8 to 1.3% savings on health costs, between 47% and 79% in HVAC energy savings, and a productivity boost of between 3% and 18%.
Other WGBC findings and related studies suggest:
Thermal comfort: In general, employees tolerate cooler office temperatures to warmer.
Daylighting and lighting: Workers prefer access to windows and daylight. A recent study by neuroscientists suggests that workers with windows received 173% more white light exposure during the day and slept an average of 46 minutes more per night.
Noise: Distractions can have a considerable impact on productivity, impacting health and stress levels. A 2005 study found that 99% of people surveyed reported a loss of concentration from extraneous office noise or background speech.
Office layout and active design: Offices designed to get employees up and moving tend to experience higher productivity. Spaces offering a variety of work areas facilitating quiet concentration to social engagement and collaboration were found to be particularly successful, resulting in increased employee cohesion and lower stress levels.
Natural connections: Reducing eyestrain — and thus related headaches and fatigue — is a primary benefit of providing longer-range views beyond a computer screen. Bringing nature in through windows has been found to reduce frustration and improve patience. In a California study of computer programmers, those with views spent 15% more time on their primary task, while those without views were found to spend 15% more time talking on the phone or conversing with colleagues.
Bringing potted plants or other greenery into the office has also been shown to improve general health and wellbeing.
A local perspective
“One of the first things I like to talk to people about when designing interior space is connection, which is a big word,” says Cindy Howery, director of interior design at Potter Lawson. “As we start to layout the physical space, we try to orient the spaces so employees can make as many connections as possible. We like to make sure that everyone has access to an outside view, which is very important — the clouds moving, light changing, the wind blowing. We need to see that organic movement.”
While the industry is now making lighting products that respond to that circadian rhythm, or an organism’s physical, mental, and behavioral responses to light and darkness over roughly 24 hours, they can be expensive. “We try to rely on actual daylight and views,” Howery states.
An employee’s sense of security within the workspace is also important, she explains. There’s a movement away from closed-in cubicles where people can only be approached from behind, to being able to always see what’s in front of them. “We’ve seen people put mirrors on their monitors so they can see who’s approaching from behind. So how can we design a better workspace that allows people privacy to work and focus, but eliminates the stress a worker may have of someone sneaking up on them?”
Howery acknowledges that technology is allowing more freedom of movement, but refutes any notion that office buildings will go away as employees work remotely. Referring to Yahoo’s callback to the office, she says it goes back to the sense of community employees and companies need in the workplace. “I don’t think office buildings will go away, but they’re changing dramatically.”
The new LEED v4 she says puts more emphasis on healthy interiors, long-term planning, and sustainability. A section for commercial interiors talks about how long a company stays in a space to reduce turnover and gives pilot credits for making spaces more active.
But LEED only achieves one-half to one-third of the WELL Building Standard, she notes, before more operational aspects take over. Companies choosing to pursue a building certification do it for a variety of reasons, Howery says, from just being the right thing to do, to marketing, to putting their staff first.
“It’s amazing how far products have come in the last 10 years, but in terms of our office the standard building processes are not much different. We’ve always wanted to design healthy buildings.”
Going one step further
Atmosphere Commercial Interiors, a Minneapolis-based commercial furnishing provider with offices around the country including Madison, has made a concerted effort to practice what it preaches in terms of healthier work environments.
The company is taking a five-pillar approach to employee wellness that goes beyond building design and operations. The pillars are social, community, career, physical, and financial. Julie Murphy Agnew, senior interior designer, is championing the effort in the Madison office. “We thought it was important,” she says, adding that one of its first moves was to change the term wellness to wellbeing. “Wellbeing is more all-encompassing, providing more of a focus on careers. It’s a good model for anyone in the company.”
The benefit to the company, she says, is workplace balance. “We all work hard at our jobs, but we also want our environment at work to support everything else.”
Mindy MacWilliams, regional vice president at Atmosphere in Madison, says the goal is two-fold: to better engage team members and to attract and retain employees.
The company’s five-pillar initiative kicked off in January and started in March, focusing first on the social pillar to foster employee engagement. “Each of our office locations held a potluck, and all were video-conferenced together. For the financial pillar, we’ll bring a financial advisor in several times over the year. The community pillar will engage company employees in anything from races to the farmers market to team volunteering and giving back.
The physical emphasis will encourage employees to participate in exercise, yoga, and run/walks.
“It all relates back to furniture,” notes MacWilliams, “and how important it is to use your muscles.” Office furniture nowadays promotes moving muscles in a private space, such as walk stations with a desk and treadmill underneath that will not exceed two miles per hour.
“It’s about giving employees options,” states Agnew, “not just desk-height adjustments, but choices as to where they want to work in the office. It’s called a palette of place, meaning I have multiple places I can go if I need head-down time, or need to walk to ward off varicose veins, or places where I can sit on the floor.”
Office products helping to foster relaxation in the office include one named Brody, a work-lounge chair surrounded by a capsule that creates a calm, personal space. It has a laptop holder, is accessible to music, and allows an employee to work privately away from a busy office environment.
There’s a lot of research being done related to how the brain works in relation to human activity, how much interruption a brain can take, and what it needs to calm down, MacWilliams explains.
“It’s about how long it takes the brain to redirect and get you back on track because there are a lot of distractions during the workday. So how can we make things easier?”
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