Office design evolves with health in mind
By Mallory Taub
September 7, 2016
Walk into Arup’s new Boston office later this year and you’ll find stunning downtown views, beautiful wood finishes, and a sense of being surrounded by daylight even when far from a window.
Sounds very pleasant, right? But there’s much more to the story. In addition to traditional goals of office fit-outs — creating a positive image of the company, providing a good work environment, and the like — ours was deeply informed by the desire to improve employee health and wellness.
Health concerns have always influenced architecture. But whereas design codes have historically been concerned with preventing harm, designers now understand that we can do far more to help people thrive. Starting from the World Health Organization’s definition of health — “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” — we’re paying more attention to how the built environment affects every aspect of well-being.
This new focus stems largely from designers’ growing awareness of the escalation of lifestyle-related illnesses. Physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and other behavioral issues increase risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Aside from their all-too-clear toll on the individual level, these ailments present enormous challenges at the national and global scales. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “far and away, chronic conditions cause more deaths, disability, years of reduced productivity and quality of life, and health care costs than all other health threats facing the nation.”
Lifestyle decisions are heavily influenced by the built environment. When staircases are hard to find, people take the elevator; in neighborhoods without sidewalks, they drive.
Lifestyle decisions are heavily influenced by the built environment.
Rethinking our surroundings from a wellness standpoint has economic as well as humanitarian benefits. The United States spends billions of dollars each year on preventable diseases. Research has shown that greater investment in prevention would reduce health care costs and human suffering alike.
Zoom in from the national scale to the office environment, and the same logic applies. According to the World Green Building Council, about 90% of business operating costs can be traced to spending on staff members. “Therefore what may appear a modest improvement in employee health or productivity can have a huge financial implication.”
A variation of this idea underlies a new crop of corporate wellness programs focused on organizational culture (e.g., Thrive Global). By combining the two, rethinking physical environments as well as social structures, companies can significantly improve employee health.
Data and resilience
Technology has also pushed designers to think more about wellness. Consumer devices like Fitbits have given people unprecedented access to information about their own bodies; meanwhile, the rapid progress of environmental sensors has enabled us to collect real-time data from multiple buildings and cities at once.
Another major driver for health-focused design is the relatively new emphasis on resilience. As we learn more about resilience’s social dimensions, designers are increasingly emphasizing the need to put people first in discussions about buildings and cities.
With all this in mind, when Arup’s Boston office decided to move to a new space, we knew that promoting health and wellness would be one of the key design goals.
What does this mean in practice? My colleague Frances Yang created a six-step process for creating health-centered buildings that starts with high-level goals like preventing ailments and promoting healthy habits.
Our office design demonstrates some of the ways these goals can be achieved. Healthy materials will produce exemplary indoor air quality (which also works toward our pursuit of LEED v4 Platinum). Sit/stand desks and diverse spaces will encourage movement. End-of-pipe filtration on every sink will improve water taste and quality, encouraging regular hydration. Food offerings will emphasize nutrition.
The new office’s lighting design is particularly noteworthy. Historically, light was believed to affect only vision. Approximately 15 years ago, scientists discovered that it also influences circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep cycles. The human body evolved to respond to changes in daylight throughout the day; we’re hard-wired to notice light intensity, distribution, duration, temporal pattern, and spectrum.
Lighting designers like Arup’s Jake Wayne and Liberty MacDougall are breaking new ground by incorporating these findings into the built environment. The lighting in our new office will change throughout the day based on the sun’s position in the sky, encouraging our bodies to release hormones that affect sleep at appropriate times.
Data-driven post-occupancy assessment is also critical. In the past, the success of office designs have been judged primarily via annual occupant questionnaires. We’re developing a more comprehensive approach that also incorporates sensor data, anonymized employee health information, records of facilities complaints, business performance data, and organizational diagnostics.
Precedents and standards
This work builds on precedents in the United Kingdom. Our team in London is currently working on a 62-story “vertical city” called 22 Bishopsgate. Its 12,000 occupants will benefit from shared tenant amenity spaces offering exercise opportunities, testing of contaminant levels in drinking water, healthy on-site catering, biophilic design, and public art.
Both the Boston office and 22 Bishopsgate have committed to achieve certification from the WELL Building Standard, which focuses on human health. Earlier this year, Arup announced a global alliance with Delos, WELL’s founder, that commits us to reaching 100 WELL-Accredited Professionals.
One of the most noteworthy features of wellness-centered design is its multidimensional nature. Drawing upon insights from the health sciences, occupational psychology, management consulting, facility management, data science, and technology, designers will continue to seek new ways to grapple with the complexities of human health.
Questions or comments for Mallory Taub? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.