The Invisible Environment and Your Health

Air quality is an essential aspect of building design. What we breathe affects our health, happiness and productivity, whether we are aware of it or not. At 361 Degrees we refer to this effect as the invisible environment, because although we can’t see the air we breathe, or the humidity, or the pollution levels, its effects are tangible and influence every aspect of our lives.

Happy places

Wellness is a relatively new concept in workplace design. A shift from cubicles to open plan spaces, with an emphasis on how those spaces look and feel, was part of an effort to make employees happier, and therefore more productive.

Comfortable chairs, quality coffee machines and better equipment all contribute to a more effective working environment. But they won’t make us happier unless they are supported by a better atmosphere.

Most people’s ‘happy places’ are outdoors. Fresh air. Wide, open spaces. Peace and quiet. In that happy place, you don’t need to worry about pollution, humidity or temperature. But in reality, we spend 90% of our time indoors. If you take away the commute, the average office worker in the UK is outside for just 37 minutes a day, according to a study by Ambius. For 40% of those workers, it’s less than 15 minutes.

If we’re going to spend so little time outdoors, shouldn’t we do everything we can to bring that fresh air into the indoor environment?

Of course, that is easier said than done, particularly as the outdoor air in major cities is in itself a major health risk. London’s annual air pollution limit for 2018 was breached on January 30th. Particulate matter, generated by vehicles, construction, power generation and a host of other processes, is ever present and can cause damage to the lungs, asthma and other respiratory problems.

More than a utility

The problem when addressing the indoor environment is that these risks and effects are difficult to demonstrate. Chairs and coffee machines are tangible. Air quality is more likely to be seen as an item to be ticked off a to-do list, a simple utility, like the electricity supply. A loss of electricity would cripple most workplaces, but it either works or it doesn’t. Air quality is more nuanced.

It can have a very real, very positive impact on the environment, making all other design and planning choices more effective. Better air quality can reduce mistakes by 44%. A green-certified building that fully addresses features such as air quality, thermal comfort and lighting can improve productivity by as much as 8%.

Imperial College London estimated such improvements in the UK’s workplaces would equate to a £20 billion boost to GDP. Terri Wills, CEO of the World Green Building Council, believes the impact on both businesses and the people should make greener buildings a priority.

“It’s obvious that making energy efficiency improvements will reduce operating costs, but arguably an even greater impact of green improvements are those felt by the people who spend their working lives in these spaces,” she said.

“Greener workspaces are healthier, more enjoyable places to work, and this has a tangible impact on productivity, employee health and the business bottom line.”

A holistic approach

If we are to realise these potential benefits, we need to take a holistic approach to our buildings. Certifications such as the WELL Building standard provide a framework for addressing a range of criteria, including air quality. Each of these can represent a marginal gain, a term often used in sport to describe individual 1% improvements that add up to significant change.

Employers know the workplace is important to recruiting and keeping the best staff, and we are all becoming more aware of the need to support both physical and mental health at work. Our design choices are going to have to accommodate a holistic approach, because people don’t want to be in spaces that make them unhappy.

We call it the invisible environment, but it doesn’t have to be a forgotten environment. It shouldn’t be.

The impact of the air we breathe on our health, our happiness, our productivity, our relationships, our enjoyment – in short, our wellness – is too great to ignore. By keeping happy places in mind during the design process, we can change the invisible environment.

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