Designing healthier spaces

From the materials we choose to the way the space is configured, buildings can be more than functional. They can promote better health of inhabitants, too.

By David W. Morison, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, WD Partners July 7, 2016

We’ve made great strides in creating more sustainable and greener buildings with resilient design and LEED-certified construction methods. Now it’s time to look inward, focusing on how we can impact the health of the people who occupy these eco-friendly buildings. Healthier space design is a holistic approach to creating interior environments that improve our overall health and mood. This is accomplished by providing opportunities for more physical activity, infusing an abundance of natural light, elevating air quality, and promoting the application of nontoxic materials.

Moving the needle

Awareness, education, and cost are all reasons why healthier space design hasn’t been more widely embraced. As researchers continue to uncover the harmful effects of certain materials used in the manufacture of building products (formaldehydes in seat cushions, for example), it takes time for these studies to come to fruition, and even longer to accept and take action on them. Not everyone agrees with such findings right away; it can take years before a consensus builds. Those who are resistant to change sometimes have to be swayed by public opinion first, or wait until it’s fashionable to be part of a movement.

But as a design professional, it’s my job to educate clients on health-related trends so they can make informed decisions about alternatives, such as sourcing low-VOC (volatile organic compound) coatings and paints. Then we have to weigh the cost associated with healthier products against the substantial long-term effects on the people who will use those spaces. As we’re learning the hard way, it’s either a pay now or pay later scenario. If we decide to use the less healthy and inexpensive products—even though they’re still viable—health risks may increase, and so will healthcare costs. And while our prime objective should always be to protect our occupants’ health, too often we’re faced with budget constraints that challenge our best intentions.

Upward mobility

Using healthier products is just the tip of the iceberg. Designing healthier spaces also means creating opportunities that encourage physical activity. At our WD Partners headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, there is a centrally located staircase. It may sound like a simple premise, but because of its location, it’s more convenient to use than the elevator. Of course, there are many instances where a central staircase isn’t feasible, but instead of catering to lethargy, our environments can inspire exercise.

Bring the outside in

Our bodies produce vitamin D when we’re exposed to ultraviolet light. Vitamin D is credited for boosting the immune system, preventing autoimmune diseases, and preventing cancer. And if you live in a sun-starved part of the country, you know how depressing it can be without a little sunlight in your day. (In fact, it can lead to seasonal affective disorder, aka SAD, which is a form of mild depression caused by the lack of exposure to sunlight and occurs most frequently in winter months.)

We can significantly increase our health and overall mood by designing buildings with more strategically placed windows and skylights that allow light to penetrate deeper into the building’s interior. At our office, we enjoy open workspaces (no cube farms here) and a bank of windows that span the entire east side of the building, allowing both floors to be awash in natural light.

Breathing deeply

Maintaining the quality of air we breathe is critical to good health. There are many commercial air-handling applications available on the market that effectively treat and filter air to increase quality and decrease pollutants. Another, more organic approach is to incorporate real plant material into the interior environment. Plants have been effective in fighting a modern phenomenon called sick building syndrome (SBS), which can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and concentration difficulties.

SBS typically results from poor air quality. Large plants can act as a natural filtration system by reducing carbon monoxide, pollutants, and ambient noise while increasing oxygen and humidity. A new study from the University of Technology Sydney reports strong evidence that plants in the workplace can reduce negative moods and decrease stress levels.

Working it all out

The old nautilus and free-weight gym of yesteryear has given way to open, multipurpose spaces that can be used for group classes like spinning, Zumba, tai chi, Pilates, and yoga. Exercise can help you relax, boost energy levels and brain power, and ease stress—not to mention the calorie burning that can lead to a more positive self-image. When surveyed regarding how a building design can impact the health of its occupants, more than half of human resource executives said a lack of exercise (59%) is one of the biggest challenges attributed to employees’ ability to stay healthy. The positive effects from exercising are endless, and providing more opportunities to engage in activities that promote wellness while at work is better for everyone in the long run.

In the course of a lifetime, we may spend more than 100,000 hours at work. To improve the quality of work life and attract and retain the best talent, we have to go beyond design that is merely aesthetically appealing. We need to design with our health in mind, too. The payoffs are fewer trips to doctors’ offices, lower healthcare costs, reduced sick days, more physical and mental energy, increased alertness, and a happier, more productive workforce.

-David W. Morison is vice president of architecture with WD Partners. This article originally appeared on WD Partners is a CFE Media content partner.