In years gone by, a wizened individual, empowered with the task of educating me in the English language, stated that a solid dictionary definition was the perfect start to any piece of literature.
A tried, tested, and ultimately disregarded technique – until now. Repulsed as I am to utilise this formulaic structure, in order to discuss our industry’s love-to-hate buzzword – sustainability – I must begin by unpicking what we mean when we mutter this six-syllable mouthful.
Traditional, Brundtland-esque explanations of sustainability call for the preservation of things that we currently have, ensuring the best for mankind both today and for our great-grandchildren and their cyborg partners in the future. We use this approach for raw materials, natural resources, gases in the air and flora and fauna on the ground.
For the past few decades, we have applied this principle to the buildings we’ve constructed – from the life cycle of materials constructing them to the energy being used within them. But is it time to apply these standards of sustainability, these principles of preservation and development, to the people who inhabit the places we’re building and the planet we’re protecting?
When questioning how to protect and improve the lives of our species, Health and Wellbeing may just be the answer. A mega-trend across today’s society – legitimising trainers to work, green juices and conversations about step-counting – the core idea is ultimately medical: prevention rather than cure. Protecting your health and wellbeing ensures a better quality of life, increased happiness, success, and ultimately sustaining your lifespan through extended longevity.
This trend of health and wellbeing has been a part of the buildings industry for decades. The ‘sick-buildings syndrome’, although an overused phrase in the field of buildings and wellness, was perhaps one of the first theories to derive a relationship between buildings, illness and the associated cost to businesses. Some of the less known theories and design concepts, such as those addressed by Christopher Alexander in ‘A Pattern Language’, are often used by architects to promote a sense of psychological wellness among the occupants of a building. At a larger city scale, Jane Jacobs is also known to have addressed the impact of built form on the health and safety of a neighbourhood.
In more recent times of increasing use of data and evidence based performance standards, new ways to appraise the health and wellbeing of occupants of buildings are being explored. In 2014, the UKGBC published their ground-breaking analysis of the positive and quantifiable impact that catering for the health and wellbeing of office staff can have on their productivity. A business case was provided, and an international framework established with the introduction of the WELL Building Standard to the UK in 2015. Similar to LEED and BREEAM, WELL offers an assessment-based framework to guide and certify healthy buildings across a realm of sectors.
A follow-up report from the UKGBC in early 2016 demonstrated that consideration of the same principles of Health and Wellbeing in the retail sector can offer equally significant economic benefits. It’s fair to say that until very recently, the economic case has been the key driver for investment in health and wellbeing in the construction industry.
However, with the launch of ‘Health and Wellbeing in Homes’ by the UKGBC in July 2016, it appears the trend for incorporating Health and Wellbeing is expanding its focus from just the financial benefits. That’s partly because it’s difficult to measure the economic impact of a house designed to optimise human health. But that doesn’t matter. The research, and large amount of interest, in health and wellbeing in the residential sector shows there is major stakeholder attention in catering for individual wellbeing in sustainable building design.
Beyond the business case
A healthy home can encourage physical fitness, healthy eating, family harmony, beneficial sleeping habits, good hygiene, reduced illness and community cohesion. These focuses can be achieved with simple, conscious design changes. Mindful choices about ventilation, daylighting, amenity space and fixtures can have impacts as wide-ranging as improved circadian rhythm and sleeping pattern, decreased stress and anxiety, and mould and microbe control. As with health and wellbeing indicators being incorporated in offices and commercial units, these factors must be considered from the very initial stages of design well into occupation, with the ultimate aim of promoting positive long-term behaviour change of the building occupant.
Reports by governmental and international bodies (such as the World Health Organization) have recognised the ancillary health benefits of improved indoor conditions due to climate change mitigation efforts (such as the improvement in the Quality-Adjusted Life Years of occupants. While the link between poor housing and ill-health is not new, the indicators that define how health and wellbeing can be incorporated in today’s homes are. Although research has suggested that consumers are willing to pay more for a premium in wellbeing, the drivers connecting socio-economic conditions, behaviour, energy-efficiency and healthy homes are complex and not just a financial in nature.
Conflicts between energy efficiency and air quality, daylighting and overheating, or community feel and space maximisation will undoubtedly flare as these, the evolved definitions of sustainability, come head-to-head with their predecessors. But with the UK and World Green Building Councils (supported by an attentive industry) exploring these issues and providing advocacy frameworks, finding a harmonious progression to our understanding of sustainable AND healthy buildings is more a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
Embracing the challenge
If the tensions between contrasting sustainability objectives can be mitigated, the potential gains of incorporating traditional resource-based sustainability with new human-centric concepts of health and wellbeing are extraordinary.
Health and wellbeing has always been a consideration in sustainable building design, demonstrably its establishment as a core category of BREEAM long pre-dated the aforementioned mega-trend in healthy living. But the breadth of inclusion within today’s definition of health and wellbeing goes so much further than what we have previously utilised, and gives consideration to vital quality of life influencers previously outside the realm of this sector, such as mental health and physical fitness.
If we wish to preserve our place on this planet, protecting our species for future generations, then an awareness of health and wellbeing is undoubtedly a key factor. The real challenge is creating real action in society and all aspects of life to create a tangible difference to human life quality, without boiling it down to buzzwords and gadgets. Health and wellbeing has to go beyond putting on a FitBit or buying a circadian lamp.
We may be establishing wellbeing at work, but our next challenge is to bring health to our homes.
And to perfect that green smoothie recipe…
Author: Catriona Brady