The impact of buildings on our health and wellbeing

Dr Chris Ward, health, wellbeing, World Health Organisation, BREEAM, WELL
Dr Chris Ward of BREEAM

As our other experts focus on heating, Dr Chris Ward considers the wider aspects of today’s building services that affect our health  and wellbeing

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. As such the term “health and wellbeing” can be considered to cover social, psychological and physical factors. An individual’s health and wellbeing is determined by a complex combination of genetics, lifestyle, behaviour and environmental factors, including those related to the built environment. With the average person in the developed world spending approximately 90% of their lives indoors, the conditions and facilities that buildings provide and the behaviours that they encourage are therefore a significant influence on everyone’s health and wellbeing.

Indeed there is a large body of research that convincingly demonstrates that the design, construction and operation of buildings has a substantial impact on the health and wellbeing of their occupants.

Furthermore, the evidence shows that there is a clear difference between internal environments that are simply not detrimental to health and those that positively support and enhance health and wellbeing. For workplaces, where staff related costs typically represent 90% of operating costs (energy and rental related costs typically represent 1% and 9% respectively), anything that can help to make a workforce more healthy and happy can have significant impacts on an organisation’s bottom line in terms of improving productivity, absenteeism and staff retention/attraction.

The following aspects have all been shown to impact the health and wellbeing of building occupants and are therefore important building design, construction and operational considerations:

• Indoor air quality and ventilation

• Thermal comfort, temperature and humidity

• Visual comfort, daylighting and artificial lighting

• Noise and acoustics

• Safety and security

• Interior layout, active and inclusive design, and look and feel

• Connections to nature (biophilia)

• Location and access to amenities and outdoor spaces

Dr Chris Ward, health, wellbeing, World Health Organisation, BREEAM, WELL
Building Services have a significant impact on health and wellbeing

As well as enhancing health and wellbeing, addressing the above aspects can also lead to wider sustainability benefits. For example, improving daylighting levels can reduce the energy consumption and associated carbon emissions from electric lighting, and providing green space can enhance biodiversity. However, in some cases there are potential conflicts that need to be taken into account and addressed where necessary, e.g. increasing daylighting may lead to issues with solar gain or glare. Therefore when implementing measures to improve health and wellbeing outcomes, it is important to take a holistic view of all potential sustainability benefits and impacts.

Driving best practice

BREEAM has been assessing the environmental, social and economic sustainability performance of buildings across their lifecycle for nearly 30 years. All BREEAM schemes seek to drive best practice and assure quality through an accessible, holistic and balanced measurement of sustainability impacts. This helps to ensure that decisions are not made in isolation and that all potential impacts and opportunities are considered. A key focus of BREEAM is the impact that buildings have on the health and wellbeing of its occupants, visitors, neighbours and those involved in their procurement and construction. Since the first scheme was launched to address the design and construction of new offices in 1990, improving indoor environmental quality (IEQ) and occupant health has been one of the main objectives of BREEAM. Version 1 was split into three sections, with the ‘Indoor effects’ section recognising that people spend the majority of time in buildings and that better environmental conditions can improve occupants’ wellbeing. Health and wellbeing issues covered by the scheme included indoor air quality, lighting and hazardous materials.

Over the years, the scope of the BREEAM schemes for buildings has evolved and the assessment of health and wellbeing remains a key focus with all schemes now having a dedicated ‘Health and Wellbeing’ category. The range of health and wellbeing related issues covered has also expanded over time to reflect market drivers and changes in regulations and industry best practice. While the Health and Wellbeing category has a large emphasis on IEQ issues, other categories also cover health and wellbeing related issues, including pollution, active travel, ecology and outdoor space, aftercare and other aspects linked to quality and amenity value. A recent BREEAM Briefing Paper “Health and wellbeing in BREEAM” highlights BREEAM’s current coverage of health and wellbeing issues across the different schemes.

In the last few years, the UK construction and property market has shown a growing interest in the health and wellbeing impacts associated with buildings and the built environment.

This is reflected in the growing number of statements and claims about health and wellbeing made by developers and property owners in the UK and abroad through their policies and corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. New certification initiatives that focus specifically on the health and wellbeing aspects of building design and operation, such as the North American based WELL Building Standard (WELL) and Fitwel systems, have also started to gain some traction in the UK over this period.

These initiatives can be seen as complementary to existing and well established sustainable/green building certification schemes like BREEAM.

Developing research

Many organisations are involved in research and the setting of standards for wellbeing in the built environment. BREEAM does not set out to duplicate this effort and is actively seeking to collaborate with such organisations in the interests of promoting a healthier and safer built environment for all. Recent collaborative work with the operators of WELL and Fitwel has assessed the level of technical overlap between BREEAM’s requirements and those in both initiatives, which has identified many instances where the respective health and wellbeing requirements are aligned. To help streamline the respective assessment processes for projects seeking certification against BREEAM and WELL or Fitwel, separate BREEAM Briefing Papers have been published that highlight the synergies between the BREEAM and WELL technical requirements and the BREEAM and Fitwel technical requirements.

Dr Chris Ward is BREEAM principal consultant.

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