The evidence that links buildings and performance

creativity, Derek Clements-Croome, productivity, wellbeing

Karen Fletcher takes a look into the latest edition of a book that examines the impact of the built environment on occupant productivity and creativity.

Productivity in the workplace matters. In August 2018, the Financial Times wrote an article about what it described as ‘Britain’s productivity crisis’, saying that ‘it should be keeping civil servants awake at night.’ And in January 2019, the Guardian newspaper was bemoaning ‘Britain’s dismal track record on improving labour productivity’. It matters because good levels of productivity are needed for a country to achieve rising living standards.

The impact of buildings on productivity of occupants is therefore no small matter. After staff, office space is one of the most expensive items that a business will pay for. If buildings can be designed and operated to enhance productivity, then value is greatly enhanced.

‘Creating the productive workplace: Places to work creatively’ is a book which explores the evidence from research that demonstrates the links between the built environment and our physical, mental and social wellbeing. It is these things that affect human productivity.

Edited by the renowned Professor Derek Clements-Croome, the publication brings together over 40 experts who consider a range of topics under this broad heading. These include the business case for sustainable healthy buildings; effects of indoor air quality on decision-making; lighting for productive workplaces and the workplace as a tool for investment. Several of the authors are well-known to the building services sector, including Bill Bordass and Adrian Leaman, co-founders of the Usable Buildings Trust.

The sub-title of the book “Places to work creatively” is significant as it goes some way beyond simply ‘productivity’. Clements-Croome explains the thinking behind this title: “We have concentrated on productivity, but the roots of that are in health and wellbeing. When people’s energy is good, they work better. However, with the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) a lot of routine jobs will go, but the opportunities for creative work open up. That’s why creativity is so important.”

At over 400 pages, this is no light read. However, it offers some insights which are well worth an investment of time. The evidence presented is potentially very useful for the building services sector where we so often find that value engineering cuts into the very specifications that support occupant wellbeing and productivity. The more evidence there is to show that investments in good design – and building services – the more likely we are to see operational effectiveness valued over capital expenditure.

Key areas of interest for building services readers will be the focus on indoor air quality (IAQ), thermal comfort and building management systems. Although the book focuses on different elements in each chapter, the emphasis is on thinking of the building as a whole. As Sarah Daly writes in chapter 23 (The case for good workplace design): “Creating high performance workplaces will only succeed if a completely holistic approach is taken to all the contributing elements – this cannot be done selectively or even sequentially.”

There is plenty of evidence, as well as lots of case studies, demonstrating a clear link between well-designed workplaces and the behaviour of people in them. And this book is not alone in producing such details. Other reports from CIBSE, BRE, RICS and the BCO show time and again that a well -designed and operated office supports better worker productivity.

However, it is true to say that getting to the nub of a productivity / building measure of in a way that can quickly be conveyed to specifiers such as clients or contractors is still a challenge.

As Nigel Oseland, who runs workplace consultancy practice Workplace Unlimited, writes in chapter 10, any discussion on measuring the impact of the built environment on productivity: “…eventually reaches the conclusion that measuring productivity in the modern office is virtually impossible. For over thirty years, the pursuit of measuring office worker productivity has been referred to as the ‘search for the holy grail’.”

Nevertheless, we seem to be at a point when ‘wellness’ is far more central to thinking about workplace environments. Clements-Croome has more recently contributed to the British Council for Office’s (BCO) Wellness Matters report which informed the BCO 2019 Office Specification Guide.

“Society is more concerned about health and wellbeing and this has a lot of effects. We are becoming more aware of how our bodies and minds respond in different environments, “ says Clements-Croome. He also points out that measurement technology is now reaching a point where monitoring equipment is now small enough to be wearable, and that in fact a number of organisations are giving these to staff to help support wellness at work.

Perhaps one of the most eye-opening sections of the book is the final chapter, ‘Future of work and place in the 21st Century’ by Mark Eltringham. In it he envisions a future which involves a “complete rethink of the way we view work and workplaces.” He also points to the dangers of believing that somewhere there is an ‘ideal office’ to be achieved. Instead, we must realise that ‘the office is always out of date and always in a state of transition’.

But this isn’t a point that should concern building services professionals too much. The challenge is to ensure that flexibility is at the heart of design, and that the future of buildings encompasses our changing environment – and occupants.

Creating the productive workplace: Places to work creatively edited by Derek Clements-Croome (3rd edition) is published by Routledge ISBN 978-1-138-96334-4

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