Cosmin Ticleanu, principal lighting consultant for the Biophilic Office project explains the background to the project.
‘We spend 90% of our lives in buildings, which means our health and wellbeing are influenced significantly by the built environment. In many cases these internal spaces are offices, typically built as enclosed and relatively sterile spaces, sheltered away from elements of nature. ‘
In recent years, changes in workplace design have started to occur, shifting from individual cubicles and private offices to open-plan designs, standing desks and whiteboard walls to emphasize increased focus, teamwork and flexibility. However, the great majority of office workers still work in existing buildings which fail to provide optimal conditions for health and wellbeing. Government research shows that over 130 million days are lost to sickness absence every year in the UK and working-age ill health costs the national economy £100 billion a year. A 1% reduction in absenteeism would help save not less than £1 billion to the economy.
According to the World Green Building Council, staff costs amount to 90% of typical office business running costs compared to just 1% for energy. Nevertheless, typical design focuses more on factors such as energy use rather than the fact that buildings are for people. For example, recent research found that in the typical UK office environment around two thirds of staff do not have sufficient access to daylight. Little attention is paid to the wellbeing of occupants in the layout of buildings; potential impacts on their mental, social and physical health are ignored, so opportunities to lever better business outcomes are missed.
More recently, the relation with nature has been recognised as a key consideration when designing and developing workspaces. Biophilic design acknowledges that we are genetically connected to nature and that a human centred approach can improve many of the spaces that we live and work, with numerous benefits to our health and wellbeing and efficiency.
A live office refurbishment project using biophilic design principles is being carried out by building science centre BRE in partnership with Oliver Heath Design and a range of industry partners. The two-and-a-half-year project aims to collect environmental and human data as evidence for health and wellbeing impacts of biophilic design on office occupants. This could then show how quantified improvements in productivity and wellness can bring rewards for landlords, occupiers, developers and all those concerned with the office and wider built environment.
The project centres on a 650m2 first floor office in a 1980s building on the BRE campus in Watford, which will be refurbished according to biophilic design principles. The research plan consists of a baseline year of pre-refurbishment and a year of post-refurbishment monitoring, evaluating the office environment for daylight, electric lighting, indoor air quality, acoustic, thermal and humidity comfort as well as occupant performance and wellbeing. Initial investigations of the quality of the indoor environment – factors such as lighting, temperature, CO2 and volatile organic compound (VOC) levels, relative humidity and acoustics – found that these aspects were generally within standard recommendations. However, lighting was less adequate in some areas of the building with illuminances below recommended values as well as significant variation of illuminances between and within office spaces; most of the existing desks do not meet current standard recommendations for circadian stimulation. Also, when asked about the existing office conditions (lighting, glare, noise and other comfort factors), most occupants rated the look and feel of their office as ‘poor’.
The combined impact of the installed products and of the design will be assessed in the refurbished office, as well as evaluated separately in a special environmental room. The volunteer occupants, who are BRE employees, fill in regular questionnaires, take part in focus groups and undertake computer tasks that test attention and concentration. Some physiological and business measures (absenteeism, turnover etc.) are taken into consideration to help monitor occupant mood and health and to measure productivity.
It is hoped that the project aim will provide evidence and guidance for future workplace design that will enhance the mental and physical health and wellbeing of occupants and, in turn, enable better business outcomes for office-based companies.
The project is supported by a number of UK-based and international core partners (Oliver Heath Design, CoeLux, Waldmann, Ambius, Interface, Plantronics, Avison & Young, Ahrend, Ecophon and Akzo Nobel) and dissemination partners including RICS, CIBSE, The Light Review, LIA, BBSA, CIAT and other organisations.