Pretty safe to say we are all well-aware of the term sustainability. Chances are we have all also heard the current sustainability buzzword of choice ‘wellbeing’ crop up in multiple conversations over the past 18 months. Wellbeing seems to be the latest focus for sustainability professionals, so what exactly is it all about and how does it relate to the built environment?
Sustainability or Wellbeing?
Sustainability and Sustainable Development itself are complex enough terms, though most tend to agree that at its core it means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (UN Our Common Future).
Over the years this has led to a focus on the environmental side of sustainability; reducing resource use, using cleaner energy, recycling. But over the past 18 or so months there has been a growing global focus on ‘wellbeing’ in almost all sectors. Wellbeing is not a new word and one most of us probably understand. Taken at face value it means “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy”. Something everyone has always aspired to be.
So why the sudden focus now?
It can partly be attributed to a growing conversation about mental health illnesses and an understanding that there is more to us than just our physical health – the two are intrinsically linked. Over the past few years there has been a growing realisation that the lives we live are taking a significant toll on our health, both mentally and physically and people are trying to change this through various means. The phrase ‘mindfulness’ appears on the covers of magazines and on the evening news and has sparked a whole new sector of products for people to buy. Organic food and natural cosmetics are both rapidly growing sectors showing that people are starting to really think about the impact of the foods they eat and the products they use and the way in which they can start to live healthier and hopefully happier lives.
Given that we spend around 90% of our time indoors, it seems natural that people are now starting to consider whether the buildings in which they spend their time are positively or negatively impacting their health.
Over the past few years a lot of research has been carried out to understand the impact our buildings are having on us, particularly within our workplaces. This research has led building designers to reconsider the conventional wisdom that buildings designed to be ‘green, sustainable, energy efficient’ are inherently ‘healthy’ for their occupants. The key element of this realisation is the shifting sands around how occupants fit into building design. Building users do not necessarily connect with the responsible sourcing of the building materials, or that solar power is powering their building, but they do relate to whether they are breathing in clean air, whether they get headaches at work, whether they have access to natural light or the outdoors.
WELL Building Standard
The WELL Building Standard is a method of certification for buildings that is grounded in the body of medical research that explores connections between buildings and the health and wellness of its occupants. Although the standard is relatively new, and case studies are limited, buildings that have incorporated features of this standard have reported significant decreases in absenteeism, increased levels of productivity and increased staff retention.
As engineers and sustainability consultants in the built environment sector, we have the knowledge and skills to help guide this ‘wellbeing’ movement. We can ensure the sustainability of a building and the well-being of occupants is considered when we design HVAC systems and lighting systems, ensuring spaces are designed to be thermally, acoustically and visually comfortable for employees.
Hand in hand
It is however, very important that this focus on wellbeing is considered hand in hand with the ‘traditional’ elements of sustainability. We still have climate targets to achieve and we still need to design energy-efficient and resource efficient buildings, we just need to make them healthy at the same time. On the surface it may seem that wellbeing is the latest in-vogue trend in sustainability, but the truth is that its implications run much deeper than that. It’s an ethos that places employee wellbeing at the heart of everything, including building design.
Article written by: Imogen Christodoulou,
T: 020 3544 5400