Wellbeing: Building Inspiration

Atkins | 12 May 2016 | Comments

Part 2: The case for people-centred architecture is gaining momentum

Soaring 60 storeys above Dubai, a new skyscraper is rewriting the rules of high-rise architecture. Instead of having a conventional façade, the award-winning Viceroy Dubai Jumeirah Village tower will incorporate ‘sky gardens’ – lush green balconies with trees and plants – to create a healthy and attractive living environment.

According to the building’s principal architect, the idea is not only to design a building that looks good, but also one that is good for the people that use it.

“Tower residents often feel isolated and miss a connection to the natural environment which is important to their wellbeing,” explains Hussam Abdelghany, associate director, Atkins in Middle East. “Our approach relies on parametric design tools to create liveable outdoor spaces that enjoy a good level of natural ventilation, natural lighting and well-shaded gardens during the majority of the day. These integrated sky gardens add a social and environmental perspective that contributes to the wellbeing of the high-rise residents.”

The Dubai tower, which will include apartments and hotel rooms, underlines the way that wellbeing is becoming central to the way buildings are designed. It’s symptomatic of a major shift in architectural thinking, believes Philip Watson, Atkins’ UK design director.

“As architects and designers, we put a lot of effort into reducing energy bills and looking at sustainability with regard to energy and carbon savings. This is vital, but it has very little impact on people,” he says. “For me, wellbeing is about viewing design and planning through a new lens with the user at the centre. And it’s the user experience and wellbeing that are more important than anything.”

Wellbeing takes into account all of the building-related factors that have a bearing on physical and mental health. “These include light levels, air quality and carbon dioxide levels – all of the things that may have been picked up when we used to talk about sick building syndrome,” explains Dr Caroline Paradise, UK head of design research, Atkins. “There’s also a psychological dimension linked to our perception of space and the environment.”

Atkins is actively promoting the incorporation of wellbeing principles in the buildings it designs through its recently-launched ‘Wellbriefing’ engagement process. This provides building users with tools to prioritise aspects of the built environment that are important to their health and wellbeing – before the detailed design process gets under way. The process is applicable to buildings of any type.

Making the case

The idea that buildings can help or hinder their occupants has deep roots. The Roman architect Vitruvius, for example, had firm beliefs about how buildings should be designed and codified many of his thoughts in The Ten Books on Architecture more than 2,000 years ago. Although architects through the ages have taken a keen interest in the effects their buildings have on people, systematic research into the factors associated with wellbeing is relatively recent.

Scientific insights are now helping architects to design buildings that are not only attractive for users, but also improve employee performance. This matters because staff costs typically account for about 90% of an organisation’s outgoings, so even small improvements in wellbeing can have a big impact on company fortunes.

Workplace studies, for example, have linked improvements in ventilation – including dedicated delivery of fresh air to workstations and reduced levels of pollutants – with productivity gains of up to 11%.

Research also highlights the negative effects of bad ventilation: poor air quality and high temperatures can reduce key aspects of employee performance, such as typing speed, by up to 10%. High levels of carbon dioxide – another symptom of poor ventilation – are linked with tiredness and impeded decision making.

Providing a connection with nature – a key component of an area known as biophilic design – has been shown to have positive effects. Exposure to natural sounds, for example, can help to reduce heart rate. Access to a window with a view of the natural environment is also therapeutic, reducing heart rate 1.6 times faster than a space with a digital view or no view at all.

The role of light is critical. A study by neuroscientists showed that office staff with windows received more than 170% more white light exposure while at work and on average, slept an extra 46 minutes every night. Those without windows had poorer scores on quality of life measures such as vitality and poorer sleep quality.

Top marks

Better buildings not only have the potential to transform the way people work, but also the way that they learn. In schools, for example, studies show that well-designed buildings and classrooms can significantly improve academic performance by reducing distractions, improving physical comfort and providing stimulation for pupils.

One of the first major studies into the influence of classroom design on academic performance was carried out in the UK with a sample that included more than 3,700 pupils across 27 schools. Results from the first phase of the study were published in 2013, with the second phase reported in 2015. “It’s one of only a handful of studies in the education sector that look at live environments and a holistic impact on student performance – it’s significant because there haven’t been many holistic studies of this sort collating such a large data set,” says Paradise, who was part of the team that carried out the research.

The study, which covered buildings constructed between the 1880s and the 2000s, found that school design had a 16% impact on children’s learning rates.

Among the factors that had the biggest impact on learning were light (east or west-facing classrooms are best with abundant daylight and a low risk of glare), temperature (less sun heating is better) and air quality – high-volume rooms with window openings at different heights provide the best range of ventilation options. Factors linked to personalisation, flexibility, room layouts and colour also had positive impacts.

What’s clear is that buildings have a direct impact on the performance of the people using them. Equally important is the impact on health. This matters because the economic and personal burden associated with ill health is enormous.  In the UK, for example, mental health problems are estimated to cost employers £26 billion each year.

“If we can reduce stress and sickness, and help people to perform better, we can have a huge impact on business efficiency,” believes Watson. “There are also wider benefits in terms of reducing the social and economic costs of ill health. The impact of wellbeing in buildings is potentially much bigger than we realise.”

Click here to discover more about how Atkins is putting wellbeing at the heart of building design. 

For part 1 of our wellbeing feature, please click here.