Wellbeing: Putting People First

Atkins | 10 May 2016 | Comments

Part 1: Could better buildings hold the key to health and happiness?

Mention the word ‘wellbeing’ and the last thing most people think of is buildings. Yet there’s growing evidence that they should. Poorly-designed buildings are now being linked to everything from ill health to underachievement in schools and reduced productivity in the workplace.

“Buildings have an enormous impact on personal wellbeing,” says Philip Watson, UK design director, Atkins. “Factors such as air quality, how much daylight there is, whether you’ve got a view, the presence of pollutants, acoustics – all of these things have a direct impact on physiological wellbeing.”

Psychological wellbeing is also at stake. “A lot of this is linked to the way buildings support social interaction,” says Dr Caroline Paradise, UK head of design research, Atkins. “People need a working environment where they feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them – without increasing stress levels with too many people and too much noise. It’s a fine balance.”


Designing better buildings

To ensure buildings provide the best possible environment, Atkins has developed an innovative engagement process and tool that enables clients and building users to prioritise aspects of the built environment that are important to their health and wellbeing. Priorities captured through the process are then translated into a building brief and specification.

“We call this process ‘Wellbriefing’,” explains Watson. “We’ve identified what we think are the important parameters that impact on wellbeing. These break down into a number of areas and we ask questions related to those topics. We don’t expect people to be environmental psychologists or building physicists – we ask them in ways that are quite day-to-day.”

The process starts with face-to-face sessions with building users. “We talk through the factors and explain the kinds of things that we will be considering in terms of wellbeing throughout the design development,” explains Paradise. “People don’t necessarily know what might affect them on a day-to-day basis, so giving them an overview of some of the parameters is important.”

Next, building users complete an interactive web-based survey. This allows respondents to answer questions and provide opinions in confidence. “Giving people the opportunity to complete the survey on their own is important,” says Paradise. “The psychology of being in a group that you might work with daily means you might not say how you actually feel about certain things. Providing a way to do that in private is beneficial and people value that opportunity.”

Survey findings reveal precisely what psychological and physiological factors are important for each cohort of building users. This information is then used to generate the building brief. “These metrics mean our architects, engineers and everybody involved in the project knows what is important in terms of the wellbeing of the users,” says Watson. “It’s about embedding wellbeing at a strategic level.”

Delivering change

Atkins is already putting its wellbeing know-how to work as part of the company’s design of the University of Bournemouth’s new Faculty of Health and Social Sciences. As well as focusing on users’ wellbeing, it’s helping architects develop plans to make the building as attractive as possible to the many different groups who will use it, including potential students and the wider community.

“The building is on a prominent site and it’s a significant investment for the university,” says Paradise. “The people working within it have health and wellbeing at the core of what they do, so the building really needs to embody these attributes. It’s an exciting opportunity for us.”

It’s not only new buildings that are benefiting from the growing focus on wellbeing – existing buildings can also be upgraded. “We have a client who has just procured an office building and has issues around the building not performing as it was meant to in terms of overheating and employee disturbance,” says Watson. “We’re going to roll out the Wellbriefing tool and use that as a way of retrospectively suggesting alterations to the spaces to satisfy the end users.”

Part of the Wellbriefing vision is to build a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t, with each new project adding to the body of accumulated knowledge. 

“One of the benefits of collating this in-depth information is that we can create benchmarks,” explains Paradise. “The way that we extract and analyse the data means that we can filter by role, so you can look at how different types of people respond because building users are not all the same. We’ll soon get to a point where we can compare across different organisations, building function and role types.”

Wellbriefing was initially developed to meet the needs of university clients seeking to improve the student experience. But the idea has rapidly gained traction across other sectors of Atkins’ business. The techniques can be applied in any area, from business and education to government departments.

Development of the Wellbriefing tool underlines the way that analytic technologies are unlocking new insights into the built environment, according to Stephen Bourne, project director, research & development programme chair at Atkins in North America, who points to another example of the firm’s work in this field: its Future Proofing Cities tool.

“This is a GIS-based platform used to simulate the impact of combined business/population growth, urbanisation, climate change and sea level rise on cities,” he explains. “Integration of the Wellbriefing and Future Proofing tools could pave the way for predictive models that reveal the true impact Wellbriefing can have on entire cities.”

Putting wellbeing at the heart of urban planning not only makes economic sense, but it is key to creating a lasting legacy.

“Everything Atkins does – whether that’s a new road link or a new building – is about people and their wellbeing,” says Watson. “As architects, we all want great edifices named after us, but what matters most is putting people first. This is a way of turning that into a reality.”

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