Healthy office buildings means healthy productivity

  • 30 Sep 2015

Guest Blog: Gavin Dunn, Director of BREEAM, BRE

Commercial office buildings are more than just steel and glass, they are places where people spend a large portion of their lives, and these workplaces need to respond to the needs of not only the client tenant but of individuals. In fact those two drivers should be seen as interlinked, and holistic design approaches which do so can create buildings that raise productivity and show that looking after employees is the same as looking after the bottom line.

So while the external appearance of an office building is very important, particularly in high profile urban settings, perhaps more important long term is how it functions as a place for people. This is far more than just a warm and fluffy ‘nice to have’ aim, as thoughtfully creating a holistic workplace which encompasses all of the key wellbeing design factors – from thermal comfort, air quality, daylight and views, to acoustic quality, visual stimulation and change, space and ergonomics – can bring tangible and in some cases measurable benefits.

A 2014 World Green Building Council report survey found that buildings which had received sustainability certification for the quality of their environments saw an average increase of 4% in productivity, including factors such as reduced absenteeism and increased health. The benefits should perhaps be self-evident but it’s important to demonstrate how employee health and wellbeing is inseparable from efficiency aims. How architectural design can respond to this need for healthy and productive commercial buildings will be a key focus at next year’s Ecobuild event, which takes place at ExCeL, London in March.

The best office buildings are designed to not only offer impressive circulation areas and natural light, but also give choice to employees to enable them to use areas which are appropriate for of the different activities which are involved with today’s multi-faceted office work. This means spaces which are more ‘active,’ with connectivity, collaboration, and creativity at the forefront and quiet areas where staff can escape to undertake deeper thinking. The final piece of the puzzle is that places which are pleasant to work in and which support that work can have a major impact on staff motivation and happiness, even enhancing their abilities in the process.

Raising standards

BREEAM is now the most widely used sustainability standard for buildings globally, representing a holistic accreditation of buildings at design, completion and post-occupancy stages. Its in-depth approach includes for example looking at how daylighting is moderated using shading or tinted glass to avoid glare, to what extent do the materials used emit potentially harmful VOCs over time, and how far users can control their environment. While it covers the nine key sustainable building criteria, such as energy/CO2, water, materials, waste and pollution, ecology and health and wellbeing, the standard reaches beyond the fabric to look at how the building affects the wider community, such as local transport infrastructure and employment.

The initial cost of a project rated ‘BREEAM Excellent’ might come in around 1%-2% higher than a solely Building Regulations-compliant equivalent, but the return on investment possible from achieving a much better building can greatly outstrip that. The highest cost to any organisation is its wage bill, and just a small improvement in absenteeism can make a major difference. And for building owners the amount of void space which must be serviced is minimised because BREEAM buildings are more desirable to tenants.

A 4% increase in productivity as cited by the World Green Building Council in its survey can mean a payback on construction costs of a few months. In addition better retention of staff means a reduction in recruitment costs, which can be significant.

It’s not all about positives for staff, BREEAM can also be used to effect positive changes in procurement, particularly its use to aid communication across different groups of stakeholders with varying technical knowledge. The framework it provides also helps avoid trade-offs between one sustainability improvement and another within projects, as it helps balance them out throughout the procurement process.  

Ecobuild has been a very important vehicle to engage with stakeholders across the industry about BREEAM including the ever-expanding BREEAM Awards. By continuing to attract a high level audience the show has been invaluable for helping make it an international success story.

World-class office

A 90 m glass parallelogram next to London’s South Bank, 240 Blackfriars is not only a striking visual achievement, it is a great example of an office building which helps its employees thrive and succeed. The attendees to a joint briefing held by BRE and Ecobuild in the building’s atrium recently were able to see for themselves what that means.

The building is the headquarters of the global communications business behind Ecobuild, UBM, and is a fitting home for the event’s organisers demonstrating best practice in sustainable construction. Awarded BREEAM Excellent, 240 Blackfriars has floor to ceiling windows, discreet meeting areas and attractive open circulation and function spaces, but it has other important wellness benefits such as roomy 1 person per 8 m2 occupancy, high controllability and quiet areas, and chilled ceiling air conditioning for thermal comfort.

BRE is a Research & Innovation Partner of Ecobuild, the UK’s leading exhibition and conference for the UK construction and energy market, which attracts over 40,000 industry professionals from across the supply chain. Day two of the 2016 conference programme is focused on architecture, and will include a key session discussing productive as well inspiring commercial buildings, and the day which looks at next generation thinking will feature a session on healthy buildings and healthy communities.

For further information about Ecobuild 2016 which takes place from 8th to 10th March at London’s ExCeL, please visit

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