January 16, 2018

Making the Office Not Just Green, but Healthy for Humans Too

With the call for sustainability, why are we not seeing health benefits and energy reductions going hand in hand in office environments for workers? Studies indicate that people spend over 90 per cent of their time in doors, with little data being collected on what the impact of that is. But there is mounting evidence that there is a high physiological cost to being indoors, with unnatural light sources for such long periods of time.
E. O Wilson was a biologist that encouraged “biophilic design on the belief that humans are “hard-wired by our evolutionary biology to be emotionally attracted to the natural world.” As this New York Times article observes it is time to stop calling buildings and building use “green” with energy efficiency and small carbon footprints, but look at how to make these environments the very best health promoting places for people who spend significant parts of their lives living there.
Studies show that levels of the cortisol stress hormone are highest in people working in artificially lit cubicles without outside views. These are also typically where workers that are tied to their desks  in the office are placed. Cognitive performance and mood can be further disordered by carbon dioxide levels from poor ventilation common in many older office buildings.  As  Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist who has studied workplaces and their impact around the United States. “More time and creativity has gone into designing natural habitats for zoo animals,” she observed in an online post, “than in creating comfortable office spaces for humans.”
In Washington D.C. the U.S. General Services Administration is now designing buildings with green roofs and atriums, and daylight lit offices with large windows exposing views to the outdoors. Space is now being designed for office workers to engage with each other and to promote walking,  “adding healthy exercise to work days spent largely sitting behind a desk.” And the paybacks are huge, with lower absenteeism. Research is also showing that workers in office with leafy plants concentrate better and are 15 per cent more productive. Studies have shown that fresh air and daylight help with health and alertness. A study of hospitals found that windows looking at nature resulted in patients needing less pain medication and being released a day earlier than average.
It just makes sense to meld sustainable building design with better health for workers using those buildings, and making health benefits just as important as green technology.  There is a quick video on YouTube available here describing the biophilic approach to creating work space.


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