Mark Bouldin, healthy buildings expert, Johnson Controls looks at a healthy return to the office

Most of our lives are spent indoors, and the last year has made us well aware of this. But what we are less aware of, is the way the buildings we spend our time in are impacting our health and wellbeing. Public health is now firmly in the spotlight as a result of the pandemic, and it’s become more important than ever for buildings to be healthy places to work in.

The pandemic has changed our working habits for good, and remote, flexible and hybrid are quickly becoming commonplace in our everyday lexicon. Businesses must work to determine the most productive working model for their employees moving forward. Regardless of the decisions that are made, facility managers (FMs) will be playing by drastically different rules.

The focus for FMs and building owners must be on building occupancy. That is how we make genuinely healthy buildings. Fixed desks are no longer viable and spending 5 days a week in the office is a thing of the past. Office spaces will need to be reimagined, and this includes the way we access, experience, and benefit from our workplaces. However, that is only the beginning.

The impact of unhealthy buildings

To provide healthy and collaborative spaces for employees to work, businesses often begin with the solution. This is where we are going wrong. In fact, the core problem needs to be fully addressed first, so we can work out how best to solve it. ‘Good enough’ is no longer enough.

In order to create healthier buildings, we first need to understand the impact of unhealthy buildings. The World Health Organisation has estimated that there are 12.6 million deaths worldwide each year attributable to unhealthy environments, proving that the world around us has a huge impact on our health.

There are nine key factors that can affect health and productivity in buildings: light, noise, security, water, moisture, dust & pests, air quality and thermal health. While organisations are always looking for ways to increase performance and occupant comfort – and now mitigate the risk of infections too – these decisions must go beyond the impact on our productivity and happiness at work. They must also take into account wider issues like carbon emissions and air pollution. Not addressing these problems creates issues down the line that can be extremely detrimental to our health.

Put simply, the cycle needs to be broken: unhealthy buildings leads to an unhealthy planet, which results in unhealthy people.

Occupancy as the focus

In order to break this cycle and help improve building health, FMs and building managers need to focus on one thing first and foremost: occupancy. Who is using your buildings and how are they using them? Where does occupancy even come in when we need to improve issues like air quality, thermal health, noise, lighting, security, water, moisture, and dust and pests? In order to improve, we need to be constantly monitoring and even predicting occupancy levels. To do so, the optimum levels of occupancy of an area need to be calculated, taking air ventilation and air change rates into account.

For those already in buildings, managers must have the necessary data and technologies to understand the rooms and layouts within their buildings, especially as this changes in light of the pandemic. Then, they can allocate spaces according to the air change rate – deciding who works where based on where it will be healthiest for them. This ensures the indoor air quality is optimal depending on the room’s occupancy, which elevates employees’ experience at work. Buildings have the most significant effect on high-thinking workers, and the right systems can increase the productivity and even the IQ of employees, benefitting businesses and their staff alike.

For developers, meanwhile, building usage must be modelled into plans from the very beginning. Variable air conditioning should be implemented and built into air conditioning design, as this provides variability depending on the occupancy of a room. Rather than designing buildings around minimum occupancy levels, as is the current norm, developers will need to understand and cater for the maximum occupancy of a building. This small change could save lives, improving air quality for everyone. Once this is done, sensors should be installed to vary the air according to occupancy, meaning that the air quality will be at optimum levels no matter the number of people in the room or building.

Striking the right balance

Prioritising healthy people cannot come at the expense of a healthy planet. The focus on healthy buildings, healthy people and a healthy planet means all three of these aspects need to work cohesively together along with the technologies that enable them. Indoor comfort is affected by both humidity and temperature, but the air conditioning cannot be on full everyday – this would hold us back on sustainability efforts. It’s about striking a balance.

Concentrating on occupancy, rather than solely on sustainability or the employee experience, means organisations can ensure a productive and happy workforce while meeting ESG and efficiency targets. The hard part of the job is done thanks to sensors and other technologies capable of measuring and predicting occupancy levels.

The data from sensors then needs to be measured and understood correctly, so informed decisions can be made accordingly – that’s the key to getting the most from our buildings. For example, matching building performance indicators against staff data can be beneficial and businesses can compare staff sick days to building health data. This will give a clear overview of the impact buildings are having on employees. If anything isn’t looking right, it can be corrected, and employee health is prioritised without forfeiting costs or the health of the planet.

Focusing on occupancy is the next logical step to transform our buildings. As offices begin to reopen, businesses should consider how our buildings are impacting the workforce and ensure the right measures are put in place to uphold employee health and safety. After a year spent working from home, businesses must work to make a return to offices as comfortable as possible.