How the wellness agenda can help transform the construction sector

Wellness agenda to transform construction sector

Over the years green buildings have been seen as niche and, despite their benefits, still not mainstream. Well, it’s time to think again as the combination of the global phenomenon of well-being, a more aware occupant and strong evidence linking the quality of workplace and productivity, is changing that perception.

Well-being – the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy – is a global industry worth an estimated $3.7 trillion in 2015 [1]. Millions of people are pursuing diets, exercise, beauty and anti-aging pursuits, not to mention the sales of preventive medicine, leisure and tourism activities, all to aid wellness.  They are enabled by technology such as smart phones and smart watches with clever apps that can measure everything from sleep patterns to room temperatures. This gives consumers 24/7 access to information that can help inform the choices they make. Given that people spend most of their time inside a home or an office, attention has turned to the role buildings can play to support health and well-being of their occupants.

So, what is a healthy building? There is much scientific evidence that demonstrates the relationship between aspects such as a better indoor environment – thermal comfort, good ventilation, natural light, and no atmospheric pollution from chemicals in carpets and furniture – and peoples’ health. A comprehensive overview was published by the World Green Building Council[2]. Studies have found that keeping people happy in the workplace improves productivity and loyalty to the company whilst reducing sick leave. Employers know staff costs are significantly more expensive than their property costs, and that it is important to attract and retain talent within their organisations. Providing attractive healthy workplaces is one such way of attracting staff. Employees recognise the importance of their workplace environment on their health and, enabled by technology, they can see how the buildings are performing. For example, apps are available on smart phones to measure oxygen and air temperatures. If an office is over-heating in a heat wave, or is cold during a cold snap, employees are able to request actions to improve the situation. Using these technologies, an understanding of how the building is performing is no longer in the domain of the facilities manager, hidden away in a room in the depths of the building. Staff awareness about their working environment has made companies realise the need for more sustainable buildings.

The significance of healthy homes and buildings has not been lost on politicians. An all-party UK parliamentary group are publishing a white paper this autumn to highlight potential legislative and policy changes to drive improvements in energy performance and comfort.[3] Draft recommendations include, amongst others, improving building design and increasing skills and knowledge in the construction sector.

There are opportunities for funding to help drive innovations in this area. In July, Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, launched a competition to invest up to £12.5 million in innovative projects to transform the UK construction sector[4]. The aim of this competition is to invest in solutions to improve productivity, quality and performance of the UK construction sector. The funding focusses on three areas: Designing and managing buildings through digitally-enabled performance management; Constructing quality buildings using a manufacturing approach; and Powering buildings with active energy components and improving build quality. Taking the first area – how could heating and ventilation systems be further improved through the smart sensors allowing users further opportunities to improve the performance of the building and their overall wellness?

Quality covers the aspects of manufacturing, installation but also performance. Here, again, what opportunities are there to be designing for health and well-being outcomes? For example, ensuring the materials used don’t release any harmful chemicals, like volatile chemicals (VOCs), over their period of use. Indeed, some product manufacturers like those making facades are now incorporating materials that capture and store air pollutants, thus improving air quality.

Innovating and demonstrating the contribution building components can make to improve the performance of the building – particularly in well-being – is definitely an opportunity not to be missed.

All of this, I believe, represents a chance for the construction sector to innovate and demonstrate how its goods and services contribute to occupants’ health and well-being. This needs to be achieved whilst still being environmentally friendly, and not at the expense of higher carbon emissions or generating more waste. Manufacturers, suppliers and installers should be considering how their building products aid the overall performance of the building and directly contribute to the health and well-being agenda.