Designing Healthy Buildings
The novel coronavirus has upended the way we work. Millions of workers are hunched over kitchen tables and card tables across the country, away from their traditional offices until the pandemic subsides.
Now is a good time to consider ways our usual workspaces can improve our health. Intentional design and engineering decisions can make a workplace not only more desirable for employees, but can also help keep workers more engaged, productive and yes, healthy.
A deep breath of stale, still air can make you immediately uncomfortable. A poor building ventilation system can keep air contaminants like bacteria, pollen and other particulates bouncing around workspaces, and that can contribute to worker illness and malaise. A 2016 Harvard study suggested that people working in a space with better air quality showed a marked improvement in cognition.
Building Design Solution: When designers and engineers choose more efficient ventilation systems that introduce fresh air and filter recirculated air, indoor carbon dioxide levels are reduced and the particles that can trigger allergies or nasal irritation are removed before occupants can breathe them in. Designers should select ventilation that exceeds code minimums, higher efficiency filters, and CO2 monitoring.
Quick fix: Make sure a building’s filters are replaced on schedule and that fresh air is introduced, either through the HVAC system or open windows. Adding a few plants helps, too.
Temperature and Humidity
Proper temperature and humidity in the office can discourage the growth of microscopic gremlins that can make coworkers sick. For instance, flu viruses tend to prefer cool, dry environments (which may be one of the reasons we see more flu illness in winter), and mold loves a warm, moist home.
Building Design solution: Summer dehumidification and winter humidification keeps air comfortable for workers and less hospitable to germs. Engineers should integrate humidity monitoring and control into a building’s HVAC to maximize protection for employees and choose mold-resistant building materials and fixtures to keep spores from spreading.
Quick fix: A single room humidifier is a good way to make a room more comfortable in dry winter months. Choose a cool mist option and run it at low intensity. If nearby items feel damp, you’re creating a home for mold.
Forget the corner office. The real prize is a workspace with beautiful outdoor views. Access to daylight can make employees feel better and perhaps even keep them healthier. Exposure to daylight prompts serotonin production, which boosts mood and promotes a sense of calm and well-being. Vitamin D from sunlight can ward off depression and regulate mood.
Building Design Solution: Smart building design includes lots of access to light for all workers, not just those in the corner office. That’s more than just adding windows – architects may include wide doorways and glassed-in common spaces to allow sunlight to stretch further into a building’s interior.
Quick fix: If your office is dark or windowless, find reasons to take a break outside. Park far away from the door or take a walk on your lunch break.
Well-designed buildings make it easy to make healthy choices, even when you don’t notice it.
Building Design Solution: Architects can design wide and open staircases encourage people to skip the elevator. Workers may be more likely to wash hands for a full 20 seconds at a kitchen sink with touchless faucets and soap dispensers and water that isn’t frigid or scalding. Even putting the building’s mechanical systems in an easy-to-access spot can help ensure that maintenance staff keep air filters changed and humidifiers serviced.
Quick fix: Stuck in a cookie-cutter workspace? Rearrange furniture to create seating areas near windows, or add signs pointing to stairs to encourage people to walk.
After weeks of social distancing, we’ll probably be excited to return to our offices. A few smart design choices can make our office buildings better places for our long-term health.