Wellness, Built In

In 2001 three groups of the so-called ‘Satanic Mills’ described in Blake’s poem Jerusalem were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’m no poet and I don’t claim to understand it fully, but the meaning of the poem is patently multi-layered, and becomes more opaque the deeper one delves.  On a literal level though we can understand, at least intuitively, the scorn which Blake heaped upon these dismal places due in part to the dreadful working conditions. To Blake, these buildings represented the mechanisation of human beings and a cold, unfeeling disregard for our nature, and stood in stark contrast to ‘England’s green and pleasant land’.  He saw this, roughly speaking, as a kind of tyranny and since he was a fairly radical Christian, he associated tyranny with the figure of Satan. Some alternative symbolism could be used here depending on your own worldview, but the essential point remains.

Image courtesy of OEG Interiors

Image courtesy of OEG Interiors

Human beings spend up to 90% of their time indoors and an ever increasing body of research is shedding light on how our internal environment affects the mind and body. In the past few years I have been uplifted by the growing prominence of wellness in the built environment and the recognition that there is in fact a price for compelling employees to work in surroundings that are empirically bad for their health. New building certification systems have been created which reflect this new way of thinking. As a Building Physics Engineer, I have promoted the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel eagerly amongst my colleagues and have found most quite receptive to the general premise.

It has always ostensibly been the job of engineers to make buildings comfortable, which is why for example we specify a certain amount of fresh air in order to keep internal CO2 concentrations at safe limits. CO2 concentration is just one indicator of air quality, and when looking more closely we find many more pollutants to consider such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), radon and ozone. When a building design team uses WELL or Fitwel, it provides a framework which allows us to produce more refined designs because they demand that air quality be looked at more closely. This is just one example – air is just one of the seven concepts which form the basis of the WELL Building Standard. I want to go beyond simply making buildings comfortable, and design environments which truly optimise human performance.

Image courtesy of OTJ Architects

Image courtesy of OTJ Architects

Naturally, some in the industry have been hesitant about implementing wellness into their designs to the extent required by WELL or Fitwel. I have been thinking recently about why this is. A lack of knowledge on the subject results in a ‘low resolution’ picture of human health. In other words, unless something in the environment is noticeably harmful, for example, cigarette smoke, you may be oblivious to its effect on your health. The impact of artificial lighting on our circadian rhythms is clearly much less obvious than the discomfort of being in a smoky room. You might never have heard of circadian rhythms, never mind their effect on sleep and you might not understand fully how duration and quality of sleep affects your body and mind. However I think that is only part of the picture. When I contemplate these new ideas of wellness honestly, it's sometimes a little disquieting to accept that I am indeed affected by my surroundings to a much greater extent than is obvious. How many times has your mood changed for (apparently) no reason? I think to navigate the modern world we need to feel a strong sense of agency. We don’t really like to think that something as trivial as our office lighting is affecting our lives in any real way. Like it or not, we are part of our environment. I’m reminded of that old Robin Williams joke; “No man is an island, but some are peninsulas.

Do we want workplaces that are simply sanitised Satanic Mills made just palatable enough for our 21st century sensibilities? Do we want future generations to view our workplaces as symbols of orthodoxy and conformity, as we now view the old cotton mills? In the UK we can point to the working conditions of the past (or sadly, the present in many cases) and conclude that we ‘have never had it so good’, but that attitude is, in my view, too easy and can hinder progress towards the truly remarkable.

With respect to building design, it is now possible to define precisely what we want from our internal environments, using the WELL Building Standard or Fitwel. If I polled every member of a project design team for, say, a new office building, and asked them ‘would you rather this building had a positive or negative effect on wellbeing?’, it’s hard to imagine even one person consciously choosing the latter. However without systematic implementation, the issue of wellness is simply not on the radar, as the scale and complexity of building projects means there are many, many other technical and organisational challenges to be overcome throughout the life of a project.

One of my professional aims is to convince designers and users of buildings to raise their expectations in regard to wellness in our buildings. Why? To increase the demand for wellness, which I hope will create greater incentive for building owners to consider the issue more carefully. My view is that we must do this because the social impact of inaction is simply too high. Read about successful projects that have put these ideas in to practice. Watch Stefan Behling’s excellent TEDx talk. Read about the Living Building Challenge. Visit the Conscious Cities website. You will begin to get a sense of the progress that is being made and it is my hope that in the near future we will all live and work in buildings designed to both minimise environmental impact and optimise our wellbeing.

Author Bio: Scott O’Hara is a Building Physics Engineer based in the UK and is WELL AP, Fitwel Ambassador, Low Carbon Energy Assessor and Low Carbon Consultant. Scott wants to go beyond simply making our buildings comfortable, and design environments which truly optimise human performance and wellbeing.

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Yours in health,