Wellbeing should be at the heart of building design but other aspects of sustainability, such as energy performance, may have diverted attention away from the health impacts on the people who use buildings

Caroline Paradise

You might assume that building design already takes occupant wellbeing into consideration. You might even argue that it’s already happening in light of the industry’s emphasis on sustainability over the last decade or more. But what if the need to focus on drivers such as energy performance and carbon reduction to satisfy green building standards have actually diverted our attention away from wellbeing?

As an industry we have been striving for efficiency, working hard to find improvements in every building component so that we can maximise the space we provide for our clients.

As a simple example, we know that advanced glazing systems and highly efficient insulation materials can improve the performance of the building envelope, but have we fully understood the impact the creation of this environment has had on the people using these buildings?

There have also been studies looking at air quality suggesting that once CO2 levels go over a certain limit there is a noticeable reduction in concentration, and therefore performance, in office environments.

This evidence challenges the current standards we use for sustainability and begs the question, are we even aware of the impact the environments we spend time in have on our own health and wellbeing?

Biomedical research is reinforcing for us that there is an innate connection between the messages we receive from our environment and our physical responses, such as the control of our hormones, heart rate and brain function. 

The range of wellbeing parameters which can have psychological as well as physical implications often compete, and improving the performance of one parameter can reduce the effectiveness of another

For example, lighting is one of the most commonly publicised environmental factors. A growing body of evidence has highlighted a link between the amount and timing of the light we are exposed to and our innate circadian rhythm.

Further medical research suggests there is a connection between mistiming of light and an increase in cases of certain diseases, such as breast cancer. This reinforces that there are more serious health implications to building design than just our sleep patterns. 

But beyond the implications for our long-term health, a study by Cundall’s David Clark for RIBA Publishing suggests that, for a typical organisation, the costs associated with people, such as salaries and benefits, equate to 90% of a company’s total operational costs.

The financial implications of improving wellbeing for people in a company, and therefore their performance, could be significant in comparison to improving the energy efficiency of the building.

There is still a gap between the evidence in favour of designing for wellbeing and its application in design. In the worst cases wellbeing is an add-on, once a preferred building design has been settled on.

The process of designing for wellbeing needs to start at the earliest stage, during the development of the brief. The range of wellbeing parameters which can have psychological as well as physical implications often compete, and improving the performance of one parameter can reduce the effectiveness of another. Helping our clients understand to prioritise and balance these is key.

There must be an integrated and multi-dimensional approach to wellbeing design from the outset. This is why at Atkins we are developing tools, like Wellbriefing™, that will help our clients understand the importance of making the right decisions early on, deciphering the evidence and prioritising wellbeing for the building user.

Ultimately, we need to define what is important to our clients in terms of wellbeing, almost irrespective of the building. We should not be driven by statutory requirements, but create new ways to measure the impact our buildings have on wellbeing, and well and truly move it up the industry’s agenda.

Caroline Paradise is head of design research at Atkins and was part of the Wellness panel at Building Live in November


Caroline Paradise will chair the session Creating successful places with light and colour on Tuesday 8 March at Ecobuild 2016.

Other sessions on wellness at Ecobuild include:

  • What makes good housing?
  • Living for tomorrow: What will next generation housing look like, how will it perform?
  • Better places for people: Health and wellbeing in homes

To get your free ticket for Ecobuild 2016, go to www.ecobuild.co.uk/register