Building Health

Designing for human health is the next frontier in sustainable building


From workplace gardens and honeybees to circadian lighting and toxin-free materials, human health is the next frontier in sustainable design.


Spring 2018 | Written by Lorne Bell

Last year, Harvard University researchers and project managers gathered for a unique meeting. The subject? Making Harvard’s buildings healthier for people. The professors made their case to a packed house.

“We said, ‘Here’s our research linking adverse birth outcomes, infertility, and asthma to chemicals in people’s bodies because they’re in materials in our buildings and products in our homes,’” says John Spengler, professor of environmental health and human habitation at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Project managers don’t have time to look this up, so we said we’ll write the specs that go into bids and define three suppliers for each product category that meet those specifications.”

Spengler and Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, are faculty advisors for the Harvard Healthier Building Materials Academy, which uses the latest environmental research and Harvard’s purchasing power to inform and influence the building materials market. “We’re at a pivotal point,” says Spengler.

Across the sustainable design and construction industry, architects, engineers, product manufacturers, and builders are “pivoting” to serve institutions and businesses like Harvard. And toxin-free building materials are just part of the human health equation. From designs that bring nature’s healing effects into the workplace, to lighting that regulates energy levels, industry leaders and clients are prioritizing occupant health alongside energy and resource conservation.

Their efforts are reinforced by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and the International WELL Building Institute’s WELL Building Standard, which set benchmarks for energy and resource efficiency, environmental impact, and health-centered designs and practices. For example, a new LEED pilot credit— Integrative Process for Health Promotion—requires projects to team with a public health professional or organization to find strategies that positively impact health.

250 West 57th Street outdoor terraces on the east and west of the building showcases COOKFOX’s commitment to the environment as evidenced by the extensive plantings and beehive to produce their own honey. Photo: Eric Laignel

From a bottom-line perspective, the new paradigm’s cheerleaders point to the fact that employees—not energy and water bills—are a company’s greatest expense. Even slight improvements in worker well-being can curb absenteeism, increase retention and productivity, and spur meaningful savings. Public health advocates draw on countless studies to support healthier conditions in the workplace. And practitioners say the new, holistic approach is the third evolution of green design—a shift that is redefining the very meaning of sustainability.

“By the end of the first wave of the green building movement, everyone was familiar with the impact of buildings on the energy footprint,” says Rick Cook, founder and partner at the New York City–based COOKFOX Architects. “Then it evolved into the impact buildings and occupants have on natural systems. But we’re now talking about quantifiably better air and access to daylight. We set out to make buildings better for the planet, and what we stumbled on is making buildings better for people.”

Above: John Spengler is the professor of environmental health and human habitation at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Above: Biophilic designs such as green walls, lobby waterfalls, and office gardens are becoming more commonplace. Shown here is Oceanwide Center, a $1.6 billion development in San Francisco’s Transbay Area scheduled for completion in 2021.

Above: Rick Cook of COOKFOX Architects.

Nature and Nurture

The renowned evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson popularized the term “biophilia” in his 1986 book of the same name. Wilson believed that humans have an innate desire to connect with nature, and that doing so “will engage more of the things close to the human heart and spirit.” His philosophy picks up on the work of the Transcendentalists, and a growing body of evidence is proving all of them correct. Contact with the natural world can have significant, measurable impacts on human health.

For example, a 2008 University of Michigan study titled “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature” found that a walk through nature can increase cognitive functioning by 20 percent. A 2012 study of Chinese university students found that immersion in a forest environment can reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And a 2007 study out of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that natural environments can increase levels of anti-cancer proteins in the blood. Given that 90 percent of our time is spent indoors, it’s no wonder that preventable illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension are on the rise.

Enter biophilic design, a burgeoning field that blurs the line between our built environment and nature. Going far beyond a few plants in the office, designers are creating workplace gardens, cave like refuge spaces for decompressing from a hectic morning, and hallways that elicit the mystery of a winding path through the woods. In the process, they’re fostering an enhanced sense of well-being and rekindling workers’ love of the natural world.

Bill Browning is a pioneer in biophilic design and founding partner of the sustainability research and consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, based in New York City. He co-founded the firm with Rick Cook and Bob Fox of COOKFOX Architects, as well as fellow architect, Chris Garvin. And he has been featured in the USGBC podcast series, “Built for Health,” which brings building industry leaders and health professionals together to share best practices and the science behind health-based designs.

Above: Arup’s Boston office is the first to receive WELL Certification in New England. Photo: Darrin Scott Hunter

Browning’s “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” serves as an indispensable guide to nature-based designs that cultivate wellness in the workplace. Most clients, he says, are familiar with Nature in the Space: biophilic designs such as green walls, hotel lobby waterfalls, aquarium displays, and office gardens. Another design set, Natural Analogues, provides what he calls a “representational experience of nature: the use of biomorphic forms and natural materials, and the dance between complexity and order that you see in nature and in really great architecture.”

“But some of the most exciting projects are the ones that play on spatial patterns and may not even have plants or water or animals in the workspace,” says Browning.

That third set of biophilic designs produces the same direct responses that occur when we are immersed in nature. For example, designs that provide unimpeded views over a distance elicit feelings of freedom, safety, and control. Refuge spaces can be useful in open-concept offices, providing a contemplative, protective retreat with high-backed chairs and soft materials. And features such as the Guggenheim Museum’s spiraling central ramp, which ascends as the railing inches slightly lower, provide what Browning calls a “risk/peril” experience of exhilaration within a safe environment.

These deep-seated responses play on our most primitive experiences of nature, according to Peter Kahn, professor of psychology and director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) Lab at the University of Washington. Kahn studies biophilic designs that mimic humans’ ancient forays into the wild: the “going out and coming back” patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The more wild the biophilic experience, the more present we become, he says, even within the dizzying pace of our nine-to-five workdays.

“That connection is embedded in the architecture of our bodies, minds, and spirits,” says Kahn. “So, how do we get people to interact more deeply in the environments we build?”

Above: Bill Browning is a pioneer in biophilic design and founding partner of the sustainability research and consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, based in New York City.

COOKFOX Architects designed its new 18,000-sq-ft studio, which opened in 2017 on the 17th floor of the historic Fisk Tire building in Manhattan. The project achieved both LEED Platinum and WELL Gold, and immersive biophilic designs are a centerpiece. Employees are encouraged to get their hands dirty in an edible terrace garden, and a working beehive provides pollinators and honey. Another terrace serves as a breakout space for impromptu meetings surrounded by greenery. The studio itself has an open, collaborative layout with breakout sections, three enclosed offices, and refuge spaces for employees who need a retreat from their work and colleagues.

In addition to achieving 34 combined LEED credits for energy and water efficiency, the project earned almost every Indoor Environmental Quality credit, including a credit for providing unimpeded views to the outside in 90 percent of occupied spaces. For its unique design approach, COOKFOX also earned all six LEED Innovation credits.

So, does biophilic design produce measurable health results in the workplace? At COOKFOX, postoccupancy surveys are ongoing, but the scientific evidence is compelling. One of Kahn’s studies found that views of nature through windows reduce employees’ heart rates and improve psychological well-being. Even virtual experiences of nature—videos and live webcams—positively impact well-being, although not as much as authentic natural environments.

In a similar study by Spengler and his Harvard colleagues, subjects exposed to biophilic designs reported a decrease in negative emotions, reduced blood pressure, and demonstrated a 14 percent increase in short-term memory. “Moreover, our findings indicate that participants experiencing a biophilic environment [through immersive virtual reality] had similar physiological and cognitive responses,” the authors wrote. The potential for virtual reality nature in healthcare and nursing home facilities is the next area of exploration.

We believe wholeheartedly that this makes people happier and healthier,” says Cook, “and these principles are part of all of our projects.”

Clif Bar & Company also consulted with Terrapin Bright Green for the design of its new 300,000-sq-ft bakery in Twin Falls, Idaho, which opened in 2016. The project is seeking LEED certification and integrates extensive biophilic designs. But while gardens and apiaries may work in an office setting, they’re a challenge in a sterile bakery environment. Instead, indoor walls are made of recycled barn wood and natural stone. Many of the windows stretch to the ground to provide views of both the sky and surrounding mountain landscape. “We have a really low turnover rate, and in the bakery industry, that’s one of the biggest challenges,” says Elysa Hammond, the company’s vice president of environmental stewardship.

While she can’t point to biophilic design as the sole factor, Hammond says the features are part of Clif Bar’s strong culture of wellness and environmental stewardship.

“Connection to nature is a fundamental value at Clif Bar,” she says. “Our founders are champions of biophilic design, and our bakery’s general manager has declared himself a ‘biophiliac.’”

Above: Elysa Hammond is Clif Bar’s vice president of environmental stewardship.

Above: Chris Pollock is the acoustical consultant and associate principal at Arup.

Sounds Healthy

In the evolution of workplace design, open layouts have replaced cubicles and partitions as a way to increase collaboration and a sense of community, and anecdotal and scientific evidence support that strategy. A 2010 study out of Iowa State University found that financial workers whose office was redesigned in an open-concept layout “reported more favorable perceptions of culture and work-related attitudes.” But while advances in building shell materials mean less noise from outside, fewer interior walls presents significant communication challenges.

“We’ve seen findings that no matter how much you think you might be unfocusing on a nearby conversation, there is a certain amount of brain power working on background words and sentences,” says Chris Pollock, acoustical consultant and associate principal at Arup, the international firm of designers, planners, engineers, and consultants working across the sustainable building industry.

Most office noise does not pose the high-decibel health risks found on construction sites and factory floors, but distractions and communication breakdowns can lead to increased stress and decreased productivity. Mitigating these issues in offices, healthcare facilities, and classrooms requires innovative designs that isolate and absorb unwanted sound.

In December 2016, Arup moved from its former Cambridge, Massachusetts, location to a new 12,000-sq-ft, open-concept office on State Street in Boston. The new space is seeking LEED certification for Interior Design and Construction (ID+C), which includes Indoor Environmental Quality credit benchmarks for acoustic designs that reduce HVAC background noise, isolate sound, and reduce reverberation time. The studio was also the first project in New England to achieve WELL Gold, earning top marks for acoustic designs that reduce outside noise intrusion and internally generated noise.

Aiming for LEED and WELL acoustic benchmarks means plenty of sound-absorbing materials on both vertical and horizontal surfaces, including high-performance acoustic ceiling tiles and carpet in the open office. It also means a layout that is mindful of workers’ proximity to mechanical systems and provides a variety of sheltered breakout spaces, from cozy nooks with high-backed chairs to enclosed meeting rooms. A separate Wellness Room at Arup is fully walled off and acoustically treated—perfect for cat naps and respites from a long, deadline-driven workday. These spaces help retain the collaborative advantages of an open-concept office while minimizing disruptive chatter and providing some privacy.

Of course, noise-absorbing materials and layout can only achieve so much. “Some of this is acoustical design,” says Pollock, “and some of this is culture and behavior.” Arup asks clients about speakerphone use and what kinds of conversations are appropriate to have at someone’s desk, versus taking them to breakout spaces. Companies that have laptops like Arup—instead of desktop computers—can better facilitate those choices, and seating plays a role. If team members are spread across the workspace, they’re more likely to seek out common meeting places instead of chatting at their workstations. Employees in technical roles may also find the center of an open-concept office more disruptive than design team members would.

Above: At Arup’s Boston office, the environment is acoustically balanced, and its workforce reports significant increases in well-being and workplace satisfaction.

In Boston, the impact of this multipronged approach is a collaborative environment that is acoustically balanced, and a workforce that reports significant increases in well-being and workplace satisfaction. Pre- and postoccupancy surveys of Arup’s 85 Boston employees found:

  • A 50 percent reduction in “bothersome noise” from colleagues, compared to the firm’s previous office in Cambridge.
  • 68 percent reported that office conditions positively impact productivity.
  • 55 percent of staff were satisfied that the workplace supports rest and relaxation, compared to just 2 percent in the previous office.
  • 83 percent felt the current workplace supports creativity and collaborative thinking.

“It’s very quiet when I’m at my workstation,” says Rebecca Hatchadorian, sustainability consultant and associate at Arup’s Boston location. “That’s a function of both the office design that enables staff to not have to have conversations at their desks, as well as the materials selection and elements on the tech side.”

The health-centered designs are also turning the office into a popular destination for Arup’s projects. “Because the space has been so successful, we’re hosting more project team meetings with clients and architects,” she says.

Above: At Arup’s Boston office, the environment is acoustically balanced, and its workforce reports significant increases in well-being and workplace satisfaction.

Get Moving

Businesses generally understand that a healthier workforce increases productivity and decreases absenteeism, but there is a broader public health argument for being physically active at work. According to the Centers for Disease Control, just one in five adults in the U.S. gets the recommended daily amount of physical activity. More than one third (37.7 percent) of U.S. adults are obese, up from just 30.5 percent in 2000. And rates of related preventable diseases—heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension—are also high.

LEED and WELL tackle both issues with sustainable design and construction benchmarks that increase motion and fitness in the workplace. In the classic example of “stumbling upon buildings that are good for people,” designers and builders have long sought LEED Sustainable Sites credits and Location and Transportation credits for providing access to alternative transportation, reducing the parking footprint, and offering onsite bike storage and showers.

The result is fewer greenhouse gas emissions and more physically active commutes. The WELL Building Standard bolsters LEED’s impact with both passive and active design benchmarks. WELL Fitness Feature 64, for example, recognizes designs that encourage workers to be active indoors with “accessible, safe, and visually appealing stairs, entryways, and corridors.” Fitness Feature 70 recognizes projects that promote cardiovascular health and weight training with free, on-site fitness equipment. And Fitness Feature 68 rewards projects that provide free access to nearby recreation spaces such as parks, trails, swimming, or gyms.

Above: Kathy Berg is a partner at ZGF Architects.

At the award-winning ZGF Architects LLP, a sustainable design firm based in Portland, Oregon, architects employ a range of designs to foster increased activity in the workplace. That includes fitness studios, rooftop gardens and terraces, floorplates designed to encourage walking meetings, and easy access to outdoor trails and pedestrian paths.

Kathy Berg, partner at ZGF, says clients who may not be able to offer high salaries—state organizations, for example—often look to health amenities to bolster compensation.

“So many employees want to work in a place where their health is prioritized, and clients are recognizing that bringing fitness and health opportunities into the workplace is a way to enhance how people can enjoy their day,” says Berg.

Of course, not every company has an office culture conducive to biking, midday runs, or gym breaks. Providing opportunities to get active also does not always translate into increased activity. ZGF advises clients who want fitness-oriented designs to consider policies that can help those designs reach their full potential. Some of the firm’s clients regularly hold walking meetings or provide a paid half-hour for gym use or getting outside. And companies whose leadership models the active lifestyles they want to see in their workforce tend to be more successful in fostering healthy behavior. “It’s important to have both policies and practice in place,” says Berg.

Above: Circadian lighting can improve health while also decreasing energy consumption. ZGF provided planning and design for the 15,605-sq-ft expansion and relocation of Swedish Medical Center—Ballard’s Behavioral Health Unit in Seattle.

The ZGF team is also pioneering daylighting design and technologies to improve occupants’ energy levels. In addition to strategically placed windows that bring more daylight to buildings’ interiors, circadian lighting systems mimic the sun’s changing intensity and hue throughout the day, warding off the afternoon office slumps and regulating energy levels. The technology can be especially useful in healthcare settings, where occupants are often less mobile and natural light can enhance mood and even speed healing.

The inspiration for circadian lighting came in the 1990s, when scientists discovered an important link between the ganglion cells in our eyes and our circadian rhythms (patterns of alertness and sleepiness). While rod and cone cells help us see, ganglion cells do not, per se. These photoreceptors detect blue light emitted from the sun, which suppresses levels of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. We experience this process every night and morning, and we can test it ourselves by installing blackout curtains in our bedrooms (or noticing how drowsy we feel on a cloudy day).

While no artificial light can come close to the intensity of the sun’s blue light, circadian lighting uses variably intense blue and warmer light to moderate humans’ alertness, mood, and health. That, in turn, can lead to more activity and healthier occupants.

“You can’t push someone outside, but you can excite their senses,” says Marty Brennan, ZGF’s daylighting specialist and project architect. “All of those things have a deep neural history in our brain. And bringing these healthy light regimens into the workplace or healthcare or even sports facilities, we’re reinforcing rhythms of light and dark that our genetic material evolved with.”

Circadian lighting can also improve health by decreasing energy. ZGF provided planning and design for the 15,605-sq-ft expansion and relocation of Swedish Medical Center—Ballard’s Behavioral Health Unit in Seattle, including designing extensive circadian lighting systems. In addition to light that changes to match the natural light outside and regulate sleep patterns, patients in comfort rooms can fine-tune the shade of lighting as a calming mechanism and a measure of control.

“The behavioral health population can struggle to feel consistent and safe, and lighting is a key strategy to be oriented to the cycle of day and night—to be active during the day and encourage quiet and calm at night,” says Brennan. “It’s really about, ‘How can we make environments that are as therapeutic as medicine?’”

Breathe In

In sustainable designers’ bag of resources, few studies are as often cited as Harvard University’s “The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function.” Allen and Spengler were principal investigators on the 2015 report, which looked at workers in conventional buildings and green buildings to determine the cognitive impact of carbon dioxide levels and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air.

Employees in spaces with high levels of circulating outdoor air and low levels of VOCs performed 101 percent better on cognitive tests than workers in conventional workplace settings. The researchers calculated that the increase in cognition can generate as much as $6,500 in improved productivity per person per year.

The takeaway was clear. In addition to eliminating VOCs and semi-volatile compounds in flame-retardant rugs, stain-repellant furniture, and plastics, ventilation is vital to improving occupant health. As building envelopes become tighter and more energy efficient, it becomes even more crucial.

Adhamina Rodriguez, founder and CEO of AR Green Consulting in San Francisco, agrees. Her firm provides consulting for design and construction, third-party certifications, and sustainability analysis and education for Fortune 500 companies, government, universities, architects, and developers. The 2015 study, she says, points to a larger truth about buildings’ impact on health.

“When the focus on health came to the green building industry, good insulation, no chemicals, air distribution, active workstations, good water quality, the availability of healthy food—these all became one thing,” says Rodriguez. “But the core of the health of people inside buildings is the type of air they are breathing. And that’s reflected in the energy ratings.”

Under LEED Building Design and Construction (BD+C), for example, projects can achieve up to eight Indoor Environmental Quality credits for meeting air quality benchmarks. Credits are awarded for ventilation designs that bring in and monitor fresh outdoor air and filter particulates. Buildings can also earn credits or the use of low-emitting (low- or no-VOC) materials, green cleaning products, and pest management that minimizes exposure to pesticides.

Above: Oceanwide Center will seek multiple LEED certifications, and high-tech, energy-efficient designs will play a role.

Above: Adhamina Rodriguez is the founder and chief executive officer of AR Green Consulting.

The WELL Building Standard’s Air benchmarks reinforce and complement LEED, recognizing projects with microbe and mold control (Air Feature 06), direct source ventilation (Air Feature 17), and construction pollution management (Air Feature 07). Together, the two rating systems challenge designers and builders to create energy-efficient workspaces with cleaner air and healthier, more productive occupants.

Rodriguez embraces that challenge, helping clients to find both high-tech and natural ventilation designs that achieve top marks from LEED and WELL. Many of her projects are located in “smart buildings,” she says, with sensors that monitor the air for temperature, humidity, and even formaldehyde and CO2 levels. When the air quality dips, ventilation systems kick in to filter the air and bring fresh air inside. The high-efficiency filters are typically MERV 13 and above to trap harmful particulates, and ultraviolet filtration eliminates microbials.

Sometimes, however, the simplest solutions are the most effective. AR Green is the LEED consultant for Oceanwide Center, a $1.6 billion development in San Francisco’s Transbay Area scheduled for completion in 2021. The project totals more than 2 million square feet and includes two mixed-use commercial and residential towers, as well as 22,000 square feet of public spaces. The development will seek multiple LEED certifications, and high-tech, energy-efficient designs will play a role. But when it comes to ventilation, a relatively simple switch from overhead ceiling ducts to underfloor air distribution will reduce the mixing of contaminants and improve both air quality and thermal comfort.

Above: Golden Gate Park Tennis Center in San Francisco promotes healthy living and will be net-zero energy and seeking LEED-NC Platinum.

A similar approach is underway just five miles west of Oceanwide Center, where AR Green is sustainability consultant and LEED administrator for the new Golden Gate Park Tennis Center. The Center is scheduled for completion in 2019 and will also seek LEED certification. Photovoltaic solar panels will help the building reach energy neutrality as they strive to achieve multiple LEED Energy and Atmosphere credits, but it will use an increasingly common and simple strategy for improving air quality.

“People are getting back to the basics with operable windows,” says Rodriguez. “The Tennis Center will feature automatically controlled windows, and ventilation is naturally driven by the thermal buoyancy of the building and the wind pressures of the building envelope. It’s then optimized with ceiling fans and highly placed windows in the façade.”

For years, sealed windows have been part of many energy-efficient building envelopes. That may always be the case, but as health and wellness become part of the sustainability equation, designers face a new challenge that requires new innovations.

They must maintain energy and water efficiency while at the same time protect another vital resource: human beings.

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