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Workspace Technology and The Value of Healthy Buildings

22 Mar 2021

Never has wellbeing played such an essential role in everyone’s lives. The value we place on our physical, mental, emotional and social health has intensified in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A healthy building offers many inherent advantages, not least wellbeing, and workspace technology can support property managers and tenants achieve better, healthier environments.

It is becoming increasingly evident that working environments, and the built environment in general, can significantly influence wellness and cognitive ability. A healthy building offers many benefits to the environment, landlords, employers and their staff, and for visitors, there are countless merits linked with building health.

As we explore the subject of healthy buildings, we will look at:

Why does a building need to be healthy?

For many years, we have focused our wellbeing efforts on enhancing our personal physical and mental health. Whether it’s by staying active, following a healthy diet and fitness regime, or taking time for self-enrichment, the emphasis has been on ourselves rather than what is around us. But the impact of our local environment is perhaps more significant than we may have realised.

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the quality of light, the volume of noise, and the temperature and humidity in our immediate vicinity all play an incredibly crucial role in the way we feel, both physically and mentally. In other words, we are directly affected by our environment.

For this reason, the health of the buildings in which we spend much of our time is crucial. Some fascinating statistics help to define this fact:

  • 79% of millennials rate their environment more important than their paycheque, according to the Workforce of the Future study by Accenture
  • 76% of landlords saw a positive impact on occupant satisfaction by introducing wellness measures
  • 62% of property owners saw an overall increase in property value as a result of implementing WELL standards

A healthy building considers the impact of its environment on those who live, work or spend time within it. For those operating in the real estate sector, the case for building health has become an important topic to focus their attention on.

What makes a building unhealthy?

Various factors can make a building unhealthy.

Aside from the natural potential to spread viruses through the air in an enclosed space, other factors can create an unhealthy building and workspace:

  • Certain building materials such as PVC and treated wood
  • Emissions from appliances and office equipment
  • Ambient dampness
  • Inbound pollutants and viruses from the outdoors
  • Cleaning products and methods
  • Inadequate temperature and humidity control
  • Lack of adequate ventilation
  • Poor lighting
  • Lack of control over an individual’s immediate working environment

Indoor air quality is a major influencer of building health. Various studies have revealed that indoor air can often have greater adverse effects than outside air, with cognitive performance and productivity heavily affected.

Office equipment and new furnishings can release chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds, associated with ‘sick building syndrome’.

Sick building syndrome‘ is the name given to symptoms that arise when an individual spends a prolonged time in a particular building. Such symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Dry and sore eyes or throat
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Skin rashes and tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Whilst it is not entirely clear what causes sick building syndrome, it is thought to be due to various elements. These can be inadequate ventilation or poorly maintained air conditioning; airborne dust, smoke, fumes or fabric fibres; bright or flickering lights and lack of exposure to natural light; unbalanced indoor humidity levels; and poor workstation layout.

The syndrome appears to be most common in open-plan offices.

For sufferers, the effects may not cause lasting damage, but they can be very debilitating. For employers, the cost to the business can be considerable, with the likes of reduced staff efficiency, increased sick leave and staff turnover, extended breaks and lowered overtime all causing significant issues, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

What are the foundations of a healthy building?

smart workplaces - healthy buildings - natural light from a window looking towards a green space
A team of experts from the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health led by Dr Joseph Allen summarised nine foundations of a healthy building. The results followed extensive research into how today’s built environment impact their inhabitants’ health, productivity, and wellbeing.

The nine foundations are:

  • 1 Indoor air quality – ensuring low chemical emissions from building materials, fixtures and fittings; monitoring for lead, PCBs and asbestos, and maintaining humidity levels between 30 and 60 per cent
  • 2 Dust and pets – using high-efficiency vacuum cleaners and installing regular cleaning regimes; sealing entry points; preventing the build-up of moisture; avoiding the use of pesticides; and regularly removing waste
  • 3 Lighting and views – providing the maximum possible natural light or using the latest recommended lighting technology; monitoring lighting needs as environmental conditions change; incorporating nature-inspired (biophilic) design indoors and designing office layouts around optimising outdoor views
  • 4 Moisture – carrying out regular inspections of roofing, plumbing and HVAC equipment; dealing immediately with moisture or mould
  • 5 Noise – protecting against outdoor noise pollution and ensuring background noise is kept to a minimum of 35 decibels
  • 6 Safety and security – complying with gas and fire safety monitoring standards, providing adequate lighting for safety and installing an emergency action plan, and using CCTV and access control to safeguard building occupants
  • 7 Thermal health – meeting minimum thermal comfort recommendations for temperature and humidity, maintaining consistent thermal conditions, and providing thermal control at an individual level
  • 8 Ventilation – meeting or surpassing local guidelines for outdoor air; filtering outdoor and recirculated air with minimum removal efficiency of 75 per cent for all particle-size fractions
  • 9 Water quality – meeting drinking water standards; installing a purification system where required; ensuring processes are in place

How is building health measured and certificated?

There are several standards against which building health is measured globally. Here are some of the most well-known.

WELL is a leading tool for advancing health and wellbeing in buildings across the world. The standard is based on several years of research amongst scientists, doctors and architects. It is certified by Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), which administers the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and The Fitwel Standard provides a scorecard system for existing and new buildings to use as a benchmark when optimising building health opportunities. Fitwel certification is a signal to stakeholders that wellness is a priority within the design, development and operations planning of buildings and communities.

What is the value of healthy buildings?

indoor air quality and healthy buildings
A healthy building has the power to enhance mental concentration, lower the rate of microbial transmission and boost general wellbeing.

  • For landlords, a healthy building will attract long term tenants, give higher rental values and reduce void periods
  • For employers, healthy buildings can entice top talent, boost productivity and positively impact staff retention and morale. Healthy buildings also buoy brand reputation and supports environmental and sustainability goals

A healthy building can also reduce operational overheads and energy costs.

To help convey the benefits of the healthy building movement, senior Harvard Business School lecturer John D. Macomber wrote a book on the subject, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.

Macomber predicts a growing public focus on health measures driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. He believes that savvy business leaders and landlords will start to use healthier workspaces as recruitment and staff retention tools and competitive advantage sources. Many leading organisations already promote the efficiency or aesthetic appeal of their buildings, but, according to Macomber, there will be more emphasis on indoor air quality (IAQ), with other healthy building measures diffusing through the rest of the economy.

In its How to Deliver Healthy Buildings guide, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) states that a ‘healthy, happy workforce is a vital component of a productive, successful business in the long term.’

With staff costs typically accounting for around 90% of the operating expenses of a business, it follows that staff productivity should be a significant consideration for any organisation.

The UKGBC says that there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that an office’s design impacts its occupants’ health, wellbeing, and productivity. In fact, it says, ‘there is now a clear difference between working environments that are simply not harmful, and those that positively encourage health and wellbeing, and stimulate productivity.’

How can you make a building healthy?

Putting steps in place to ensure building health during a new build or refurbishment can pay dividends in the future:

  • Intelligently designed HVAC and water filtering systems and workspace plans that incorporate plenty of natural light and views to the outside world
  • Using green construction materials that do not introduce pollutants into the building or harbour microbes as well as designing layouts with clear people-flow in mind
  • Installing thermal efficiency with personal feedback controls and sound-proofed environments and plenty of greenery

There is ample opportunity to ‘build healthy’ from the ground up.

How can Smart Spaces help to achieve a healthier building?

smart office app IAQ features
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “air quality is one of the most pernicious threats facing global public health today. Addressing it starts with good data and better monitoring.”

The key to better building health lies in the power of data.

By monitoring the likes of temperature and humidity and fresh air supply rates, allowing occupants to control their surroundings for optimum comfort and feedback, and using smart technology combined with artificial intelligence to automate many of the variables that can affect building health, building occupants are placed in a powerful position.

Smart Spaces is a cloud-based platform that uses internet-connected sensors fitted around a building to collate valuable data about the indoor air quality, including the presence of irritant gases, VOCs, particulates and temperature and relative humidity; and much more.

Together with its other features such as touch-less access control for tenants and visitors and space and social distancing management sensors, our smart building platform is a powerful ally in making workplaces healthier and safer.

Integrating Smart Spaces into a building management system means having the power to deliver vital information to landlords and facility managers courtesy of a single dashboard, allowing them to monitor workplace health goals and uncover any potential wellbeing issues.

To discover how Smart Spaces could help you achieve a healthier building, you are welcome to get in touch or request a demo.

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