Henry Pelly

Senior Sustainability Consultant and Wellbeing Leader

Max Fordham LLP

Wellbeing in Buildings

Ensuring that a building supports and improves the health and wellbeing of its occupants should be a goal for building owners and designers when they are developing low energy and low carbon new build and retrofit buildings. Improving the wellbeing of occupants when targeting net zero carbon performance will help ensure that the delivery of net zero carbon buildings is sustainable and that the buildings created will be long lasting and successful.

To assist building owners and designers in validating measures to improve the wellbeing of occupants within buildings, several assessment frameworks and standards are now available for use.

How Does Consideration of Occupant Wellbeing in Buildings Currently Contribute to Carbon Emissions in the UK?

Targeting a high wellbeing certification score for the sake of marketing rather than improving the quality of life of future occupants will increase the carbon emission of a project through the unnecessary specification of products and systems. It is important to note that only considering environmental comfort criteria is not the same as considering occupant wellbeing, the design factors that have an impact on occupant wellbeing are much broader. Further to this poorly designed building controls have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of both people and the planet.

What Is the Opportunity for Taking a Broader View of Occupant Wellbeing in Net Zero Carbon Buildings?

Buildings that support occupant wellbeing are more valuable, they are less likely to be demolished and when they are repurposed or renovated, the renovations are likely to be less intrusive and require less embodied carbon. A Net Zero Carbon targeted building that doesn’t support the wellbeing of its occupants is not likely to be Net Zero Carbon in practice, as it will be less well used and be a waste of precious embodied carbon. Perhaps more significantly if buildings targeting Net Zero Carbon consistently deliver poor occupant experience it will create a false perception from occupants and building owners that achieving Net Zero is not compatible with occupant wellbeing. It is essential that Net Zero Carbon design addresses occupant wellbeing in the fullest possible sense.

What Are the Most Important Practical Measures That Can Be Introduced Now to Achieve Net Zero Carbon?

Set a wellbeing brief for every project. This brief should include broad targets that address the six design factors that most affect occupant wellbeing. These are:

  • Privacy – how well the environment enables occupants to control their interactions with others.
  • Comfort/Control – how effectively the environment meets the occupants’ thermal, acoustic and visual comfort needs.
  • Legible space – or how easy it is to find your way around.
  • Views Out – of other people and of nature
  • Access to Nature – both inside and out. The size and diversity of the ‘nature dose’ that occupants get matters.
  • Interior Experience – specifically how the interior resonates with the people using it

The wellbeing brief and the measures proposed to deliver each design factor should be reviewed and refined (preferably with occupant feedback) at every design stage.

Nominate a person on the team who is empowered to interrogate proposals against your broad wellbeing objectives and identify areas for improvement from the beginning of the design through to the years of occupation. If this person is a future occupant this is ideal, they should take professional advice but being on the inside – they will be able to figure out what approach might work and what is likely to fail.

What (if Any) Are the Biggest Obstacles to Implementing These Measures?

Time - Project teams that aren’t prepared to take an additional day to step back from their normal design process to consider occupant wellbeing in a holistic way will miss lots of opportunities to address the specific wellbeing needs of their occupants.

Understanding the actual needs of occupants - Getting input from people who represent the likely occupants is really valuable in creating an effective wellbeing brief. Getting the actual future users of a space is ideal. If you are designing a speculative office, be inventive. Presumably you know people who work in spaces like that, so invite them to a focus group. If you’ve never had any contact with someone that uses the kind of building that you’re designing. then you probably aren’t the right person to be designing it.

What Are the Outcomes of Considering Wellbeing Alongside Targeting Net Zero Carbon?

In short, a better functioning, longer lived and more valuable building. The cost of thinking hard about occupant wellbeing and addressing the key issues is small in comparison to the benefits delivered by the building over its lifetime. What’s more is that implementing a better briefing and design process doesn’t mean that improvements in occupant wellbeing lead to an increase in embodied or operational carbon emissions.