Design Seminar - Fit for purpose – and for people

Experts from across the contract design sector discuss wellness in workplace projects

Taking part were

Theresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazine
John Avery, director, LOM Architecture
Henning Bloech, founder, Sustaineer Consulting Germany
Christina Bohm, senior interior designer, 3D Reid
Christian Desira, director, LHG (London Hotel Group)
Francesca Gernone, head of interiors, Fletcher Priest Architects
Holley Henderson, founder, H2 Ecodesign USA
Siobhan O’Leary, senior associate interior designer, Perkins + Will
Joe Parry, director, global marketing, Universal Fibers
Simon Wyatt, sustainability partner, Cundall Engineering

Report by Toby Maxwell
Photography by Gareth Gardner

Based on various estimates and calculations, the average worker can expect to spend around 90,000 hours of their life at work. In this context, it is perhaps not unreasonable then to expect the work environment to be a pleasant, healthy space in which to spend so much time. In reality however, many employees could be forgiven to believe that the buildings and offices provided for them are done so purely with function and cost considerations in mind rather than wider thoughts of human needs.

Siobhan O’Leary senior associate interior designer, Perkins + WillSiobhan O’Leary, senior associate interior designer, Perkins + Will

For many designers working across the hotel and office sectors, an understanding of what enables a space to play a proactive and effective role in the wellness of those who occupy it has become a central part of the job. Achieving the right balance however is a complicated, multifaceted task much easier said than done.

So what are the drivers behind wellness in the workplace? Are the main factors more stick than carrot – for example, are insurance requirements a big influence on take-up? Simon Wyatt, sustainability partner at Cundall Engineering, said: ‘It’s certainly why they have more traction in America. The WELL Building Standard was set up by Delos Living, a high end residential developer, and it wanted to have a high-end product with healthy homes.

John Avery, director, LOM Architecture John Avery, director, LOM Architecture

It realised quite quickly that it could make more money in the commercial office market because most organisations in the USA pay a health premium and get a discount if they can demonstrate that their buildings are healthier. It’s because of these premiums – and the potential discounts – that around 70 per cent of WELL registrations are in the USA.

‘Here, it has had a much slower uptake as we don’t see it as the same kind of benefit and potential cost-saving opportunity. The angle is solely on the health benefits, which is why there has been some push back within the UK and wider European market. But it has raised the debate across the industry, which has been really interesting.’

Chairing the discussion, FX editor Theresa Dowling raised the point about organisations which, in seeking to provide additional facilities for staff on company premises – such as breakfast for employees who come into work early, or on-site gym facilities – could be seen as ‘owning’ the staff by virtue of them spending increasingly amounts of their non-work time within the business.

Joe Parry, director, global marketing, Universal FibersJoe Parry, director, global marketing, Universal Fibers

The example that many people think of is Google, widely known for its ‘added value’ staff benefits, but Wyatt adds: ‘For Google, the emphasis now is far more on broader wellbeing, and it has been actively encouraging employees to leave at 5.30pm.

It’s also compiled a list [the Portico building materials analysis and decision-making tool] of materials and products deemed to have high toxicity that are not allowed in its buildings. I think it is starting to look more closely at healthier options and the work/life balance, and the reason it – and a number of other companies – is doing that is to attract the best talent.’

Francesca Gernone, head of interiors at Fletcher Priest Architects, pointed out: ‘Google doesn’t force people to be healthy. Within its staff restaurants, it might promote healthy eating but other less-healthy options are readily available too. This is important as it’s not about telling people what they must do but instead giving them the choice.’

A growing need for health and wellness to be taken into account in workplace projects is clearly an opportunity. But Holley Henderson, founder of H2 Ecodesign asked: ‘Does it create a risk or liability to us as specifiers or designers in that there may be an increased expectation that we know all the details of wellness on a deeper level? Do we need to start having chemists on staff? We want to know all this but is knowing also scary at the same time?’ Wyatt added: ‘That’s a very good point.

Holley Henderson, founder, H2 Ecodesign USAHolley Henderson, founder, H2 Ecodesign USA

We recently heard from a client who had been asked a very detailed question from a member of staff about the health aspects of some of the materials used in the project. It was interesting that this kind of query was being raised by one of the employees – it is being driven not just by the client but by the ultimate end-user in some instances too.’

Regional differences

Siobhan O’Leary, senior associate and interior design at Perkins + Will – the architecture and design firm that hosted the FX Design Seminar event at its London offices – said: ‘It’s sometimes difficult though to get some clients to buy into sustainability and wellness. We’re still finding that their approach can be quite flippant.

In the USA it appears to be so much more embedded in the design of buildings; here it feels like more of an optional add-on.’ Henning Bloech, founder of Germany based Sustaineer Consulting, had a different perspective: ‘From a worker protection viewpoint – lighting, outside views and all that kind of stuff – Europe is much further ahead of the USA, and that is a big part of health and wellbeing. My first office in the USA, in which I worked for 15 years, was 5 sq m with no windows. It was like working in a submarine!

Christian Desira, director, LHG (London Hotel Group) Christian Desira, director, LHG (London Hotel Group)

It’s very different to working here in Europe where everybody has to have a window and a view of the outside as a requirement.’ Wyatt added: ‘our office was the first WELL-certified space in Europe, and everyone who comes in seems to comment on how “Scandinavian” it feels. Scandinavia and, to an extent, Germany, have been leading the way. My colleague was at a WELL conference recently and they were told that the certification is seeing good penetration all over Europe except for Germany, and that’s because so many of the aspects of it are already done there as standard anyway.’

Gernone suggested that there is more that product manufacturers could do to speed up progress: ‘Sometimes we try to be as sustainable as possible in choosing the right materials, but not every material that we choose ticks that box, so maybe there is some catching up to do from carpet suppliers and others. They’re getting there but are not there yet.’

Christina Bohm, senior interior designer, 3D ReidChristina Bohm, senior interior designer, 3D Reid

‘We need to force that to happen,’ said Perkins + Will’s O’Leary. ‘We use Portico to help to assess the materials that we specify and ensure they comply, but sometimes you’ll get a client who insists on a specific product, and in that instance all you can do is advise. If all materials met higher standards then it would be easier to avoid this kind of situation.’

Gernone added: ‘It’s interesting how sometimes you hear from suppliers that say their product reaches all the required standards, and then when you cross-check it on Portico it tells a different story.’

Sourcing the right products

Wyatt wondered if the best way to be assured of provenance is to effectively make it yourself: ‘for some projects we’ve avoided all of that by having everything bespoke-made instead of sourced from suppliers. It sometimes surprises me to see products sometimes listed as “BREEAM-certified” even though BREEAM don’t certify products.’

O’Leary pointed out: ‘The challenge with going bespoke though is that many clients want warranties or guarantees. If you go down a bespoke route then that becomes a one-year warranty, which is a potential defect problem. It’s a difficult balance.’

Francesca Gernone, head of interiors, Fletcher Priest ArchitectsFrancesca Gernone, head of interiors, Fletcher Priest Architects

‘In the end, it’s the design firms that move that needle,’ argued Henning Bloch. ‘Because if the specifies are asking for it – or even just looking into it enough – then the manufacturers will pay attention. The big brands have been paying attention for a long time in fact. Industry is catching up, developing, and moving in the right direction. Hats off to the designers who are fuelling that by being proactive though, because in doing that they’re putting manufacturers on notice.’

Joe Parry, director of global marketing for Universal Fibers – sponsor of this FX Design Seminar – wondered what role market pressures have to play: ‘It has much to do with market value preference. That’s another way of saying “value”, which is itself an invitation for product producers to put a premium on it. Somebody has to be the change agent on starting that.

You’d like to think that could be the end-user. We get the impression that there is end-demand, whether that be from residential consumer or commercial property developer.’

Simon Wyatt sustainability partner, Cundall EngineeringSimon Wyatt, sustainability partner, Cundall Engineering

Christian Desira, director of London Hotel Group (LHG), said: ‘The issue for us as a developer is where you have a site that is perhaps on Green Belt land and with local authority requirements on the green credentials of the building, it becomes very expensive, to the point that when you consider what the market is prepared to pay it doesn’t make financial sense. It means that on a site where you might be looking at building 15 houses, by the time you factor in all those additional costs, you can’t build 15, you really need to find a solution to build 50 to make it worthwhile. Because it’s Green Belt, you’re restricted on building height, so in order to achieve a positive cost of capital and a profit margin, we’re having to go down three or four levels in the ground to build enough units and make them as invisible as possible.’

Desira added that he sensed the shift towards wellness initially came from organisations wanting to find ways to make their workforce more productive, hence the kind of ‘campus’ facilities that big American brands such as Google and Microsoft have become known for, enabling employees to access a whole range of services and activities without having to leave the work premises.

Striving for a work/life balance

Christina Bohm, senior interior designer at architecture practice 3D Reid, wondered if organisations might already be turning their back on that approach though: ‘I think there has already been a bit of a shift back from that. For many people the most refreshing thing is to go home and have a life. In Sweden, it is very much a case that you are expected to go home, and finish work around 4pm in order to get maximum daylight.’

Desira replied: ‘To an extent, that’s a cultural issue. In Sweden the lifestyle is fantastic, with less pollution and fewer people. Contrast that with the USA where the culture of work is one of “super-productivity”. In some cases, sleeping under your desk is still considered normal. ’ ‘It’s real short-termism,’ suggested Cundall Engineering’s Wyatt. ‘Research suggests that one in four people suffer from mental health issues and if you push your staff too hard they’ll burn out, and over a long period their productivity is going to be lower. Clearly the ideal is to have people who are productive over a long period of time, happy and enjoy a good work/life balance.

‘We talk about the UK having one of the lowest productivity rates in Europe. Productivity is revenue divided by people and by hours. Here, we work more hours but we’re not getting much more out – you may work an extra two hours at the end of the day but you’re not necessarily going to get two hours’ worth of work in that time. You’re not fully engaged if you’re over-worked and that’s where ‘presenteeism’ – where you’re at work but not full engaged – comes in.’

So far from being purely altruistic there are plenty of other potential gains from investing in health and wellness in the workplace. But it is far from that simple. Theresa Dowling raised another conundrum for CEOs faced with the prospect of potentially investing millions in wellbeing for employees, and the potential long-term benefits this could bring about in terms of productivity and positioning the company as a good place to work – versus the more immediate short-term profit expectations of company owners or shareholders.

Theresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazineTheresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazine

John Avery, director at LOM Architecture, believes the case in favour of delivering wellness is outweighing those reservations in some quarters: ‘We’re finding that at the moment there is so much positivity at all levels. In a recent project we’ve been working on for a global organisation in the Middle East, in meetings with staff about their new offices it’s clear that the enthusiasm for the top-of-the-range gym and other wellness facilities has come from the staff themselves and from the very top of the business. There is a clear mandate to invest in the wellbeing of employees.’

Wyatt points out that in some sectors, offering such facilities are increasingly being seen as a point of differentiation in competitive marketplaces, not least in education: ‘We see it in the university sector, where competition for students has led to an interest in providing “healthy” halls of residence – and being able to charge a premium for this – and students in general have been interested for a long while in questions of sustainability. Over time, this also then transfers with them once they graduate into the workplace. Increasingly, when graduates apply for jobs with us, they’re interested in sustainability and wellness in the workplace but they are also asking us about our ethical policies. They’re much more focused on this than previous generations, and that serves to drive us to think about these things and helps to shape what direction we should be going in.’

Lessons to be learned

The education sector has a track record for moving some of these considerations forward, with requirements within school buildings particularly detailed – but ultimately perhaps not as effective as they could be. Avery said: ‘The Government Building Bulletins are quite complicated. For school building projects there are a lot of regulations that can sometimes be quite conflicting – for example, buildings have to be very quiet, and yet there are also rules regarding fresh air, so in London that immediately presents an issue because if you open a window there is always going to be noise.

‘So there are a lot of regulations around schools. These regulations are generally positive but whether there is a user perspective driving it I’m not sure. Parents might be aware that a school feels airy and modern but they might not go any deeper than that in terms of understanding whether the building is sustainable or healthy.’

Wyatt added: ‘Because of coverage in the press about air quality, we have had a number of councils asking us to go in and monitor air quality in their schools in order to alleviate the fears of some of the parents who are seemingly very much in touch with this issue.’

Henderson said that awareness of issues such as air quality is another that varies considerably between territories, noting that when travelling in China many people appear to be very aware of air quality, to the extent that they have an app on their phone to enable them to monitor it.

Wyatt urged a measured approach too, rather than knee-jerk reactions to certain headlines that may appear from time to time: ‘There’s a lot of scaremongering in the press. If you look at air quality now, it’s a lot better than it was in London 100 years ago or so. It’s a case of going in to a particular site and measuring the precise problem there. For example, if you have a problem with particulates, you can filter that quite easily.’

New ways of thinking

Avery believes that in terms of space and design, young people are driving lots of innovation: ‘I think many are particularly aware of these issues, especially those in the tech and IT sectors, together with a lot of the changes that are taking place organically. I think we’re in a really good place in that respect.

‘In sectors such as banking, the challenge is perhaps even more acute in ensuring the young talent of the future is attracted to working there. This might involve moving out of historic old buildings into modern premises and to make the spaces more appealing.’

But he pointed out that this is far from an issue concerning just the younger members of the working population: ‘The other thing to bear in mind when it comes to ideas of wellness is that people in the workplace are getting older and the retirement age is going up, so it’s important to be aware of this.’ The discussion moved on to measurables, considering how having aims and ideals is one thing, but delivering tangible benefits and return on investment is quite another. Are certification schemes like BREEAM the answer?

Wyatt said: ‘The problem with BREEAM is that it is seen as a dogmatic requirement. It has become a form-filling exercise and a simple requirement of planning. As it stands, within the requirements of BREEAM 2014, many of the credits have no particular sustainability benefit. When it started, there were lots of benefits, but now in many respects it’s a case where you have to do a report for the sake of doing a report – there is no obligation to actually implement the findings.’

Avery replied: ‘I think those standards have been important in moving things on and setting a new baseline. In Dubai, they’ve introduced a set of green building regulations, which take a lot of their principles from BREEAM. If I had said to a client there three years ago to put solar panels on the outside of the building or to create 100 cycle spaces in the basement, they would have laughed at me – and actually they did! I said I’m not joking, this is mandatory now. It is statutory regulation and is quite far-sighted of the authorities there.’

The international picture

One of the toughest challenges for global organisations is to tune into the cultural variations around the world – what is considered a must-have in one part of the world could potentially be unheard of elsewhere. So how does this health and wellness evolutionary or educational process happen? Wyatt said: ‘There is a huge uptake in China, particularly when it comes to air quality. Unfortunately, it tends to be the high-end, expensive offices when really the air-quality problem is such that it needs to be in all offices.’

Avery added: ‘Although there is not the insurance-related driver to do these things in the Middle East as there is in the USA, compared to the States, the Middle East does have a more healthy culture in terms of work/life balance and taking proper lunch breaks and so on. Europe is, I guess, somewhere in between.’

Wyatt suggested: ‘There is interest now in various European countries, such as Poland and Romania. We’ve only really been selling health and wellbeing as a specific service for the past two years and we’re only seeing 10-20 per cent of that being certification. Most of it is just reviewing projects or giving advice and guidance.

‘In sustainability, for the past decade we’ve looked at it as a cost premium. But there is real recognition of the cost benefits of health and wellbeing, whether that’s through insurance, or reduced cost of absenteeism or increased staff retention.’

Measuring the impact of wellness

How does an organisation go about directly attributing the effect of staff retention to the investment in health and wellbeing? Wyatt said: ‘You can’t. It ultimately depends on getting more and more case studies that demonstrate the positive impact, including the studies that Harvard University is doing.’

At the user end, is there still a premium to be had for offering healthy options? 3D Reid’s Bohm said: ‘In some ways it has become trendy. People will pay more for organic coffee for example, so if they are told that one fl at is healthier than another then yes, perhaps they would be prepared to pay more in rent.’

‘That’s provided it’s real and not just a rip-off ,’ warned O’Leary. ‘Which is why as it stands the key elements in terms of health and wellbeing are the things you can actually measure, such as air quality and water quality,’ said Wyatt. ‘For most buildings, we take it for granted that they are built for comfort.’

Avery added: ‘It’s the distinction between tangible and intangible. I can see people paying more to rent somewhere if it has a gym or more outside space, but on the other hand, to say that the air quality is better – while it can be quantified – it is a bit harder for the end-user to really notice.’

Henning Bloech, founder, Sustaineer Consulting GermanyHenning Bloech, founder, Sustaineer Consulting Germany

Desira pointed out that health and wellness in hotels – at least for the mass tourism market – is not a major market driver. The majority of bookings made in a city like London for example are via hotel comparison websites rather than direct to the hotels themselves, and factors such as location and price are by far the biggest considerations over and above the hotel’s wellbeing criteria. Will this change anytime soon though? Could, for example, matters such as sustainability or wellbeing be added as specific search criteria on the hotel booking websites so that guests can search using these factors?

Wyatt said: ‘We’re seeing some of this coming through already, perhaps not as a separate search item as such, but when you see what people are putting in reviews for accommodation it will probably start to become a factor that way. Yes, price is important and will remain so, but if you see a super-cheap hotel room but it only has 1-star reviews, you generally decide to give it a miss despite the low price.’

Within the workplace, is wellness something of an elitist principle, affordable only to the big multinational organisations and out of the question for employees working for altogether smaller concerns? Avery thinks not: ‘In a way, smaller companies almost have more flexibility to provide better quality offices for their staff if they have around 50 or 100 people. They can deliver for their more limited number of employees, whereas the problem for a larger organisation is that it has to do the same thing for 10,000 people.’

And the route to delivering such an environment for employees may not be as long as some organisations think said Wyatt: ‘A lot of organisations don’t realise the good stuff they’re already doing. When we go in and do audit reports, the first half of that report is a list of the things they are already doing well and they are often shocked at how much they are getting right.’

Health & wellness in context

So where do all these seemingly ‘good practice’ ideas fit in to the reality for architects and designers? Are they even being trained on such matters, for example? Avery said: ‘On sustainability yes, but wellness specifically, definitely not. The idea of creating great spaces for people to live or work in has always been an important factor, but not with many of the specific references to wellness that we might have discussed today, for example.’

Joe Parry of Universal Fibers played devil’s advocate in asking: ‘It’s late in the discussion to be asking this, but does this all really matter? We can talk about every office having something with some level of toxicity in it but what impact does that really have in reality?’

Wyatt said: ‘There are 40,000 early deaths from poor air quality in the UK every year. All the science is coming – it’s not fully there yet. There aren’t enough case studies to fully make the points but there are some very strong links between certain types of emissions and poor air quality.’

‘Air quality is a very important factor, but there are other factors though,’ added Gernone. ‘Working hours and many other factors affecting mental health all play a huge part in making this subject so important.’

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