So smart buildings make us more energy efficient, smart buildings make us safer and more secure, smart buildings make us more comfortable and even make us more productive, but can they make us healthier?
It certainly seems to be moving that way as the smart building industry is adding ‘wellness’ to its growing list of occupant benefits, using the seemingly endless potential of Internet of Things Technology.
As part of a wider health shift in society over the last decade or two, offices have been taking measures to improve the health of their employees by offering healthy snacks, adding gyms and yoga rooms to buildings or providing local health club membership discounts. This is not necessarily the benevolent act of a health conscious CEO but the direct consequence of understanding that more healthy employees are more productive employees.
A much as 96% of the 6,500 organisations participating in a WorldatWork survey were shown to offer at least some elements of a well-being program. However, until recently, the influence of smart technology on those programs was limited to improving air quality.
Not to say air quality is not important to health, it’s essential. Traditional building regulations have led to well-insulated office spaces, which reduce temperature fluctuations but also reduce fresh air circulation. Typical outdoor CO2 concentrations hover around 380 parts per million (ppm), while within offices CO2 concentrations were found to be as high as several thousand ppm. This reduces oxygen intake, increasing drowsiness and stress, while inhibiting concentration.
Smart lighting has also begun to have an impact on the health of building occupants. Our bodies are attuned to the natural rhythms of the sun, however traditional white office lighting can disrupt that natural rhythm, affecting wake/sleep cycles. Poor lighting conditions can also create glare, reduce contrast and create shadows in the work environment, all of which can lead to eyestrain, discomfort and headaches.
Using smart lighting controls, workplaces can now adjust lighting in coordination with the amount of sunlight entering through windows, depending on the weather conditions. Lighting technology such as Philips Hue and GE’s Colour-changing LEDs can mimic sunlight colour and brightness in order to create a more natural indoor lighting experience. Such measures improve comfort levels while reducing the stress and strain of working in poor light.
Many of the health and wellness benefits we are starting to see in smart buildings revolve around reducing stress in the traditional workplace environment. Using occupancy sensors, smart buildings can automatically turn off lights, coffee machines, plug sockets or other equipment so occupants need not worry about remembering or stress over whether they forgot, enabling peace of mind.
Similarly, smart building systems can select meeting room locations that suit all the attendees of a meeting, reducing the average distance each participant needs to travel. Indoor way-finding apps can also help those new to a building find the room they’re trying to find, reducing stress and delays. A smart elevator, for example, may even sense someone’s arrival in the underground car park and have an elevator ready to take them to their scheduled appointment.
In 2014, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) launched the world’s first building standard to focus on enhancing people’s health and well being through the built environment. Pioneered by Delos, WELL is grounded in a body of medical research that explores the connection between the buildings, where we spend more than 90% of our time, and the health and wellness impacts on us as occupants.
Soon after, IWBI announced a partnership with the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), which administers the LEED building standard. The collaboration aims to streamline how LEED and WELL work together, while helping both organisations further the smart building movement.
“We always say green buildings are healthier for their inhabitants, but until now, we didn’t have an aggressive system that looked at wellness and the human condition from a completely separate lens”, said Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of GBCI and president, CEO and founding chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “IWBI and the WELL rating system will bring a better understanding of what it means to be healthy — and the ability to achieve wellness through technology and design — to the front burner”.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has identified the workplace as the number one place to fight ‘lifestyle disease’. Stating that “the workplace directly influences the physical, mental, economic and social well-being of workers and in turn the health of their families, communities and society”. So be it by the company, building owner, government or employee, improving well being is the smart choice for commercial real estate.