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Greening the Office: Why wellness is the new green

Following is an excerpt from our Healthy Offices ebook out now.

The average Australian spends 90 per cent of their time indoors. For many people a large proportion of that time is spent in the office – eight hours a day, five days a week (and often more).

But what are these offices doing to our health? Are they providing a healthy environment in which to be spending such a large chunk of our lives? Are they conducive to human sustainability? And are these environments enabling us to perform at our best?

These questions are being asked by more and more leading companies, and in the past few years have blossomed into what’s being called “the next wave of sustainability”: workplace health and wellness.

A new disruptive lens

But what do we mean by a building conducive to health and wellbeing? Partly, it’s one that neither adversely affects the health of its occupants nor that of the larger environment. Increasingly it’s a building that works to actively improve people’s health.

And that’s a very interesting, if not challenging, new lens for any corporate through which to view their staff, and potentially quite disruptive. It perhaps partly explains why this sector has exploded like topsy in recent years.

In the CitySwitch view, which is focusing on wellness with its Healthy Buildings Campaign and collaborated on our book a healthy workplace can be organised into four key areas:

  • Mind: The subjective assessments of office workers’ mental wellbeing: their happiness, their stress levels and their ability to concentrate and perform.
  • Body: Measurable elements such as activity levels, hours worked, time sleeping and nutrition.
  • Culture: Both office policies that impact on wellness, and the unwritten rules of the office. Can you take short breaks to regain your focus? Is it really okay to call in sick?
  • Workplace: The actual physical environment that impacts on wellness – the layout, furniture, building materials, lighting, acoustics and HVAC.

Each of these areas must be addressed to create a truly healthy working environment.

National program manager, Esther Bailey says modifying the physical  characteristics of a building’s interior is not a new development and is typically referred to as Indoor Environment Quality, or IEQ.

“Corporate health programs are also nothing new. It’s just that now we’re looking at how things like IEQ and

corporate health programs fit together, along with other things like culture, the business case and sustainability.”

Key is that this is a holistic package.

“What good is a lunchtime yoga class if you return to a highly stressful environment? And what good is a healthy food option when the air is filled with toxins?”

Australia’s ahead of the pack – again

The concept of a healthy workplace isn’t so new. But as so many things when it comes to sustainability, Australia is ahead of the curve.

AMP Capital head of sustainability, real estate Chris Nunn says there is a range of tools available to measure, manage and optimise health in buildings.

“In the Australian commercial property sector, we’ve actually had a pretty mature suite of tools that addresses indoor environment quality, and health and wellbeing,” he says.

For example, the NABERS IE tool was launched in 2009 and focuses on achieving an office indoor environment conducive to health and productivity, through optimising the built form, services and technologies.

But what’s recently set this off as a massive global trend is the arrival of the WELL Building Standard – which has extended wellness to areas not often measured by traditional IEQ ratings, including comfort, nourishment, fitness and mental health.

It’s seen as a game changer for how we think about our buildings and their purpose, with companies such as Grocon, Macquarie Bank, Mirvac, Dexus, Lendlease and Frasers Property getting in on the action.

In a nutshell, WELL put building professionals in the same room as medical professionals and asked, “What do healthy buildings look like?”

Rick Fedrizzi, chairman and chief executive of the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), which administers the WELL Building Standard, says wellness is “the second major movement towards understanding the impact of real estate on the world around us”.

“We understand the building. We understand the components and the integration. But what about the next level?

What about the human being who’s inside those buildings? It’s not about the bricks and mortar, steel and glass. It’s about the human being inside those buildings,” he says.

“Now for the first time we are able to look at buildings from a different standpoint – to understand how the human in those buildings, how all of the systems of the human body actually engage with the different pieces of the building at any given time, and ultimately advance the building for health and wellness.”

In Fedrizzi’s terms, there’s no separation between sustainability and health. “Sustainability equals health. If you don’t have a building that respects you on every level, you are never going to the place of health that we want, not only for ourselves and our coworkers and employees, but our families as well.”

The benefits of healthy

buildings In a typical office building, 90 per cent of operating costs come down to staff. By comparison, just one per cent of operating costs typically goes to energy, though in the green building movement it is where much of the focus, until recently, has been placed.

From the chief executive’s perspective, then, the benefits of increasing the productivity of staff is both potentially massive and clear, and even a small change can have a big impact.

A poorly performing building can have productivity costs through increased absenteeism, increased presenteeism,

higher staff turnover, inability to attract appropriate staff and medical costs.

Globally each year $1.1 trillion is lost to chronic disease, $300 billion is lost to stress, $250 billion is lost to injuries and illness, and $550 billion is lost to disengagement.

For some people, such as ISPT’s general manager, sustainability & technical services, Alicia Maynard, this represents an opportunity.

“The flip side is if in some way we can enhance the built environment to reduce stress or to reduce illness or injury or to make staff more engaged, it has a massive impact in terms of the financial bottom line for a business,” Maynard says.

“Healthy buildings and wellness are definitely on the agenda in terms of conversations we’re having with existing customers as well as new customers.

“I think we are really hitting that next wave of what sustainability in the built environment looks like.”

Does it cost more? And does it affect sustainability?

There has been concern that some indoor environment quality factors – such as carbon filtration or increased air flow rates – could attract an “energy penalty”. That is, require more energy to run.

NABERS national program manager Carlos Flores says if IEQ is done poorly then you could, for example, save energy at the expense of health and comfort.

“The flip side is that if you do energy efficiency really well, you can have significant positive effects on IEQ.”

According to Maynard, good facilities management can lead to savings in utility costs, and also “uplift for our customers in terms of a really healthy and comfortable environment for them to work in”.

ISPT has both NABERS Energy and Indoor Environment ratings across its portfolio.

“From our NABERS rating program there is no correlation to suggest that a building that does have a high NABERS Indoor Environment rating is more expensive to run.

“In fact what these results indicate is that if you do have really good NABERS Indoor

Environment performance, more than likely you are saving electricity as well.”

So with good management practices there needn’t be a trade off between sustainability and healthy buildings.

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