6 Ways Buildings Can Promote Wellness

Sept. 22, 2016

Incorporate active design concepts for healthier, happier occupants.

The health and wellbeing of your building’s occupants isn’t just the purview of human resources anymore. Facilities managers can play an important role in making sure the people who work in your building are happy, healthy and active.

“In the last four or five years, the conversation has changed from how much energy can we save to how does the building affect people’s health and productivity,” explains Turan Duda, Design Partner for Duda|Paine Architects. “That’s a very different conversation than putting solar panels on the roof.” 

Incorporate active design elements into your building and encourage your occupants to lead healthier lives with these six tips.

1) Encourage More Walking

A few simple low- or no-cost improvements can encourage occupants to walk more. Moving printers, copiers and other communal equipment to a central space instead of giving occupants their own equipment not only requires users to walk farther to pick up their printed material, but also creates a mini-meeting space where occupants can bump into colleagues for impromptu conversations, says Joshua Zinder, Principal of integrated design firm JZA+D.

For a more formal, yet affordable walking initiative, Janet Morra, Principal and Partner at Margulies Perruzzi Architects, suggests starting a competition. “People can wear fitness monitors to track how many steps they take during the day and then compete by department or in teams for prizes. That encourages people not to sit at their desks all day long.” 

Many of your occupants may already own a Fitbit or similar tracker, Morra notes, but for those that don’t, your organization may be able to negotiate a bulk discount from the manufacturer. Some health insurance providers also offer savings on monitors, so reach out to your HR department to see if this is possible.

People are also more likely to move if the walk is entertaining, adds Duda. One recent project – a five-building campus for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Chattanooga, TN – emphasizes walking everywhere on campus with a central courtyard and walkways and offers a reduction in healthcare costs for people who walk a certain number of steps. The chairwoman even requested an office as far away from the parking area as possible so that she can set an example for employees. 

“If you’re in a shopping mall, you don’t mind walking a couple thousand feet because there are things of interest along the way,” Duda explains. “When we designed the Blue Cross Blue Shield campus in Chattanooga, we designed a series of stops along the way so that if you walk 1,000 feet, you’ll come across a café, a fitness center, a wellness center and an education center.”

2) Promote Stairs, Not Elevators

An existing building has fewer opportunities than a new construction project to make stairs an appealing amenity, but it can be done. “Most fire stairs are gray on gray and they’re pretty grim. Try doing something more playful and using color,” suggests Duda. “Lighting there is often minimal too, so lighting is another important piece.”

Locating communal spaces like kitchenettes and lounges near the stair landings whenever possible can draw occupants to the stairs for convenience and community, Morra says.


3) Trim the Fat from Food Service

Whether your organization has a couple of vending machines or a full cafeteria, you can find ways to offer appealing, but healthy options. Talk to your food service vendor to learn more about your healthy food options, Morra suggests. 

“Another thing that’s becoming popular is arranging with local food trucks to come to your site once a week and offer food,” Morra adds. “Generally that doesn’t cost the organization anything – it’s a guarantee of a captive audience. I know a few companies that have designated food trucks visit two or three times a week and they publicize it ahead of time because people will plan to buy food there. They get some interesting and healthful alternatives to the cafeteria.”

4) Put Effort into Fitness Centers

“Fitness rooms of the past are usually a leftover closet or someone’s back room with a few Nautilus machines in it,” explains Duda. “It’s not very inviting. Make it more front and center, more accessible, more visible, and closer to an outdoor space if possible so that people have the choice of running or walking outdoors and coming back to the gym. The location matters.”

Not all buildings need fitness equipment, however. Morra recommends surveying occupants to find out what amenities they would find useful and following their lead. Also remember that fitness isn’t just confined to the inside of the building – it might be easier to create exercise opportunities outside.

“If there’s a fitness center next door and a lot of the occupants already belong to it, spending the money to build your own fitness center may not be the best fit. But if there’s nothing in a reasonable travel distance during the workday, you might find that if you build a fitness center you’ll get a huge amount of participation because otherwise people have to find one closer to home,” Morra says. “MPA’S project at 101 Station Drive in Westwood, MA, has a bike share in the building so if you wanted to go to the new retail development at lunch and didn’t want to walk there, you could ride a bike rather than get in your car to drive two minutes.”

Collaborative or conferences spaces in your facility can serve double duty, Morra adds. Some clients allow employees to lead weight loss groups or other fitness-related get-togethers in a conference room once a week. “That came from someone asking if they could do it, and now they have high participation,” Morra adds.

5) Facilitate Access to Green Space

Buildings of any size can incorporate some view of plant life even without a beautiful view from expansive windows. The North American office for mass customization vendor Cimpress at 275 Wyman Street in Waltham, MA, features an indoor green wall, affectionately dubbed the “salad wall” by occupants for its location in the corporate dining facility, Morra says.

“It has a double purpose,” Morra explains. “Having plants indoors has a very specific impact on IAQ, but it also gives people a relaxing, soothing image to look at. It’s aesthetic and useful at the same time.”

If your building is in a suburban location, you may have more options. A lawn could host an outdoor dining terrace, badminton net or volleyball court, Morra says. The Duke University School of Medicine took views of the outdoors a step further at its Trent Semans Center for Health Education by opting for a bioswale to collect and filter rainwater right outside the window, providing future doctors with a view of sustainable practices at work, Duda says.


6) Provide Variety with Breakout Spaces

A change of pace can help boost productivity, Zinder notes. But variety is about more than standing desks and perching areas at workstations. 

“A standing desk might be a component in a larger plan, but there’s not one silver bullet to address the notion of variety,” Zinder adds. “Maybe you do have standing desks and perching areas, but you also have a common copy room or breakout lounges in other spaces in the building. You can sit or stand at your desk, sit at the lounge area down the hall, go downstairs for a cup of coffee or take a break and work out in the gym. It helps bring some clarity to your mind.”

Creating breakout spaces also affords you the opportunity to turn some of your underused or unattractive spaces into real assets. One recent project Duda worked on involved creating a quiet reflection space for patients and families in the Duke Cancer Center. The 30- by 30-foot space was behind an elevator bank and had no access to natural light, posing a challenge for the design team. 

“You couldn’t ask for a more depressing space to work with,” Duda says. “The space had to be transformative, but at the same time it had no daylight. We used lighting in such a way that it simulated sunrise to sunset with the color of light in the room. Human beings rely on those cues to tell us what time of day it is or what the weather is and it’s an important factor in people’s mental state. It became a room for people to go and find respite and reflection, and doctors and nurses use the space as much as patients do.”

The most important element to creating a building that supports occupant health is paying attention to people’s needs, Zinder emphasizes. Lead the way, but let occupants advise you on the path to take.

“You have to be a good listener in this process,” says Zinder. “Hear what employees are looking for and what tenants’ goals are and assign value to that. You can’t understand the potential return on investment unless you understand the value for the tenants and employees in the building.” 

Janelle Penny [email protected] is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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