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Designing buildings that perform beautifully benefits both the people who use your facilities and your bottom line.

People: The Secret to Creating Healthy, Sustainable Workplaces in Existing Buildings

Feb. 19, 2024
We can’t change the world with resilient, inviting, cost-effective and healthy buildings by knocking down existing facilities and starting again—but here’s what we can do.

You say you want a revolution in the built environment. Well, we all want to change the world with buildings that are more resilient, inviting, cost-effective and healthier for the planet and (particularly post-pandemic) the people who work in them. We can’t realize that vision by knocking down existing buildings and starting again. So, we need new thinking.

To start, it helps to understand why we don’t already have it all.

Traditional Trade-offs

Traditional approaches involve hard trade-offs. A century or so ago, as elevators and steel pushed buildings skyward, the so-called fresh air movement together with the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 raised concerns about public health. Officials encouraged open windows year-round and from New York to Denver, engineers responded with steam radiators that still burn fossil fuels to overheat apartments today.

Fast forward to the 1970s energy crisis, which accelerated fuel-savings design changes such as windows in commercial buildings that can’t open. Soon enough, “sick building syndrome” entered the lexicon with a renewed focus on indoor air quality and health. As the pendulum swung, we built glass boxes that depend on fossil fuels to power the brute force of HVAC systems to cool, heat and circulate air. COVID-19 brought renewed interest in better ventilation to optimize health.

We can design new buildings that use only fresh air, but that becomes very expensive, very quickly. In existing buildings, even if funds were available, the systems often aren’t capable of handling the demand. And with the climate crisis accelerating, building occupants want more sustainable, low-carbon solutions that also are more resilient to chronic stressors like extreme heat as well as natural disasters.

It’s a multi-pronged design challenge: creating sustainable, resilient, healthy and affordable built environments within current footprints. Our options shouldn’t be as limited as our current thinking. We can create a new, more interactive approach to our built environment, one that shifts our approach to a central issue in design: the controllable load that is hidden in plain sight.

People as a Design Dimension

The idea of a controllable load is a demand on the building’s systems that can be deferred for a brief time with little or no effect on comfort, convenience, or performance. Adjusting the controllable load can allow for better alignment with an external constraint, whether energy cost, budget, grid electrical demand or physical capacity constraint.

Engineers typically focus on energy as a lever to influence other priorities like health and sustainability, using more energy in the early 1900s, less in the 1970s. What if we didn’t start with the structure and its systems but with its occupants?

What if we saw the growing trend towards hybrid work schedules (and the corresponding reduction of corporate real estate footprint) as an opportunity to capture real estate cost savings while also enhancing the wellbeing of occupants, enhancing productivity and create additional bottom line benefits? In other words: what if we viewed people as a “controllable load?”

Imagine if a building’s systems could look at the weather, calculate how much outside air can be handled given the system’s capacity and budget for energy costs, and then determine the number of people that the space can accommodate each day—perhaps fewer during heatwaves or with greater distribution as COVID-19 or the flu spike. This information can be integrated with office schedules, enabling HR and facilities to suggest the best use of build capacity and the best days for specific teams to come into the office, perhaps prioritizing client meetings and workshops that benefit most from in-person interactions.

This dynamic interplay between people and place isn’t that far off. We already design buildings that capture data on light, temperature, and energy usage to decrease costs and improve well-being. With research showing that air pollution contributes to nine million deaths each year, we have systems that can monitor and reduce indoor levels of CO2, increasing productivity up to 10%.

Occupant-aware buildings can provide real-time information about occupancy levels, air quality and how recently spaces have been cleaned. The data is no longer limited to the purview of building managers but can be pushed to users via an app that can call the elevator, send push notifications on open seats on your floor—or reserve one in advance, if you allow the system to access your schedule. Landlords can deploy cleaning crews based not on set schedules, but real-time data that targets specific spaces—even individual desks in an open space—that have been used each day. Building design, meet the Internet of Things.

To be certain, this approach must consider personal privacy, a concern that has caused some of the potential use cases to stall. However, this approach doesn’t care who goes to the office or track their movements while there. Rather, it enables the building to determine in advance its capacity and support its occupants by equipping them to better prioritize various functions, such as collaborative meetings. This data-driven planning can create a more effective hybrid strategy, which isn’t a privacy issue at all.

Viewing people as a controllable load can be more effective: Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that 73% of employees would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members would be there. It’s also more sustainable, since this isn’t necessarily about discarding old systems. Many buildings already have the key components. What has been lacking is the vision to integrate and evolve established systems to create truly smart buildings—not just buildings with smart technology.

For example, a major financial services company assembled a cross-functional team, including facilities, HR, IT, sustainability and finance, to create a new real estate strategy with key performance indicators tied to corporate goals. This approach allowed it to consider people as a variable and create physical ecosystems that attract employees, foster collaboration, deliver on environmental goals, and reduce costs. They found that there can be real bottom line and human value to planning infrastructure that performs beautifully, inside and out.

About the Author

Alastair MacGregor

Alastair MacGregor is Senior Vice President of Property + Buildings at WSP USA. He is the co-author of Future Ready: Your Organization’s Guide to Rethinking Climate, Resilience and Sustainability, published by Wiley.

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