The green office: collecting the data

People-centred design

15 February 2019

A pioneering project is collecting evidence on how biophilic office layouts can improve the health and well-being of workers, explains Ed Suttie

An ordinary suite of offices, occupying 1 floor of an equally ordinary office building just off the M25, is currently the subject of an extraordinary investigation – and plans for a unique refurbishment project.

These working offices at the Watford campus of Building Research Establishment (BRE) and their 40 occupants are the focus of a 2.5-year study called the biophilic office (see Natural benefits). The project will generate evidence about the impact of biophilic design on office workers’ needs and inherent connection to nature.

Building designers can often forget that buildings are for people. Many designs focus on factors such as energy use – an important issue, but it accounts for just 1 per cent of typical office running costs, while staff costs total 90 per cent.

Layouts often pay little attention to the well-being of occupants, with the design ignoring potential impacts on mental, social and physical health, and therefore missing the chance to improve business outcomes.

Built in the 1980s, the study building in Watford is neither new nor beautiful, but it is typical of offices around the world, representing the reality of working conditions for many. This year, these offices will be refurbished using biophilic design principles. This is not just about including plants: it also involves consideration of materials and textures, colour variations, views, personalised workspaces, enhanced lighting and refuge spaces.

Throughout last year, office conditions were extensively monitored, and the occupants’ well-being investigated. This process will continue during refurbishment and for a year after it is completed, giving comparable before and after data.

Initial investigations of the quality of the indoor environment – examining factors such as temperature, carbon dioxide and levels of volatile organic compounds, relative humidity and acoustics – found none of these to be presenting problems, all being within prescribed levels, although lighting was thought poor in some areas.

But when asked about office conditions, most occupants rated the look and feel of their office as ‘poor’, and 67 per cent said they did not want to show anyone around. This feedback came from a questionnaire run quarterly during the project on how occupants feel about issues such as noise, glare, lighting and other comfort factors.

Aspects of staff well-being also being monitored include their fitness, ability to concentrate and stress levels. Wearable technology monitors their heart rate, activity levels and sleep patterns, while the project will additionally gather business and human resources data such as the number of days’ sick leave. Stress levels will be monitored by testing saliva samples.

The refurbishment

The current, cellular offices are occupied by teams who perform varying tasks and who have different requirements. The new layout will comprise 3 zones, each following a different biophilic design strategy. Oliver Heath Design, BRE’s partner, has consulted occupants and based on their responses has designed areas in such a way as to investigate a wide range of design features. The office design is now in its final stages, and Oliver Heath will work with partners to supply products, technologies and expertise to complete the refurbishment.

Evidence from monitoring the offices and occupants will be widely publicised with the help of project partners, including RICS. The aim is to ensure that health and well-being, through biophilic design, become part of every office refurbishment brief. This will encourage the design of future workplaces that enhance the mental, social and physical health and well-being of the occupants, and enable better business.

Ed Suttie is a director of research at BRE

Further information