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The UK-GBC’s new report argues the business case for better offices

Hattie Hartman
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Every architect intuitively knows that better offices make for happier, more productive workers, writes Hattie Hartman

While global leaders gathered in New York this week for the UN Climate Summit and an estimated 40,000 people marched on Westminster (and 580,000 worldwide) to demand action on climate change, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched a new report: Health, wellbeing and productivity in offices: the next chapter for green building.

Led by a team from the UK Green Building Council, (UK-GBC) this report summarises recent research, which makes a business case for a simple fact which every architect intuitively knows: better offices make for happier, more productive workers.  The report is good news for architects. It specifically acknowledges the often-overlooked role of good design, arguing that building design must be viewed as a financial consideration.

As interest in the health and wellbeing agenda grows, these terms are increasingly bantered about, but often with little accompanying evidence. Peppered with examples of office design from London to Hong Kong and from Ankara to Sydney, the 90-page report cogently summarises recent research on this critical subject. For those who want to delve further, more than 80 references sourced through the WGBC’s global network document specific research on the issue.

The nine-page executive summary is a good place to start. We are reminded that staff costs (salaries and benefits) represent about 90 per cent of the operating costs of most businesses, while energy costs currently represent just 1 per cent. Hence enhancing employee productivity can have the greatest impact on the bottom line - a strong argument designers can use to justify increased capital costs for better-quality workplaces.

Interestingly, not a single architect is a member of the global 11-member steering committee responsible for the report, and just three architects number among the report’s 50-strong working group participants: UK-GBC founding member and trustee Rab Bennetts, Benny Chow of Aedas (Hong Kong), and the recently deceased Paul Hinkin of Black Architecture (AJ 29.08.14), to whom the report is dedicated.  The report summarises recent research across a range of familiar issues including indoor air quality, thermal comfort, daylight and lighting and acoustics. Other factors which are more difficult to quantify include interior layout, ‘look and feel’, active design and exercise, and amenities.

One piece of research suggests that better indoor air quality can increase employee productivity by as much as 11 per cent, while another released last year by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine claims that office occupants with windows sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night than those without windows.

Most useful is the report’s Appendix II, a detailed toolkit for ‘designing your own perception survey’, written by Richard Francis of the Monomoy Company. Going further than a typical BUS survey, the questions address perceptual and physical metrics, which can be used to measure health and wellbeing and linked with productivity by correlating them with data such as absenteeism, retention rates, medical complaints and revenue.  The gist of the WGBC report is that healthier, happier employees will be more motivated and make a greater professional contribution, resulting in greater profitability.

Yet, as the report points out, this rising tide of interest in employee wellbeing has yet to impact the property market in any city across the world.  This report is an important step forward in making this message heard.

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