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June, 2021

Designing For a Healthier, Happier World

Opinion

Two things have prompted me to think more about mental health recently. One is the global coronavirus pandemic and the other is that May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.

It’s interesting to note that in New Zealand we devote a week in September/October to raise awareness of mental health, whereas in the US the issue is of such concern that the campaign runs over an entire month.

The pandemic, and the effects of lockdowns and other restrictions, have also put mental wellbeing top of mind, in particular how our staff have fared. This has not just been a focus at Spaceworks. Many business owners have been concerned for their people, too.

It has been challenging to figure out how to support staff to be productive and efficient while also ensuring they are being listened to and feel valued.

While I’m not a mental health expert, I am a design expert and I believe design affects health and wellbeing. Anything designers and business leaders can do to bring about positive change in this regard is a win-win.

As Spaceworks finishes design and fitout solutions for clients across New Zealand, I have been asking them ‘how are your people?’.

Recently, a business owner I spoke to said their younger staff had found working from home harder and more isolating. This was partly because they needed guidance and ongoing training.

Daily catch-ups are often not enough for someone in the early stages of a career or job placement.

Many young people live in flats, which tend not to be set up well for working from home. For instance, they may lack quiet work areas or have poor lighting, slow (or no) Wi-Fi, or unsuitable desk arrangements. One IT support worker we know of was sitting on his bed with a laptop to take calls!

While the younger generation are considered ‘more connected’ online, especially on social media, days spent working at home without company or regular guidance during lockdown were not beneficial for them or their employers. Human connection was definitely missed, whereas mid-career colleagues were noticeably more resilient in this regard.

This echoes what I’ve found in my own business. Older staff who are more established in their role, life and living situation are far more adaptable and productive when balancing a working from home/office combination.

When considering design, there are many different ways to approach health and wellbeing.

Along with many businesses in the design, fitout and construction industries, we focus on Green Building practices, and have done so for some time.

What does that mean?

It means we understand the impact our industry has on the planet’s health and why we need to make an effort to improve it.

But it’s not just the welfare of the planet we consider – we also care about the wellbeing of our people and how that is affected by the built environment.

As the International Well Building Institute says: ‘there’s no choice to be made between planetary health and human health – at scale, the two are inextricable’.

I passionately believe this is where we need to go as an industry and I urge businesses to get ahead of the curve in understanding the impact our physical and social environments have on our health.

The International Well Building Standard sets out 7 key principles for designing a ‘Well’ building.

They are: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Fitness, Comfort and Mind.

In this article I will discuss the principles relevant to commercial sector design.

Air

Good air quality and natural light are the top two elements people look for in a built environment, according to our New Zealand research.

In most jobs, we spend up to 90% of our lives inside, so the air quality is critical.

Poor air quality makes you feel tired and groggy, which can make you ineffective, slow to act and less able to think on your feet.

Light

Have you noticed that when you stand in the sun it often makes you feel better? Sunlight tends to cheer you up, whereas working in a dark space for lengthy periods can dampen your mood.

Light is known to affect cognitive, emotional and behavioural responses.

Natural light has been proven to contribute to improved mood, increased energy and higher morale (Edwards & Torcellini, 2002).

On the other hand, artificial light sources, such as white fluorescent and incandescent lighting, have been shown to deplete physical and emotional energy (Edwards & Torcellini, 2002).

When designing spaces and deciding where people will work inside them, we take the above into account while acknowledging it’s not always possible to provide the perfectly lit environment or to get away from artificial light sources entirely.

Nourishment, Comfort and Mind

These three principles cover many aspects of space design.

By planning a well-designed space, we can provide a functional and relaxing environment so the people using it can navigate the space well and do their jobs effectively.

Comfort is provided with ergonomic furniture that also contributes to keeping people feeling physically well.

Nourishment and Mind is the result of understanding that the office is where we come to learn, connect and be part of a community.

We fill our cups with the connections created in the office, which is the hub of the business.

Nourishment, Comfort and Mind are nurtured by:

  • open team communication
  • good technology to connect people from wherever they are working
  • good systems and processes to support people so they can work well and to identify any obstacles to working from home.

When we design and build a physical space using Nourishment, Comfort and Mind principles, we can include:

  • soundproof quiet spaces
  • well-functioning collaboration areas
  • socialisation spaces that bring the business together
  • well-integrated technology solutions
  • furniture fit for purpose and fit for people.

By following the principles above, buildings can be designed and used in ways that support the wellbeing of the people inside them, whether they be offices, schools, clinics, homes, retail premises or public buildings.

The need for human-centric design has been reinforced by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been suggested that the next wave of this global disaster will be its impact on mental health. This means it is even more important for businesses to go on making positive, incremental changes that enhance their employees’ health, happiness and work satisfaction.

As a business community we continue to define wellness and explore how to integrate our physical, emotional and social needs. The impact that thoughtful design and development of our built environment has on us is evident.

I’m excited to see how this aspect of the industry develops and what conversations we’ll be having about it 10 years from now.

Lizzi Whaley
CEO