People spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors, and buildings have a unique ability to positively or negatively influence human health. Maintaining a healthy environment and increasing human performance is central to increasing quality of life. And more importantly, it’s central to business performance.
The scale of commercial real estate is massive. As human performance and cognitive function take on greater importance in workplace design, it’s critically important to use quality metrics to inform decisions. We’ve graduated from conversations about individual work stations to higher impact discussions about the entire building envelope and its capacity to contribute to or detract from a brand’s bottom line.
There’s a compelling and growing body of research that proves that well-designed work spaces with plenty of fresh air, sunlight, and healthy materials improve worker cognitive function and overall productivity impressively. At Paladino, we’ve seen the theory play out with our clients.
A commercial building design requires a significant application of time and treasure – so theories about human wellness need to be validated by data. We have harnessed the data from the abundance of reputable research studies about human performance, and translated the best of it into a powerful, light weight tool that we use to help clients identify ways to make their buildings more economically productive through the lens of human wellness.
A few clues from the research
Let’s start with the air we breathe.
According to a fascinating study at Harvard University, cognitive function scores were better in green building conditions compared to the non-green building conditions across nine functional domains including: crisis response, strategy, and focused activity level. On average, cognitive scores were:
- 61 percent higher in a ‘typical’ green building condition, and
- 101 percent higher in an ‘enhanced’ green building condition
Those are big numbers. The study defined an enhanced green building as one with the lowest level of VOC (approximately 50 μg/m3) and the highest levels of outdoor air per person (40 cfm).
And this study focused solely on improved air quality. When we consider the cognitive improvements that result from additional improvements such as sunlight, social interaction, biophilic design, and increased movement, the business case becomes even stronger.
Add a little nature
How do you feel when you walk through a parking lot? And how do you feel when you walk through a park? If you are like most people, you feel better in the park – what you may not realize is that your memory is better if you walk through the park as well!
It’s true. In a similar study, Stanford University, found that even brief experiences with nature can positively impact human performance. Researchers had half of their study participants walk for 50 minutes in a park or natural area, and the other half walk in an urban environment. After a series of psychological assessments before and after their walks, the participants in the nature walk demonstrated decreased anxiety and improved memory over those in the urban walk.
These are just two of the many highly regarded and relevant studies that we’ve assessed. And the research continues to grow. Each study approaches the research from a different perspective, which can result in competing data, or make it tough to extract the findings and apply them to our clients’ projects. Which is why we read and evaluate them as they come out, building upon our body of knowledge and incorporating the data into our tools.
How we link the data to our recommendations: Upshot
We’ve created a solution called Upshot that shows how a design will perform in relation to human performance (among other factors) and where there’s room for improvement.
With this solution, it’s possible to talk about human performance in hard metrics that businesses understand – bottom-line efficiency and topline growth. Rather than making soft promises that employees will be happier in a sunlit space, we can use building science and reputable third-party studies to quantify the impact of these design features down to dollars and cents.
We’ve helped several of our clients bolster business value through an improved human performance strategy. With one client, we found that including ample fresh air, access to daylighting, and toxin avoidance in the design resulted in improvements to the bottom line – through better health and improved cognitive function – of several hundred million dollars over 20 years.
We did this by looking at the client’s average salary and revenue produced per employee across the organization, total headcount, and a discounted productivity gain per design feature investigated. The percent gain is derived from the best and most recent research available, using the most conservative gain. These inputs, along with others, were put into our tool to determine the (potential) human capital return, in dollars, as result of design investment.
This type of approach is also helpful when projects are going through value engineering. If we know that investing in certain design features contributes to human capital returns through productivity and engagement, then we can examine the pro forma to shift dollars, rather than add dollars. In simplest terms, Upshot can help answer the question: why am I paying so much for operable windows?
It’s one thing to examine first-cost of a building feature’s investment and when it will payback, but tying it to other returns that are equally as important to businesses (people!) changes the game, and helps support more robust decision making.
And while dollars are the best way to put everything in a shared, understood metric, the real bottom line is people. Every business owner we have worked with wants healthy employees who love the place they work. Connections with nature through building design contribute to happiness, productivity and business returns – and that’s a win.