How buildings can improve occupant health
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, people spent an average of 90 per cent of their time indoors. Now that workers are beginning to return to offices and retail environments are beginning to bustle, it’s time to think about design that not only safeguards, but improves, occupant health.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) directly affects the comfort and health of a building’s occupants, and if it is compromised, they face an increased risk of airborne diseases. An understanding of factors that affect IEQ and how buildings can be operated to improve occupant’s health is especially crucial with extreme events like global pandemics and can go towards reducing health risks.

Building envelope impacts on occupant health

A well-functioning building envelope harmonically combines all the exterior elements of a structure to keep heat and cool inside while preventing moisture from permeating the from the outside, but a poor building envelope has negative effects and conditions that are deeply felt by its tenants or occupants. Factors like energy efficiency, moisture, air quality, and more, can all play a positive or negative role in the health and well-being of a building’s occupants, and are all affected by the building envelope.

RJC Engineers’ Managing Principal Nick Trovato says “Increasingly, we’re being sought at the design stage by clients who realize the importance of energy efficiency and who regard it as, among other things, an opportunity to improve buildings performance, reduce environmental impact, and improve occupancy comfort.”

With careful consideration and continued maintenance to a building envelope, property managers make the first step towards a well-functioning building that promotes positive health for its occupants.

Natural and healthy elements integrated into building design

The concept of biophilic design suggests that nature has a direct and deep impact on our physical, mental, and social health, and seeks to reconnect us with nature to meet this inherent need. Incorporation of natural elements helps reduce stress, improves productivity by boosting cognitive function, and enhances well-being and occupant health.

With this comes increased attention to natural light as an important element in the design of a building due to its positive effect on overall human health for decreasing fatigue and improving alertness. Another way buildings can implement biophilic elements is through a green roof, which provides another measure of energy efficiency and sustainability to a building, while providing the natural design elements that have a positive impact on its occupants.

Finally, an active design can help a building environment encourage physical activity and combat a sedentary lifestyle. Combining attractive lobbies, inviting outdoor spaces and staircases, and natural elements are all factors that go towards improving occupants’ health and helps reduce rates of illnesses and ailments like sick building syndrome or other building related illness symptoms.

Impacts of an unhealthy building

Building owners will tend to focus on the energy aspect rather than occupant health because quantifying the return on investment for energy measures is much simpler and tangible. However, degradation of a building’s healthy features and positive conditions leads to quantifiable losses through a large range of factors like increased rate of sick leave, reduced productivity, and increased chance of airborne diseases. Multiple studies have determined poor design and management of a building can have an enormous impact on a company’s losses, and must therefore be taken into consideration in order to create and promote healthy buildings.

As the climate, functionality, and technologies drive changes in buildings, there is an emerging need to ensure that buildings can be flexibly adapted to these circumstances without compromising occupant health and well-being. It follows that a healthy building should continue to maintain optimal occupant physical, mental, and social well-being conditions during extreme events and over extended periods of time, and should be a top consideration for a successful building owner.