Why Occupancy is the Foundation of Healthy Buildings
Mark Bouldin, a healthy buildings specialist at Johnson Controls, explains why Covid-19 is changing attitudes to healthy buildings forever.
In the last year, we’ve come to realise more than ever that we spend most of our lives indoors – and that the buildings where we spend our time have a huge impact on us. The pandemic has shone a light on our health and wellbeing, so ensuring our buildings are healthy places to be has become critical.
The way we work has changed forever – and as businesses decide whether to move forward with remote, flexible, and hybrid working models or return to their pre-pandemic ways, the rule book for FMs and building managers has been thrown out the window.
To make healthy buildings a reality, there is one key area for facilities managers and building owners to focus on: building occupancy. Gone are the days where employees sat at fixed desks, 5 days a week. Now, workstations will need to be resized, and room space and bookings systems overhauled, not to mention changing the way we access, experience, and benefit from our workplaces. But that really is just the start.
It begins with a problem
To provide healthy and collaborative spaces for employees to work, businesses often begin with the solution. This is where we are going wrong. In fact, the core problem needs to be fully addressed first, so we can work out how best to solve it. ‘Good enough’ is no longer enough.
In order to create healthier buildings, we first need to understand the impact of unhealthy buildings. The World Health Organisation has estimated that there are 12.6 million deaths worldwide each year attributable to unhealthy environments, proving that the world around us has a huge impact on our health.
There are nine key factors that can affect health and productivity in buildings: light, noise, security, water, moisture, dust & pests, air quality and thermal health. While organisations are always looking for ways to increase performance and occupant comfort – and now mitigate the risk of infections too – these decisions must go beyond the impact on our productivity and happiness at work. They must also take into account wider issues like carbon emissions and air pollution. Not addressing these problems creates issues down the line that can be extremely detrimental to our health.
Put simply, the cycle needs to be broken: unhealthy buildings leads to an unhealthy planet, which results in unhealthy people.
Looking to a solution
In order to break this cycle and help improve building health, FMs and building managers need to focus on one thing first and foremost: occupancy. Who is using your buildings and how are they using them? Where does occupancy even come in when we need to improve issues like air quality, thermal health, noise, lighting, security, water, moisture, and dust and pests? In order to improve, we need to be constantly monitoring and even predicting occupancy levels. To do so, the optimum levels of occupancy of an area need to be calculated, taking air ventilation and air change rates into account.
For those already in buildings, managers must have the necessary data and technologies to understand the rooms and layouts within their buildings, especially as this changes in light of the pandemic. Then, they can allocate spaces according to the air change rate – deciding who works where based on where it will be healthiest for them. This ensures the indoor air quality is optimal depending on the room’s occupancy, which elevates employees’ experience at work. Buildings have the most significant effect on high-thinking workers, and the right systems can increase the productivity and even the IQ of employees, benefitting businesses and their staff alike.
For developers, meanwhile, building usage must be modelled into plans from the very beginning. Variable air conditioning should be implemented and built into air conditioning design, as this provides variability depending on the occupancy of a room. Rather than designing buildings around minimum occupancy levels, as is the current norm, developers will need to understand and cater for the maximum occupancy of a building. This small change could save lives, improving air quality for everyone. Once this is done, sensors should be installed to vary the air according to occupancy, meaning that the air quality will be at optimum levels no matter the number of people in the room or building.
The bigger picture
It’s all well and good prioritising the technologies that will enable buildings to be healthier for people – but this can’t come at the expense of a healthy planet. Both humidity and temperature have an effect on health and comfort, but we wouldn’t encourage air conditioning to be on full at all times, as this will hinder sustainability and efficiency efforts. There must be a balance.
By focusing on occupancy rather than prioritising sustainability or employee experience, organisations can meet ESG and efficiency targets while also getting the most out of their employees. Here, sensors and other technologies measuring and predicting occupancy levels can do the hard work for us.
To get the most from buildings, however, the data coming from these sensors and the decisions they make need to be measured and understood correctly. Using building performance indicators and matching this against staff data can prove useful, for example to monitor staff sick days in comparison to building health data, to get a better overall picture of the impact of buildings on staff. Then, if anything is wrong, it can be fixed – prioritising employee health without undue costs or sacrificing the health of the planet.
Now businesses are reopening offices, the need to understand and prioritise occupancy is paramount. Organisations should revaluate how will now use their buildings, what’s changed, and what measures are going to be put in place to ensure employee health and safety. After a year spent in our homes and outside, now is the time to take the buildings we work in seriously. If a business values its workforce, the occupancy of its buildings should be a main priority.