How Healthier Buildings Mange Risk and Add Value
Strategies that build resilience, improve access, reduce risk and capture emerging opportunities.
Healthier buildings matter.
Healthier buildings are a risk management strategy; unhealthy buildings are a liability, and most buildings are pretty unhealthy. In previous posts, I’ve explained this from a big picture standpoint — in this article, I drill down on the specifics, and provide tools and strategies practitioners can use to advocate for healthier buildings.¹
What risks are we even talking about?
“Risk” can mean a lot of different things, but for purposes of this article, I will focus on three:
- Risks to human health from a rapidly changing climate.
- Risks to a business’s bottom line, when employees perform below their potential (or leave).
- The increasing risk of liability for owning, operating and perpetuating “unhealthy” spaces.
It is important to note that underlying these risks is the greatest risk of our time— a rapidly changing climate.
Because buildings present such a significant contribution to climate emissions (around 40%), strategies that reduce the building sector’s climate impacts are climate risk management strategies. Additionally, because a changing climate presents a variety of risks to human health, healthier building strategies are an important part of any climate-risk conversation.
I’m often asked for the “business case” for healthier buildings. This is a frustrating question, because healthy spaces should be a basic human right. But if answering this question leads to the creation of more, healthier spaces, and for more communities, I’m happy to weigh in.
Smart employers will leverage these strategies to take advantage of an increasingly competitive market for talent, and to avoid the high costs associated with employee turnover and presenteeism. Unhealthy, distracted employees simply cannot perform at their very best.
Healthier building strategies also foster more resilient employees, who create more resilient companies, better able to handle the unknown impacts of an uncertain future. And these same principles apply to schools, and now residential spaces, which have largely become a hybrid of home, work and school.
Below I outline six risks, and explain how healthier building strategies help manage these risks.
Risk: ambiguous and evolving terms.
When “green” buildings first began to gain broad market adoption, one of the most noted risks was a lack of clarity as to what, exactly, “green building” meant. Green building certification programs, like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) helped manage this risk because they created a sort of definition, and a common language around “green buildings.”
As the industry has continued to evolve, we now have third-party certification programs that are focused on healthier building strategies, such as the WELL Building Standard. Similar to the early days of green building, this type of third-party verified program helps manage some of the risks inherent in otherwise ambiguous terms like “healthy.”
It is critical that practitioners apply lessons learned from the green building movement to “healthy buildings.” This is because health is such a personal concept, and it means so many different things to so many different people, it is arguably even more ambiguous than “green.”
If we define a “healthy” building by appropriately referencing an external standard, like the WELL Building Standard or Fitwel, the risks associated with unmet or misaligned expectations are significantly reduced.
Opportunity: Because a term like “healthy” can mean so many different things, it is important to manage expectations and create as much clarity as possible. Parties can manage this risk by defining key terms — consider referencing an external standard, like a third party certification program, preferably one that is also third-party verified.
Risk: the impacts of poor air quality.
There is an ever-increasing amount of research that clearly demonstrates the negative impacts of “traditional” buildings on human performance. From a risk and liability standpoint, it is important to note that this research also shows that even relatively minor (and inexpensive) improvements to the quality of indoor spaces can significantly improve the health and performance of the humans who inhabit those spaces.
For example, in a joint study conducted by Harvard and Syracuse University, known as the COGfx (cognitive effects) study, researches analyzed the impacts of two variables on the cognitive function of office workers.
You can learn more and read the full study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, here. As a summary, when compared to a “traditional” office spaces, there were two key findings relevant to risk management:
- When researchers reduced the levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), one of the most common indoor pollutants, cognitive scores increased by 61%.
- When the VOC levels were reduced, and ventilation rates increased (i.e. more fresh air was brought in), these scores increased by 101%.
From a risk management standpoint, what’s even more important is that the largest increases in cognitive scores were in the following areas: crisis response, information usage and strategy.
What does this mean from a practical standpoint?
“Traditional” office buildings impede human performance and create an environment that perpetuates real business losses, as outlined by Allen and Macomber, in their book Healthy Buildings, how indoor spaces drive performance and productivity. The connection drawn by the research is clear — better air quality improves employees’ ability to respond to crises, utilize information and strategize; aspects that virtually every business owner would value. Conversely, employees working in environments with poor air quality are not performing at their best with respect to these critical aspects, and perhaps even committing increased errors. And while this research was conducted in an office setting, the same results would likely hold true for schools and work from home spaces.
In addition to improved cognitive output, the researchers found that increased ventilation rates were associated with 1.6 fewer sick days per year and that productivity increased 2–10% with improved air quality. Using an analytical tool that translates these numbers to a typical profit and loss statement, they argued that even when conservative estimates for improved productivity were used (3% of the 2–10% range), the bottom line net income for a service-based consulting firm increased by 10%. These results are outlined in their Healthy Buildings book,² and you can run the numbers yourself by utilizing this tool.
This research directly connects unhealthy buildings to business impacts, but there are also other, more indirect risks. While a pathway to liability is not (yet) entirely clear, as this body of research continues to increase, and the general public becomes more educated on the impacts of unhealthy buildings, owners, property managers, consumers and even insurance companies ignore it at their peril.
One way I explain it is that if I was a business owner, property manager or apartment landlord, I would not wait for my employees or tenants to ask, “why is our space not healthy?”
Opportunity: There are real business risks associated with failing to implement basic healthier building strategies, particularly for knowledge workers. There is also potential liability for failing to implement basic strategies with demonstrated, positive impacts.
Risk: sterile environments that are void of natural elements.
As humans, we have an innate affinity for the natural world — we crave nature and are drawn to natural elements (including symbols and images). This is why many people vacation and recreate in the mountains or near the ocean, why properties with views are so valuable, and why many people say a wood accent wall is “warm and inviting.”
As a result, it makes sense that when designers incorporate natural elements into the spaces where we spend so much of our time, occupants report numerous benefits. Researchers have also documented a variety of positive outcomes, “including greater educational progress in schools, faster processing speed by call centre workers and, in office settings, improved sleep, greater working memory capacity, and fewer reports of fatigue and other health complaints.” This body of research continues to grow, and companies like Stantec, which have implemented recommendations based on this research, report significant benefits.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that views of nature — through windows — are one of the most sought-after office perks. In a report published by commercial real estate giant CBRE, survey results revealed that the top two most valued perks or amenities at the office were views of the outdoors and access to natural light. These results clearly demonstrate that people want access to nature; far more than they want other common amenities like snacks and game rooms — they really just want to be treated like humans, and humans crave nature.
Research demonstrating the benefits of biophilic design strategies continues to increase. Expanding on the above example with respect to improved air quality, when research clearly demonstrates a better way, the potential liability for failing to put that research into practice, increases. This is really the root of what we know as the standard of care. And I think about it like a domino effect:
Opportunity: A steadily increasing body of research demonstrates that employees perform better, have reduced stress levels and report increased happiness and improved productivity in spaces that incorporate natural elements and / or views of nature. Failing to incorporate biophilic design means less productive employees who miss work more frequently, and the associated costs, as well as the increasing potential for liability.
Risk: design elements that fail to support all users.
The research demonstrates that diverse teams perform better.³ If a company wants to get the very best out of its people, it will hire a diverse group of folks, and create a safe and inclusive space where they can all excel.
All humans deserve access to safe and healthy spaces, and the opportunity to do their very best work.
Yet there are many ways that physical spaces can cause stress, anxiety and feelings of exclusion. There are many aspects of this conversation; in this article, I will focus on two: neurodiversity and safety.
Historically, office spaces have been relatively homogenous in design — you can probably picture an “office space” in your mind — and only a certain group of folks can perform well in these spaces. But beyond that group is an innovative and diverse spectrum of human experience that also deserves supportive spaces. In fact, “Neurodiverse individuals represent at least 20% of the adult population and…neurodiversity cuts across race, gender, and orientation as well.”⁴
There is so much value associated with the innovation that results from a diverse workforce that is provided the tools — including physical spaces — they need to succeed. We need to create and foster spaces where everyone can do their best work; businesses that fail to set all employees up for success miss out on these important contributions.⁵
The importance of creating safe spaces
Employees also cannot do their best work when they feel unsafe. It is important to acknowledge the fact that “safe,” like “healthy,” is a very personal term and that there are numerous ways that spaces can make occupants feel unsafe.
Individuals, particularly those who have experienced safety issues in buildings, often look for clues to assess whether they are welcome in a space. These can be as obvious as a sticker on a door (as in the image below) or more subtle, environmental cues that users are — or are not — welcome.
And unsafe spaces have real and direct impacts on occupant health and wellness. As just one example, the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest ever survey to record the experiences of transgender people in the United States, found that:
- “More than half (59%) of respondents avoided using a public restroom in the past year because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience.”
- “Nearly one-third (32%) of respondents limited the amount that they ate and drank to avoid using the restroom in the past year.”
- “Eight percent (8%) reported having a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or another kidney-related problem in the past year as a result of avoiding restrooms.”⁶
This data clearly shows negative health impacts that directly result from spaces that are unsafe for certain groups.
We can — and should — do much better for these users. And this is just one example; there are many others.⁷
Resource are widely available.
There are a range of resources available, and there is no excuse for failing to give everyone — not just groups that thrive in “traditional” office spaces — the opportunity to show up as their whole selves, and do their best work.
Opportunity: all building users have the basic human right to safe spaces that allow them to do their best work. Homogenous spaces that only support certain users are not only discriminatory, they also deprive the community of the valuable ideas and contributions of a large percentage of our population.
Environments that are distracting and uncomfortable.
Two key aspects of healthier buildings that are often overlooked are thermal and acoustic comfort. These two aspects are critical to occupant wellness and a company’s bottom line, because, if not properly addressed, they result in distracted employees.
I worked in a commercial office space in downtown Seattle for most of my career. As a person who loves the outdoors, few things made me more grumpy than when I would walk to work on a beautiful, warm and sunny summer day (a real treat in Seattle), into an office that was so cold, dry and sterile that I had to put a down jacket on — and all my coworkers did the same. I knew these conditions impacted my mood, but it wasn’t until I began working from home that I realized the magnitude of the impact. And I can say with confidence that my mood and distraction impacted my work, my interactions with my clients and my overall health and wellness.
That’s just my personal experience, but there is also a growing body of research that demonstrates there is a very narrow range of temperature that supports optimal human performance. As noted by the authors of Healthy Buildings, above, “Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found a 10 percent relative reduction in performance when the temperature fell out of this narrow optimal range.”⁸ There are humidity and other reasons why the air in commercial spaces sometimes needs to be kept at a certain temperature, but completely ignoring or brushing off valid comfort concerns has real performance impacts to any business.
Moreover, these aspects disproportionately impact the performance of certain building users — particularly women. This is because our current thermal comfort “standards,” which govern facility operations in most commercial spaces, are based on the clothing choices and metabolic rates of men in the 1960s. Yet the metabolic rate of women can be up to 32% lower.
Failing to adjust environmental conditions to support all building users, or provide tools such as personal fans and heaters, has significant and disproportionate impacts.
Research demonstrates that office workers lose up to 28% of productive time to interruptions and distractions, and 53% of workers report acoustic comfort issues.⁷ Read that again: more than half of office workers report acoustic comfort issues. This is unacceptable, particularly when implementation of basic strategies can significantly improve these issues and, as a result, productive time.
Strategies that improve acoustics are also a great example of how healthy building strategies can benefit all users (there are many other examples). Approximately 15% of adults report some difficulty hearing. With building-wide improvements, folks who may not experience challenges at a level that is defined as a “hearing difficulty”— or may not want to disclose these challenges — benefit from improved acoustics.
Opportunity: Employees who are distracted and uncomfortable cannot do their best work, and designs that rely on outdated standards have disproportionate impacts on certain users. Complaints about thermal comfort should be appropriately addressed, and spaces should be designed such that employees do not have to disclose health information in order to get the support they need.
Inaccessible environments are simply unacceptable.
A building is not “healthy” if only certain groups of users have access to it — and others are excluded. Yet this happens all the time and in a variety of ways. This topic could (and should) be the subject of a much larger conversation, and is beyond the scope of this article, but I at least want to raise a few points.
There are many ways that buildings can be “inaccessible,” and it’s important to move beyond baseline code compliance and towards the creation of truly accessible spaces, taking a broad interpretation of accessible that includes financial, mobility, temporal, geographic and other aspects. Spaces that are inaccessible to certain groups, or perpetuate stereotypes like “healthy for the wealthy” are clearly not in alignment with larger equity, diversity and inclusion work.
Everyone deserves safe, healthy spaces to live, learn and work.
Employers and employees benefit when employees can show up as their whole selves to safe workspaces that allow them to do their very best work —and the same is true for schools. Conversely, employees and students suffer when spaces are exclusive, homogenous and unsupportive.
Opportunity: Spaces that exclude certain users are simply unacceptable and expose businesses to potential liability. There is also an opportunity to take a leadership role in promoting greater access to healthy spaces.
 Most of the risks, benefits and strategies in this post are in the context of commercial office spaces, but, generally speaking, they also translate to educational and residential spaces. For example, the results of the COGfx study can (and should) be applied to residential and educational settings. And, if you’re looking for how these big picture strategies tie into specific strategies as outlined in third-party certification programs, message me, as I’m developing a chart.
 Allen and Macomber, Healthy Buildings: how indoor spaces drive performance and productivity, Harvard University Press (2020), p. 63–70 (spreadsheet).
 And in the overall context of a rapidly changing climate, and the associated risks, we need all the new ideas and perspectives that are out there, and a diverse set of minds working together to solve the climate crisis.
 CSRWire, Why There Has Never Been a Better Time for Neurodiversity, https://www.csrwire.com/press_releases/708931-why-there-has-never-been-better-time-neurodiversity (12/3/20)
 And there really is no excuse for failing to implement design strategies that support a neurodiverse workforce. Entities like HOK have created and shared resources, including “Designing a Neurodiverse Workplace.”
 2015 US Transgender Survey, Executive Summary, https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Executive-Summary-Dec17.pdf (pages 14–15).
 Read more about inclusive restroom design in our article, “We Need to Talk About Restrooms,” https://sustainablestrategiespllc.medium.com/we-need-to-talk-about-restrooms-e15c612a810b
Allen and Macomber, Healthy Buildings: how indoor spaces drive performance and productivity, Harvard University Press (2020), p. 96 (thermal health).
 NAIOP, Health is Not New — Use This Moment to Drive Productivity and Value, June 29, 2020; citing The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity, Jonathan Spira.