Designing Beneficial Spaces for Living, Working, and Well-Being

Sponsored by Think Wood
1 AIA LU/HSW; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 GBCI CE Hour; 1 AIBD P-CE; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.; This course can be self-reported to the NSAA; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Appreciate the role of architecture and material choice in designing buildings that promote occupant well-being.
  2. Identify four of the most common design approaches that recognize the positive connection between humans and nature.
  3. Explain the role of wellness-focused building standards, and recognize the overlap between occupant wellness considerations and existing green building standards.
  4. Discuss the ways in which buildings can be designed to help reduce stress, promote healing, support learning, improve employee productivity and satisfaction, and enhance retail customer experience.

This course is part of the Wood Structures Academy

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Focus and Learning

The restorative benefits of nature on mentally fatigued adults and children is being established through an increasing number of studies, including field experiments and longitudinal analysis.14 In one experiment, 94 high schools students randomly assigned to classrooms with views of greenery performed better on concentration tests than those assigned to purely “built” views or windowless classrooms.15 In multiple studies, contact with nature has been linked to greater self-discipline in children.16

A Terrapin Bright Green pilot study compared math learning outcomes in middle school math classes after implementing biophilic design elements, including views of nature, natural light, and nature-inspired patterns. In comparing performance between 125 (five classes) 6th grade students during the 2018–2019 school year with learning outcomes of 122 (five classes) 6th grade students in the same classroom during the 2017–2018 school year, prior to the installation of the biophilic enhancements, they found the average test score gain was 3.3 times higher in the biophilic classroom. There was also a 7.2 percent increase in students testing at grade level.17

Research on the effects of wood as an interior element of classroom design is a relatively new area of study. In Japan, government officials have found that the use of wood in schools has a positive impact on students. The Japanese Wood Academic Society conducted a three-year study of 700 schools and reported reduced incidence of influenza outbreaks in schools featuring wood interiors versus “non-wood” schools.18

A one-year Austrian study observed 36 high school students, aged 13–15, who attended either fully wooden furnished classrooms or standard classrooms with plastic equipment and plasterboard walls. By the end of the year, students who were taught in wood-based environments daily had significantly lower stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rates, as well as increased productivity compared to the opposite group of teenagers who did not have contact with wooden items.19

Mental and Physical Health in Aging Populations

Evidence also points to the fact that design of a retirement or long-term care facility can have a measurable impact on the well-being of the elderly residents within.

In 2012, a team of Japanese researchers studied the impacts of using wood products to build senior living facilities.21 For five weeks, they followed 44 adults, ages 71 to 96 years, in an assisted-living facility in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, evaluating their daily activities through regular observation. Evaluators observed behavior when the residents were exposed to plastic chairs, tables, and tableware items as well as to similar items made from wood. Behaviorally, they measured things like social interaction and engagement, enjoyment of activities, and others. The study found that when elderly residents were surrounded by natural wood products, they became more talkative and willing to engage with others.

Other studies, including interview data over a year’s time from 27 initial and 19 follow-up participants aged 65–86 years old in Vancouver, Canada, concluded that those who experienced regular contact with nature had improved physical, mental, and social health.22 Trees and other natural features were consistently listed as essential to their overall well-being. When exposed to natural elements, study participants said they were more motivated to exercise, interact with family and friends, and have more positive everyday interactions.

Community Well-being

The social benefits of nature have been increasingly researched over the past 20 years. A 2015 United Kingdom survey of 2,079 adult respondents found that contact with nature can improve the social connections and well-being of individuals. The findings indicated that increases in well-being due to contact with nature may be in part because individuals who are in contact with local nature perceive more cohesive communities.23

A 2001 study measured the difference in crime rates over a two-year period in a large public housing development located in urban Chicago. A section of buildings that was surrounded by greenery was compared with another that was devoid of surrounding nature. The study reported 52 percent fewer felonies in the greener buildings, 7–8 percent of which could be linked to increased access to nature.24

The positive community impact of nature and green spaces continues to be an area of interest for researchers, urban planners, and designers.

Productivity and Employee Satisfaction

Investment in wellness-oriented design can have a positive economic return, with a payback that has, in numerous cases, been shown to justify the cost. Office design is a good example. Wood structural systems can accommodate the space and performance needs of office occupancies, while providing additional advantages such as cost savings, versatility, ease and speed of construction, and a lighter carbon footprint.

While designers are increasingly using exposed wood in office construction for aesthetics, there is more involved. Their goal is to create warm, welcoming, and productive workplace environments. In fact, companies like Google have specific metrics and goals regarding the incorporation of biophilic elements into the design of their offices and campuses, demonstrating that it fully understands the importance of creating a place in which top talent wants to come to work.

According to a report from the World Green Building Council, “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices,” staff costs such as salaries and benefits total about 90 percent of an employer’s business operating costs.26 This means that even small efforts to improve employee health and productivity via a better working environment will have a big impact.

Source: “Workplaces: Wellness + Wood = Productivity”

Other studies have identified improvements in productivity, cognitive performance, and job satisfaction as well as fewer sick days when their workplaces were deliberately designed to incorporate some exposure to nature. A study of 1,000 workers funded by Forest & Wood Products Australia, “Workplaces: Wellness + Wood = Productivity,” found several measurable benefits.27 For example, when an office is designed to incorporate views of nature and natural elements:

  • Attendance improves. “On average, workers who are very satisfied with their physical workplace take four less sick days per year compared to those who are very dissatisfied.
  • Workplace satisfaction improves when employees are surrounded by natural-looking wooden surfaces. “People in workplaces with less than 20 percent natural-looking wooden surfaces are far less satisfied with both their working life and physical workplace compared to those with a high proportion of wood.”
  • Overall productivity increased by 8 percent, and general rates of well-being increased by 13 percent.

Competition for top talent is strong, so many companies strive to create a welcoming workplace that speaks to the company’s unique culture. For example, designers may choose wood for an office structure to provide a warm aesthetic that will help balance the stress of high-tech work that occurs within. The presence of wood within an office environment was found to improve first impressions of potential employees, according to a study in New Zealand.28 When shown photos of office interiors, some with wood and others without, and asked to identify the firm for which they would most like to work, subjects chose those with wood interior design elements. People described the companies whose interiors featured wood with words like innovation, energy, and comfort; the others were described as impersonal and uncomfortable.

Bill Browning from Terrapin Bright Green sums it up in a 2015 article published in People + Strategy, saying that healthier workplaces lead to happier employees. “Biophilic design, design that brings nature into the built environment, has often been regarded as a luxury for employers that want the best possible workplace for their employees or want to showcase their efforts to be more environmentally responsible. Green building efforts traditionally focus on costs of energy, water, and healthy materials—all important topics. Yet, human costs are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace. Incorporating nature into the built environment is not a luxury but a sound economic investment in health and productivity. Biophilic design has been shown to improve employee well-being, increase productivity, and boost the bottom line.”29

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in March 2021

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