Beyond function and aesthetics: the workplace as an enabler of health
  • Opinion
  • 07 April 2021

Beyond function and aesthetics: the workplace as an enabler of health

If you have ever enjoyed a feeling of invigoration after gazing at beautiful scenery, you are not alone.

In an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Melbourne, subjects were given a menial task that involved hitting specific keystrokes in response to stimuli on a computer screen.

After five minutes, they were given a 40-second break. Half the subjects viewed an on-screen concrete roof, while others saw a roof adorned with a green, flowering meadow. When they resumed their tasks, the former group showed a drop in concentration, but conversely the latter performed better. Apparently, the short display of flora, even if it was just a scenic screen saver, substantially improved focus.

That simple experiment underscored an important point: the workplace can influence individual wellbeing and productivity – for better or for worse.

EDMUND TIE’s chief executive officer, Ms Ong Choon Fah says: “People now spend up to 90% of their time within enclosed areas, so it is therefore important to create spaces that enhance rather than hinder health and wellbeing.”

Air quality & lighting

The word “pollution” conjures up images of a congested urban landscape teeming with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. It may therefore come as a surprise to find what research has uncovered – that indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside, with chemicals from cleaning products, aerosols and perfume as sources of contamination among others.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) handbook therefore ranks indoor air quality as “one of the most pivotal factors in maintaining building occupants’ safety, productivity, and well-being”.

With countries worldwide still grappling with Covid-19, keeping spaces such as offices well-ventilated plays an important part in stemming disease outbreak and propagation. Ways of improving air quality range from elimination or reduction of sources of contamination and installing operable windows for fresh air flow to the judicious selection of non-toxic building materials and fittings such as furniture and carpeting.

Daylighting – or the illumination of indoor space by natural light – has been proven to have a substantial impact on mood, circadian health and productivity. Indoor daylight access should therefore be a key consideration at all stages of building planning, from architectural and façade design to interior design and layout.

The SDE4 building in the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment features a hybrid cooling system that makes minimal use of air-conditioning. It also leverages on clever design, such as a “floating box” architecture, to maximise ventilation and natural light which can help mitigate the spread of viruses and promote mental health and resilience amid social distancing. SDE4 became the first building in Singapore – and the first university building in the world – to achieve the WELL Certified Gold award.

First launched in 2014, the WELL Building Standard is the world’s first building performance certification system focusing exclusively on human health and wellness to improve sustainability. In addition to air quality and lighting, the comprehensive framework also covers other parameters including water quality, thermal comfort and others.

Active design

Humans are by nature gregarious, and we are certainly not meant to be holed up in a cubicle or stuck at a workstation all day long. According to design guidelines formulated by the Center for Active Design in New York, physical inactivity and obesity are in fact recognised as major risk factors for chronic disease.

A healthy and happy office offers spaces that encourage occupants to move around and socialise. Well-placed collaboration and communal areas – for example, break rooms, water coolers, courtyard gardens and open café spaces – can encourage social interaction and physical activity.

At EDMUND TIE, individual waste bins have been superseded by a common disposal point, while centralised printers and recycling bins dispersed throughout the office encourage staff to walk more. A well-stocked pantry and well-lit open area at the center of the office facilitate interaction and collaboration among colleagues.

Bringing nature indoors

As research subjects mentioned at the beginning of this article demonstrated, nature offers a rejuvenating effect that improves concentration and performance.

Pioneered by the late Yale professor Stephen R. Kellert, biophilic design is a discipline that seeks to promote improved health and wellbeing by creating connections between people and nature in the built environment.

Placing planters at workstations, opening views to natural landscapes, incorporating water features within office or building premises and other biophilic design techniques can reduce stress, enhance wellbeing and creativity, and expedite recovery.

Leveraging on this design philosophy to provide patients with a healing environment amid lush greenery and the abundant biodiversity of the adjacent Yishun Pond, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital made a radical departure from the traditionally sterile hospital environment, and won the inaugural Stephen R. Kellert Biophilic Design Award. More recently, in 2019, the National Parks Board (NParks) clinched the coveted accolade through the Learning Forest at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Lakeside Garden at Jurong Lake Gardens. These world-class gardens were recognised for furnishing “ecological restoration, immersive experiences in nature, and community stewardship” amid an urban landscape.

“The green building movement, which has enjoyed growing acceptance over the past few decades, has today progressed beyond energy conservation and carbon emission,” says Ms Ong.

“Wellness is now the new sustainability, and as much research has shown, healthy and happy workers will eventually translate into higher productivity and a win-win outcome for all stakeholders. The pandemic has shown the importance of health and wellness. We envisage that healthy buildings will soon become the norm,” she added.

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