On Wednesday 18 May, following their report on health, welfare and productivity in offices published last year, the Dutch Green Building Council held a seminar with lectures on health in buildings. The venue was the auditorium of the Haga Hospital in The Hague, the first BREEAM certified hospital in the Netherlands. There was a notable focus on the positive effects of green in and around the workplace, an aspect which seemed somewhat overlooked in the said report. An impression.

Health naturally part of commercial self-interest

Daan Bruggink, ecological architect and chairperson of the Advisory Group for New Structures and Renovation at the Dutch Green Building Council BREEAM NL kicked off by stating that health should not even be a separate topic during discussions on sustainability; it should be self-evident. Every new building is constructed for people, after all. And people who feel better perform better. Staff expenses constitute some 90% of most organisations’ business operational costs. By comparison: energy costs constitute around 1%. Investing in a ‘pleasant’ building could consequently cut costs considerably, by reducing absenteeism for example. It would generate much larger savings than investing in energy saving measures. Convincing building owners of this is far from easy, however, and in that respect we see a similarity with green. Structuring a good business case is therefore essential. Bruggink illustrated this with an example: a dental practice his firm built in Middenmeer. A pleasant place for personnel and patients alike, with plenty of daylight and green and with special attention to clean air. In addition to which, due to patients feeling less nervous, treatments don’t take quite as long and the dentist is able to see up to three more patients a day. That makes a significant difference to annual turnover. “If you can demonstrate that then organisations’ willingness to invest in their buildings and health will increase automatically”, Bruggink explains.

ORGA architect Dentist practice
Photo: ORGA Architect

WELL-being as guideline?

The BREEAM quality mark for new construction and renovation considers nine performance fields. Aspects which have a direct impact on health, such as climate, light, ventilation and volatile organic substances, are key in this respect. While BREEAM particularly focuses on (measuring) construction aspects of sustainability, it is also important to consider psychological aspects, from the end user’s point of view Martin Mooij, Head of Certification and Management of the Dutch Green Building Council therefore called for the health factor of buildings to be viewed in a broader context. Location, architecture and accessibility are also significant to improving employees’ sense of well-being. A good next step could be to supplement the assessment of the more technical and construction related sustainability aspects of buildings with WELL building standards. WELL focuses specifically on designing buildings with the users’ health in mind. In particular, the standards draw on research in the medical sector. One theoretical assumption, for example, is that the revenue per employee would be 50 euros more per m2 in a healthy building. Mooij is currently having this scientifically researched. Hard facts help.

Cognitive fitness at work

Prompted by his own hospitalisation, Wim Pullen of the Centre for People and Buildings made a plea in favour of working environments that boost people’s cognitive functions in an enjoyable way. Cognitive performance at work will become increasingly important in the future. Pullen also states that a healthy indoor environment is vital to staff performance and that the positive effects of social interaction facilities at work are grossly overestimated. So rather than investing in silly seating areas to stimulate the creative mind, it is particularly important that organisations invest in cognitive fitness. For example, whether there is sufficient scope for aspects that promote cognitive performance, such as exercise, relaxation, (lunch) breaks, and coffee, and such ‘distractions’ as noise, poor lighting, inadequate temperature control, and unfavourable workplace layout, are avoided. The employees’ own perception of this is paramount. He illustrated his argument with the case of the Dutch Probation Service, Reclassering Nederland, which is currently arranging its new accommodation on the basis of the experiences and wishes not only of employees but also clients and visitors. A relaxing and inviting environment creates a much calmer working atmosphere. In this sector, where tense situations with tense clients are quite common, that’s important.

Four pictures from rooms with lots of plants

A workplace should be worth going to and unlock human potential

In his work with CBRE , Wouter Oosting focuses on Healthy Offices. In effect, you should see your workplace as a continuation of your own body. Given the countless possibilities of flexible and digital working available to people today, a physical workplace really should offer an added value to people and organisations alike. The Healthy Offices project tests the criteria for healthy and attractive workplaces as revealed through national and international research. What really works? Which interventions actually contribute to people feeling happier and organisations being more productive? Drinking a lot of water? Plants in the office? Exercise? These measures will be applied for one half of the employees but not for the other. Research findings are all very well but Oosting would like to see them proven in his own working practice. To be able to give organisations well-founded advice.

Green helps but not all plants are the same

Annemieke Smit of Alterra-Wageningen UR has observed several trends: employees are expected to be (almost) constantly contactable, which is a contributing factor to the high level of work pressure often perceived; older employees work for longer; physical locations remain important despite people working from home and/or electronically more often; employee requirements and welfare are becoming increasingly important. People will continue to spend a lot of time in workplace buildings and if these buildings are unpleasant it could make them quite ill. Smit stresses the importance of ‘living green’ both in and around the workplace and of ‘green’ solutions such as lunchtime walks, walking meetings or ‘weetings’, outdoor breaks, etc. Much research has since revealed that plants in and on buildings and views of greenery help boost people’s sense of well-being, improve the air quality and contribute to the cooling of buildings. However, the research results are too fragmented, too small-scale or too theoretical to be able to draw the solid conclusion that greenery is an ultimate solution. Besides which, not all plants have the same properties so there is no point in just putting any old plant in the office. That is what makes it difficult to conduct a good cost/benefit analysis and prepare a business case to convince owners and users to invest in green solutions. In this context, Alterra has launched a study into the effects of plants at work. This study should result in improved use of green in buildings for sustainable development and a healthy living and working climate. Organisations wishing to take part may still apply. For the meantime, the ‘Green up your Desk’ app has been developed to enable you to place a virtual plant on your desk. Because even ‘fake green’ has a positive effect.

green walls in waiting room
Photo: Mobilane, Live Divider

BREEAM certificate for Haga Hospital

The seminar concluded with Haga Hospital being awarded a BREEAM certificate for the excellent sustainability of its new building, which also houses the Juliana Children’s Hospital, as the first hospital in the Netherlands to achieve an ‘excellent sustainability’ rating. The VolkerWesselsHaga consortium set up to develop and construct the new building shall also conduct the maintenance for the coming 20 years. A long-term contract has also been agreed for the garden and indoor plants. Sustainability and a healthy environment were the guiding principles throughout, from the drawing board to completion. The Planetree principles for a good care environment served as a guideline. The result is an exceptional, light building that is easy to reorganise as required; a building which feels good to staff and patients alike and enables everyone to perform optimally. Paediatrician and Medical Manager of Juliana Children’s Hospital, Frederique Hofstede: “At first I thought, stop going on about wide corridors, give me ten more patient rooms, but now I am convinced that the space, light and colours really do contribute to our well-being”.

The Dutch Green Building Council will hold another conference on health in buildings in November.