Is there such a thing as a healthy building?

A building is a complex system. It has a physical form. It has hidden structures to support it. Its parts all work together to function as a whole. Does that sound like something else you know very well? How about the human body? While building may be an inanimate object far from containing the complexities of the human body, bodies and buildings have more to do with one another than meets the eye.

You may have heard of the term “sick building syndrome.” But did you know that that has nothing to do with the health of the building itself, but rather its occupants health? Sick building syndrome actually refers to when a person experiences symptoms like headaches, stress, and fatigue with no clear explanation other than the building they operate within.

A building doesn’t just provide shelter or structures for our day-to-day activities to take place. A building is where most of life is carried out, and where humans need to thrive and be healthy. With people spending nearly 90% of time indoors, it’s safe to say human health in the built environment has never been more important. Spending all this time inside, we find new ways to interact with buildings, utilizing their facilities more and with varying purposes that are sometimes hard to predict.

Occupant health and comfort need to be top priorities for architects and developers to consider at all points of a project’s development. Early in design, project teams can use building models and performance simulations to help gauge healthy outcomes.

Site selection occurs at the genesis of a project and can have everything to do with ultimate health of a building’s occupants. Take for example an urban office building. Selecting a site close to public transportation and green space allows for improved occupant health. How? Employees’ commutes are shorter (or at least more efficient), and they have access to nature for breaks throughout the day. Such benefits have ripple effects—lower stress levels and cleaner air yield higher productivity and emotional and physical wellbeing. Not only does health immediately improve with these choices, but so does overall quality of life.

When it comes to a healthy building, the number one thing that always comes in research and occupancy evaluations is daylighting. Light directly impacts circadian rhythms, mood, and visual acuity, and daylight is the most natural form. Design plans that maximize daylight create spaces that are not only aesthetically more pleasing, but more comfortable for and healthful for occupants.

It may seem elementary to state, but a building’s floorplan and general design impact health significantly. Design requirements vary depending on the building type, and project teams take program-specific considerations into account to ensure healthy outcomes. Going for an extreme example, think about a hospital. A hospital is designed for the explicit purpose of improving and protecting peoples’ health. Ensuring that staff areas are just as planned out as patient and guest areas is necessary for doctors, nurses, and administrators to carry out their critically important jobs. A well-positioned staff lounge tucked away from the hustle and bustle of a busy wing could help save a life. A medical professional who can properly recharge for their own health and wellbeing will tackle complex emergencies of others with clearer focus.

Even in less critical circumstances, a building’s layout can contribute to healthy outcomes. Open floor plans, atriums, courtyards and have all been proven to increase wellness in a variety of building types. And those types of design choices all play into indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of a building. Factors such as air quality, lighting, materials, and thermal and acoustic comfort all favor into the overall IEQ. Project teams looking to increase the chances of great user health must analyze and select building systems and materials that are both appropriate for the budget and have demonstrated health outcomes in precedent projects.

While there may not be such a thing as a healthy building, it’s for certain that design decisions can make help make people healthier.