Room to Breathe...

Simone Codrington, assistant sustainability manager, reflects on how the environment and a building’s design can nurture human-nature connection and positively impact on our wellbeing.

For many people, nature is seen as ‘free medicine’ due to its endless positive impact on health and wellbeing. There is plenty of evidence showing the benefits of exposure to and enjoyment of nature in terms of recreation, but it doesn’t always account for the unseen benefits. Nature has a process in place for improving air quality, and most of us can appreciate this and are starting to see the physical and mental health benefits of spending more time outdoors.

But, how does this translate into the built environment and how can we give nature a helping hand by reducing our own contributions to air pollution and supporting our customers in doing the same?

Curing ‘Sick building syndrome’

Air quality and respiratory health are often overlooked due to more commonly discussed issues related to unsustainable travel methods, such as carbon emissions and depletion of resources – but we still seem to need reminders of air pollution’s detrimental effects, such as with Clean Air Day. Many of us took part in this year’s Clean Air Day a few months ago, dedicated to the promotion of sustainable transport methods and the improvement of air quality. We were encouraged to walk, run, cycle, scooter and roller blade to school, university or work – or to travel by bus, tram or train. All of these methods make a positive contribution to air quality by reducing the amount of emissions released by private vehicles.

But what is sometimes forgotten is that the challenge of clean air doesn’t stop when we go indoors. When it comes to the quality of the air we breathe, indoor pollution is becoming more of a concern worldwide. Control of this is particularly important due to reduced ventilation rates and the possibility that high concentrations of pollutants may occur. Many indoor air pollutants cause users of modern buildings to suffer from ‘sick building syndrome’, complaining of symptoms such as headaches, sinus irritation, a dry cough and dizziness. With people spending so much of their time at work, companies are looking at how they build and refit spaces in such a way that wellbeing can be improved.

A modern office solution

Many companies are also now adopting the idea of biophilia – humans innate affinity for nature. Having plants in the office not only improves air quality, but also creates a more pleasant working atmosphere and nurtures an increased feeling of positivity among workers. This is recognised as part of the WELL Standard, the building accreditation; it suggests that plants can be used to reduce the volatile organic compounds that are released by certain paints and items of furniture.

Building design should be considered when it comes to improving health and wellbeing in and around the workplace. Air quality can be controlled locally and provide health and productivity benefits for staff and employers through green walls and green roofs, which are visually attractive and improve biodiversity as well as air quality.

Leading our industry

As a construction company, wellbeing in the workplace is something that’s constantly at the front of our mind – infact, Richard Freeman recently wrote about how we’ve been working with consultants to deliver better wellbeing for our customers and projects. Now, we’re regularly including some of these concepts in the projects we work on. WWF’s headquarters, for instance, was quoted by Sir David Attenborough as a fantastic eco-building that not only shows how it is possible to use our planet’s resources wisely, but also helps us all connect with the natural world. We’ve had two industry firsts too when it comes to eco-buildings and high indoor air quality – the largest non-residential Passivhaus building at University of Leicester’s George Davies Centre and the first Passivhaus school for the London Borough of Sutton. By building these to a Passivhaus design, pupils and staff are benefiting from optimised learning environments and excellent air quality, as well as minimising operational carbon, making it beneficial to the environment and people.

With the experience that we’ve developed already, Willmott Dixon is informed and prepared to deliver recommendations and best practice for the buildings of the future.