Last October saw the launch of a new report from the British Council for Offices (BCO) called Wellness Matters: Health and Wellbeing in offices and what to do about it. It is one of the most recent indications that the focus of property designers, owners, managers and occupiers is no longer solely on the environment and performance characteristics of the building, but also on its impact on the mental and physical wellbeing of the people that inhabit it.

According to the 2019 EMEA Occupier Survey by CBRE over a third of companies see labour and skills shortages as a key strategic challenge. In last year’s survey, cost-reduction was the single most important driver of corporate real estate strategy and employee engagement was fourth but this year, cost reduction has dropped to fourth, employee engagement is second and talent attraction and development is third. In other words, caring for people and their wellbeing is becoming the overriding aim of occupiers’ property decisions.

A refreshing focus on the individual

This focus on this issue is refreshing but it’s been coming. For several years, the Green Building Council has been linking the green credentials of a building with the pursuit for wellbeing. Last year, the BRE and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) released a new briefing paper that outlines how projects may achieve both a certified BREEAM rating and WELL Certification.

The updated document, Assessing Health and Wellbeing in Buildings – Alignment between BREEAM and the WELL Building Standard, was developed as ‘part of a commitment to continuous improvement by IWBI and BRE’ using industry feedback from professionals working to achieve joint certification. The two issues now go hand in glove.

Wellbeing is also a preoccupation in mainstream managerial thinking. Also last year, the RSA published its report Measuring Good Work, which highlights how what people do for a living and how we go about it has a major impact on people’s wellbeing and quality of life.  Similarly, the CBI and BUPA published a new guide, called Front of Mind: Prioritising workplace health & wellbeing, based on a study of 347 businesses employing nearly 1.7 million people to understand what steps they are taking to improve workplace health and wellbeing.

The BCO study applies this thinking to great effect in its guide for building owners and occupiers. It offers a practical and professional guide to creating a healthy environment across the different stages of a building’s life cycle, from design, construction and leasing to the most important aspect by time and value: occupation and asset management.

It also offers some guidance for governments – lobbying is never far from these issues – arguing that the benefits from improved office wellness – and the costs of a failure to act – flow not only to individuals and organisations, but also to communities and the country as a whole. These impacts can be quantified, for example through reduced costs of health and social care and increased productivity.
The message is clear. Designing for wellbeing is not just good for the individual and their employer, but the economy and society as a whole.

A focus on wellbeing

Given the amount of time we spend in buildings, it is perhaps inevitable that this issue is now taking up so much of our energy and attention. This fact is the assumption underlying a exhibition curated by the Wellcome Collection in London called Living with Buildings which has just finished. The exhibition set out to ask what effect buildings have on our physical and mental health, drawing on the work of artists and photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Rachel Whiteread to explore how we relate to our surroundings.

It explored the history of thought on the subject, offering examples from the ancient world to highlight how this issue has been a longstanding concern for humanity. What is interesting from a 21st Century perspective is how the locus of this discussion has shifted from hygiene to wellbeing in a way that mirrors the shift of health and safety practices from preventing harm to creating positive outcomes.

The exhibition also highlights the blurring of design idioms so that the workplace, the home, the hotel, the school and public space all start to look alike. Although this is in large part a result of the falling demarcations between those spaces in our lives, it is also an admission that we are reimagining the workspace to become more humane and less institutionalised.

This is now the defining characteristic of 21st Century workplace design; how do we create a place in which people can come together to collaborate and identify with each other, but also know that the building itself is designed and managed in a way that cares about their physical and mental wellbeing.