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How Design Impacts Wellbeing in the ‘Built Environment’

Nick Maletta
Nick Maletta
Client Executive, Property Casualty

If there is one word that comes to mind synonymous with the Architectural, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) community right now, it’s “resilient.“

Adapting and evolving with the changes in the world are paramount to achieving goals as a firm. Whether it’s a changing economy, an evolving style trend, or a shifting in mindset, the AEC community responds without delay. And right now, that evolution surrounds mental health and wellbeing.

The Importance of Mental Health and Wellbeing

The realization of how important mental health and wellbeing are to the AEC community has expanded as of late.

Throughout the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing has become top of mind for many companies and most industries. This may be one of the most significant and enduring “silver linings” resulting from COVID-19. However, even before COVID-19, a subtle but significant shift was already underway in the global real estate development market. And, momentum for this movement is rapidly growing in the United States, too.

The Worker Wellbeing Shift

Owners and developers are designing and building features with intention into the “built environment” where people live, work, and engage in other aspects of daily living to promote the physical and wellbeing of users.

A major impetus for this shift is the increasing amount of time people spend inside buildings, now estimated to be approximately 90 percent (Harvard University Press). This shift can be transformative on the wellbeing of large workforces and communities.

Features that Promote Physical and Mental Wellbeing

There are too many such design features that promote physical and mental wellbeing to fairly enumerate them all; therefore, I’ve listed just a few.

These representative examples include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Increased natural lighting while reducing glare
  • Enhancements to fresh air ventilation and exhaust
  • Larger windows providing clear views
  • Open stairwells to encourage walking
  • Features to enhance the perception of safety and equity
  • Indoor and outdoor break rooms, including open air patios or rooftops
  • “Biophilia” — waterfall structures and other forms of bringing nature inside
  • Adjoining or adjacent exercise areas, including walking trails and pet parks
  • Access to healthy food inside the building or the local community complex
  • Integrating mass transportation, carpooling, or bicycle sharing for employees

The Cost of Not Investing in Workforce Wellbeing

An adage in the AEC community states, “When viewing a project from an accounting lens, there are three things that matter — profit, and I forgot the other two.”

When innovative ways of thinking or changes in the status quo are challenged, one of the first practical hurdles to overcome is the increased investment it may take to embrace/adopt this new way of thinking.

That being said, the focus of this particular blog isn’t the expected return on investment and added costs of this shift (although important), but the potential improvement of public physical and mental wellbeing.

The International WELL Being Institute (IWBI) states that design elements that bolster wellbeing in a project may roughly run 1-2 percent of a proposed budget. In speaking to design professionals, the number may range slightly higher, from approximately 1-3 percent.

Instead of considering the cost to implement these changes, though, it’s worth considering the opportunity costs if you don’t make these investments. For example: Your organization could receive these potential paybacks:

  • Being an employer of choice with a highly desirable location to aid in recruiting and retaining high-performing talent
  • Helping tenants reduce high turnover rates in industries by providing convenient, accessible workplaces with desirable design features
  • Selling out a development faster, thereby freeing capital for new investments
  • Renting or leasing at premium prices or securing longer term leases to maximize investment returns
  • Enhancing reputation and community goodwill by addressing previous inequities by improving accessibility or inclusion

There are many resources for AEC community members to look to as roadmaps and guideposts to implement change and provide these services to building owners and developers. As a basis for healthy, human-centric design and construction specifications, many are using either the Center for Active Design (CfAD) and the Fitwel Certification, or the IWBI and the WELL Building Standard for Guidance.

Or, you can always reach out to our CSDZ team. We’re happy to work with you and have wellbeing experts on hand to help!

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