Wellness Part 2: Healthy Buildings and Tools for Designers

Jan. 22, 2020

In the second installment of interiors+sources' podcast series on wellness, editor-at-large Robert nieminen talks with Kathleen Hetrick and Heidi Creighton with BuroHappold in Los Angeles. They discuss what makes a building healthy and the tools that can help architects and designers make better specifying decisions.

In the second installment of interiors+sources' podcast series on wellness, editor-at-large Robert nieminen talks with Kathleen Hetrick and Heidi Creighton with BuroHappold in Los Angeles. They discuss what makes a building healthy and the tools that can help architects and designers make better specifying decisions.

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Read the transcript below:

[Start transcript]

Robert Nieminen: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to the I hear design podcast. I'm your host, Robert Nieminen. And as always, thank you for joining us. If you've been tuning in regularly, you know we're in the middle of a series on wellness and how it impacts design. And if you missed last week's episode on biophilia, I encourage you to go back and give it a listen. My guest Holley Henderson of H2 Ecodesign has some really great insights I thought on the topic and shared some valuable resources including a fun quiz, you can take online to test your knowledge on biophilic design. So if you want to dig a little bit deeper into wellness and biophilia, go back and check it out when you get a chance. You know, we hear so much these days about things like the well building standard and fit well, as well as various guidelines and endless for materials that impact human health. All those acronyms out there on the market that can be a little bit daunting to stay on top of. So, for today's broadcast, I wanted to continue the conversation on wellness by exploring some of the components of healthy buildings, including what goes into them, and how designers can better understand and utilize some of these tools that are out in the market. So to bring some clarity to the conversation, I've invited Kathleen Hetrick and Heidi Creighton with BuroHappold in Los Angeles to join us. So ladies, thank you for being here.  

[Realted: Listen to Part 1 of this series, biophilic design: what it is and why it matters.] 

Heidi Creighton: Thanks for having us.  

Kathleen Hetrick: Yeah, thank you.  

Robert: For our listeners out there, I was thinking that we could start the conversation off by you know, looking at the big picture. So like, what do you what do you guys think there's such a huge interest in designing for wellness right now kind of what's behind this trend and from what we’re seeing now? 

Heidi: Great, great question to kick us off. So give a little bit of history and context here. And, you know, since the invention of electricity, our buildings are becoming very efficient. But not in great ways, right? We were designing with really large deep sweat plates. We're getting much more on mechanical on lighting systems and those were replacing natural ventilation and daylighting. And we're really focusing on the wrong things, we're looking at putting costs up the building active systems and how many people we can squeeze in a very efficient way. And without really understanding the impacts that that would have on the occupants and our buildings were were literally making us sick, right, you've probably heard of the sick building syndrome. So now there's much more of a push and a trend towards our workplace and connecting people to those doors and, and using passive strategies like operable windows and great access to the light and view and, and also to people are unknowingly good at making bad decisions for themselves. So we really can focus on utilizing designed to encourage better decision making for the occupants. And then as you know, the biggest asset for most organizations and agencies is their talents and their people and the world clean, don't council put out a report.  (Heidi pictured on the right)

And it shows that typical building operating costs are 1% for energy 9% for the rental costs, and then a staggering 90% of operating costs goes to staff salaries and benefits. Well, what might appear to really be kind of a modest improvement in employee health and productivity can have a huge financial implication for employers and one of the much larger than financial savings associated with and efficiently designed or operated building. And I think another really important thing that we can do is really start to bring human resources into these divine conversations. 

The average participation and wellness offerings from human resources is only about 15%. But with the design and construction of a healthy workplace, we're creating 100% participation for the occupants because we're creating spaces that are passively delivering preventative health solutions. And so I think really beneficial to really engage resources to help and implement health and wellness strategies in our projects. 

Robert: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It's really good point. Kathleen, did you want to weigh in on that one as well on that topic, as far as you know, what's kind of driving all the interest in wellness? 

Kathleen: Yeah, I, Heidi really nailed it. And I think we're thinking about the built environment, it is creating that connection to nature and saying that the world around us, you know, has become so much more complex, we have to make so many decisions every day and we spend so much time in building really makes a difference in another one of the time, things that affect health and wellness, they're also great for the bottomline and for our planet. Right? 

Robert: Right. Definitely. What do you guys see as the impact that interiors can have on human health for and then, you know, how do you measure some of those impacts?  

Heidi: Sure. So I'm the president EPA, the average American Spend 90% of their time indoors, which is just so shocking to hear but true. And indoor levels of pollutants can be two to three times higher than outdoor levels. And there's also forces for those pollutants that can be combustion happening in the building. 

Not, you know, top affiliates in the building, building materials themselves in the furnishings off gas, you know, the products that you're using to clean can have a big impact, the central heating and cooling systems, they might have appropriate filtration. And then there's also the outdoor air pollution that can impact the end or quality. So we will need to get host five more, but most importantly, we really need to make sure our indoor environments are really healthy places for the occupants. And we're complex, right? There's, there's, there's so many aspects to consider. And we're starting to understand how we what makes us tick and how our brains work in our circadian rhythms and whatnot. So there's a long laundry list that there's air quality thermal comfort, there's planning and scene lighting, there's acoustics, there's, there's active design, there's just so many things to consider. 

And there's also a lot of really compelling research that's out there now that designers can use to make the case for Human Centered Design. And, you know, the impacts on our on our sleep on our cognitive function, and even our life expectancy is just tremendous. So as designers who really have an incredible opportunity and a lot of responsibility, I think in in this respect, and one example some some more recent research, Harvard in 2016, I think it was they were looking at ventilation rates and when the ventilation rates were doubled, of the standard code compliance rates, the cognitive function of the participants and was improved by over 100% and many of the areas that we're looking at. So just some really, really astounding research that's happening out there. We really see post occupancy evaluation as a key tool for that. And I'll give a couple quick examples. 

So that we had an early LEED Platinum project that we worked on, that had a very early and significant focus on health and well being. It's the Genzyme headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And there was some great outcome from that project with the studies. So there was post occupancy evaluation done. And it showed that improved productivity by the staff which was great to the attributed to the improved air quality and access to natural light had an estimated increase of over $5 million in annual value. So $5 million dollars annual value and the great majority of the staff commented on their enhanced well being and higher productivity based on their new office space. So therefore, the what was seen as the green cost premium from that project had a less than five year payback due to the increased productivity of the employees. It's really, really great. 

Robert: Significant. Sure. 

Heidi: And then the second project I'll just quickly create a conscious focus on health and well being to really much good decision making. And we completed the brown school social work at Washington University in St. Louis. And some of the great strategies we use there you know, really encouraging me to the staircase so we created a beautiful staircase with natural materials and use it outdoors. And we also created a really wide variety of spaces, some more social, maybe more like a, you know, cafe type vibe, vibrant and loud. And then all the way down to really contemplative quiet work. There's artwork throughout the project healthy eating options. We also have four spaces, select teachers and classes could do some outdoor learning. And the performance evaluation that we did there showed a 24% increase in physical activity and a 90% increase and enhance work with others and 48% increase in social connections. So the human centered design approach that we had there resulted in higher workplace and building satisfaction and also increased indulge in digital effectiveness. Extremely valuable for our clients.  

[Realted: Top 10 States for LEED Green Building in 2019

Robert: Yeah, that's so cool that you guys can you know, point to measurable data that demonstrates the impact that the design has on our spends, because then it helps sell that to other clients and really making that broader impact overall. That's awesome. So let's like maybe talk about the buildings themselves, like what goes into them. What do you guys see as being some of the key components that make up a healthy building? You mentioned a couple of things active design, but what about materials and furnishings and other design elements? How do they all play into that? What really goes into a healthy building?  

Kathleen: Yeah, I think it's a great question and a thing that we've learned from working on a Living Building Challenge project in Santa Monica is I think, it really boils down to three takeaways, the first thing being keep things simple, you know, simple product, not only about the possibility of design, but they also you know, allow for brief things like free addresses phases adaptability, longer product life span. And all this also avoid, you know, comp, complicated chemical inventory. The more complicated product is, you know, whether it's having a extra ceiling, an extra coat of paint different types of adhesives, composite coatings, insulation, on and on, right, but just allow some more room for supply chain abuses, and potentially hazardous chemicals like flame retardants. And so keeping a simple game by you know, we don't have to track as much and we can count on people making the right choices, right. (Kathleen pictured on the right)

So I think that's, that's the first thing or a really easy thing. Again, like you're saying about biophilic design, even if you hear this word thrown around a lot, but that connection with nature, if you take it seriously, I think can lead to spaces that not only inspire us and connect you on to the organic route photo album, to Heidi's point leads to these increased connections. So just thinking about you know, the warm from natural wood finishes, habitat restoration gardens interiors, inspired by natural patterns, all the ways that people congregating together making those chance connections that we love to talk about and education spaces or office spaces. And that's that's the combat of loneliness, that we see in society more and more and also reduce burnout. You know, when people have been working 50 hours a week, I think, thinking about those things that you might not typically think about all the time, they do have impact. So that's, you know, one of those design philosophies that we can adapt in terms of product specifications, I think there's just been this huge movement to going towards bio based products and actually made products you know, whether it's organic or inorganic, knows that leads to better air quality outcomes for building and uses manufacturing workers frontline communities, but also reduces our demand for petrochemicals. Right. And that's driving towards behind oil and gas production and greenhouse gases. So it's also a winter, you know, combating climate change. So it's just so exciting to see, you know, more bio based materials like insulation in our market stated. It's really changed in the past five years, and it's a great way that we can show innovation has a great impact. Right.  

Robert: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. And I'm glad you brought up products. And you mentioned something early on when your first point about keeping it simple. In the earlier part of my introduction, as I was talking about there's there is a lot of information on the market as far as different certification programs and different acronyms that designers are expected to be really well versed in or certified in that can be a bit intimidating for those that are you know, uninitiated. Can you guys talk about things like health product declarations, or like the Red List and Declare labels and some other tools that are really relevant to designing wellness? How do you keep it simple when there's so much information out there? 

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, and when we started that learning challenge project about five years ago, there was just, it wasn't much out there. So it's, it's really come a long way in the past two years. And one of our favorite tools is mindful materials. It's a really great materials research platform that's user friendly, accessible. It's not just like a giant excel sheet that you can, you know, filter and impose a moment's notice products on it, everything from architectural finishes, even the stuff that we typically forget, like the MEP side of things. So I'd recommend like you know, starting with a product, whether it's flooring, a finish or an information product, and you can take a look at see the double check to make sure this is all third party verified, you know, you want it to be scientifically rigorous. And you can check to see if there's no declare label or an HPD. these really are the bolt the gold standard for detailing the list of ingredients. And I think when you take a product, any kind of look across a couple of factors, he starts to keep interest Right, you started to see that information tends to have populated flame retardants, resilience morning tends to have PVC composite was, tends to have formaldehyde, and all of the most read list chemicals or chemical classes that science has shown time and time again, that these have negative impacts on our human health. I mean, this isn't legal research. This is tested throughout the 20th century, and I think kept us out of our buildings. When you can start to see patterns emerge, and you can start comparing your favorite product or manufacturers product that you really love. And here's just a little bit of research and you're like, man, you know, this is great installation that makes my building really efficient has a lot of formaldehyde. That's the final step. I think it's starting to advocate manufacturers that you want to keep using their products, and you only can if it's not going to have an impact on human health. Right. Yeah, it's really encouraging to see that trend moving in that direction.  

Robert: Heidi, do you want to weigh in at all on the materiality aspect it? 

Heidi: You know, I was actually just going to talk a little bit more about our role as designers and engineers and specifiers. And currently think about not only the building users, but as Kathleen touched on, right. And the community is where these materials are being extracted from the communities that are being impacted by the manufacturer of these materials and these cancer alleys that are being created and just kind of horrible living conditions for the for the adjacent neighborhoods. And then also cute just at the end of life, and Kathleen spires a firefighter. So it's very personal for her because when you look at the research, you know, firefighters have much higher rates of cancer than the average American. And because they're fighting these fires and building for worse that's applying really toxic materials. So she's done some incredible research and really just looking at the full lifecycle And, and our role as a specifiers of these products is an advocacy and inquiry. And as you mentioned, all those tools that are out there, we have come a long way in the last couple of years. And transparency is just such a key next step.  

Robert: Yeah. And that's great. And that's a great segue into the last thing I wanted to ask you guys about was next steps. And where do you see the wellness trend heading as far as design goes? Or what is it that you're really excited about as it relates to healthy buildings? 

Heidi: I think a lot of it is just about our approach, and practicing every project that we're working on, and making sure that we're designing buildings that support occupants being fulfilled and happy, right? our buildings are for people ultimately. And a huge success for would be for us to leave our buildings where we live or where we work, our study, you know, feeling rejuvenated and not depleted. So And I think another key to that is really early collaboration between the entire team. And really detailed monitoring and analysis is also hugely important. So that post occupancy evaluation piece is so crucial to our learning from our designs and having that feedback loop. So we continue to improve the the existing buildings, but also to learn from projects and do even better next time. So, so yeah, so I can't advocate for an early Holistic Health wellbeing approach, really focused on document health and wellbeing, really understanding the importance of the users and moving beyond first costs, and really looking at the triple bottom line approach to every project. And so often, there's a project budget, and there's all this value engineering that happens and there's often keep things to the contracts that are on the chopping block, and there's just so much pressure on getting the first costs down. But there's some great tools out there that you can use, such as auto case. And that looks at the triple bottom line. So it really shows you, you can put in different scenarios, and then see what the human impacts over the lifespan of the project are. So there's some great, great progress there. And I think just coming up with new creative solutions, and when you pair that with the post occupancy evaluation for that proof of concept, and that continued learning is a great outcome. And that will ultimately positively impact our designs and the outcomes for the occupants. 

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. Kathleen, do you want to just talk a little bit about where you see the wellness trend going or what you're excited about as well? 

Kathleen: Yeah, I think there's two things to end on. I think the first one is chemical engineer by trade. I think that really embracing the ideas of rented a house whether that's making sure that for all of our projects, We're putting in the water filtration on a product. And you know, we have declining water quality all over the country. And similarity with air quality. There was amazing research paper that just came out of Northern California in the past month that was looking at installing air quality sensors, both filters and activated carbon filters. These on the impact of student test scores, and it's a cheap thing to do. It's only about, you know, I think $1,000 upfront costs, including maintenance for the schools, and they saw an increase in test scores of students that have equivalent to having, you know, the small class sizes that we see in private school.   

So I think, you know, starting to look at our design processes from a mechanical and an architecture point of view that say, What do we need thanks to the baseline. And Heidi, you know, excellent point, I think, to be an eye on current events as they relate to environments and justice organizations is something that really has lead, new improvement and our internal competencies and how we think about nine impacts, you know, whether it's some you can advocate for grade, fighting, you know, as a new giant plastic, Sicilian Louisiana, the recent petrochemical explosion about she's been, or even, you know, citizens of Jefferson County and West Virginia fighting and stricter regulations for installation that affects your facilities. Realizing that the design choices that we make, you know, in California or in New York or Florida can have impact on people all over the country and frankly, all over the world. It's a huge thing to start to think about thinking about the impact on frontline communities, particularly communities that are low income communities of color, we have to have to come to the realization that, you know, the design field has an equity issue, and we've opened our eyes to that and see the true impact. So, personally, and I think it's where the industry's going. We're starting to realize you know, from a life cycle point of view that it's more than just the building and user health. It's really we need to bring everyone in.  

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. That's, that's a great point. And I agree. It's definitely an exciting time for design. And I think now more than ever, we have an opportunity to really make significant impact on health, your buildings and the people that are in them as well. Well, it's all the time we have for for now, Kathleen, and Heidi it was great having you both on and thank you so much, again for being here. 

Heidi: Thanks for having us.  

Kathleen: Thank you so much. 

Robert: Yeah, well, for our listeners out there. Thank you as well for tuning in. I hope you guys will join us again next time as we wrap up our series on wellness by talking about human centric lighting and the role that lighting design plays on human health specifically, and I think it'll be a great conversation that you don't want to miss. Thanks and be well, everyone. 

[End Transcript]

Read Next: Role of Community in Architecture and Design

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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