Healthy Spaces = Healthy Organizations

Julie Spiering, CID, EDAC, LEED AP

Technology has revolutionized the American office. Unfortunately, it has also revolutionized the American worker, turning us into a population that spends eight or more hours every day sitting. Spending that much time sedentary can have a dire effect on our health. According to U.S. News and World Report, doctors have even begun to diagnose the modern office worker with “sitting disease,” which can negatively impact your metabolism and your overall health.

With so much time and effort spent on sustainability practices to benefit our global environment, there has not yet been enough focus or attention placed on the sustainability practices to benefit our personal environment. But change is coming. And it’s being ushered in not by personal trainers, not by dieticians — but by architects and designers.

The synergy between interior design and wellness is an organic, growing development in the field of architecture and design. It grew naturally from our industry’s focus on communities and people, rather than the building itself.

At DSGW, we’re placing emphasis on sustainability practices that benefit the building as well as the people who work there. This emphasis is being aided by a younger generation funneling into the workforce, who have grown accustomed to an integration between workplace and lifestyle. You see it in office bike racks and standing desks, for example. The firm separation between professional life and personal life is largely becoming a thing of the past. And, as we incorporate our working lives fully into the rest of our lives, it’s vital that our field continues to work toward practices and strategies that positively impact health.

You’ll see it in the work DSGW did on the St. Louis County Government Services Center in Virginia, Minnesota. It was built as a nearly net-zero building, meaning that the amount of energy consumed by the building each year is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on site through the use of ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic panels, a passive solar wall, LED lights and an efficient building envelope. But we didn’t stop at a healthy building. Our team also looked at ways to make the building healthy for its staff. We designed a central staircase and corridors along the windows to encourage walking, easy staff access to collaboration spaces and access to the outdoor green space. Taken as a whole, the entire building’s design is built around holistic health.

St. Louis County GSC interior view section

But sustainability for a worker’s personal environment goes way beyond getting them out of their seat and moving. Acoustics, for example, play a major role in a staff’s health and happiness. Sound can be impacted by material selections like carpeting and acoustical ceiling treatments, as well as by incorporating sound absorbing surfaces oriented to capture and control vocal activities.

A staff member’s personal environment health can also be positively impacted by small things like glare control, personal space orientation to minimize sightline disruption, the amount and type of light in a workspace, air-flow, climate control and even workplace smells.

And it goes beyond physical health entirely. Better access to daylight and access to nature are the types of things that can reduce stress and improve a staff’s mental health, too.

One major shift we’re seeing is a move away from “outboard” office design, where the private offices line the perimeter of the floor and swallow up all the natural light. Now we’re inverting these spaces, creating “inboard” spaces where private offices and conference rooms are situated in the building’s core, allowing open cubicle and community space to receive the physical and health benefits of sunlight. And this type of floor plan also provides spaces where co-workers can gather, share, create, and inspire one another — a vital component to a healthy worker and workplace.

For years we all had private offices. Then, more recently, the big trend was open offices. But things are starting to shift again and our industry is reanalyzing how we design workplaces for maximum efficiency and sustainability. Open offices promote interaction and collaboration, but they don’t work for everyone and they don’t work for all tasks. Private offices provide solitude and the opportunity for deep, focused work, but they promote a sedentary office life and a lack of interaction with colleagues. So, now there’s a new method, a hybrid office space that provides staff with a variety of space types, allowing them to pick a space based on what their project or their mood may be.

While much in our industry is changing, some things aren’t. You’re always going to have chairs and desks. The desktop computer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, even with the advent of tablets and mobile workspaces. You’re always going to have phones and climate control and artificial lighting. What our industry is getting better at is the ways we arrange those items and utilize them in innovative ways to foster a happy, healthy staff.

Architects like those of us at DSGW believe that a healthy personal environment is just as important as the global one. That they are, in fact, two halves of a whole. So we will continue to push in these new, sustainable directions. Because modern technology may have changed the way we live, but that doesn’t mean it also has to change how long we live.