Making Office Spaces Greener

“Green” is much more than a color or a catchy slogan — and it’s increasingly important in the vocabulary of architects, space planners, and human resource managers. Green concepts drive office design today, based on significant research findings that tie efficiency, productivity, employee satisfaction and physical health and well-being together in one neat package.

The new direction involves a shift in perspective and priorities from the past and affects work habits as well as the built environment. In short, environmental awareness has come to the world of commerce. Business and public environments — whether school, factory, warehouse, high-rise building, enclosed mall, or strip center — have seen enormous change over the past two decades. Future changes may bring even more dramatic innovations.

From Physical Structures to Total Well-Being

In a 2014 address at a Beijing conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building & New Technologies, Mahesh Ramanujam, COO of the U.S. Green Building Council, spoke of the history of the environmental movement as it related to building better structures. From the council’s beginnings just two decades ago, he noted, energy-efficiency and sustainability have now become increasingly mainstream. The LEED Program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was begun in the year 2000, and today more than 200,000 LEED-certified buildings exist worldwide.

Now, however, the focus has shifted towards confronting “our complete physical, mental and social well-being,” according to Ramanujam, in an effort to create work and home spaces that will reduce chronic disease, encourage lasting physical health and well-being, and recognize that mental health and happiness are directly affected by those spaces. In turn, happier, healthier workers produce more goods and ideas and boost corporate profit.

The undeniable fact is that buildings “have a lot to do with our external and internal environment,” he said, and “we can do something about the quality of our space, and we can do it with little or no cost.”

Architecture and Health

When Buildings Don’t Work: The Role of Architecture in Human Health, a study published in The Journal of Environmental Psychology, documents the effects on health and productivity of such things like air quality, lighting, noise, crowding and disruption. Modern building codes in homes and commercial buildings are far more strict than codes of the past. They mandate effective filters, alarms, and materials to keep toxic fumes and out-gassing within healthy levels. But current research takes green concepts several steps further, to define both what is beneficial and what is detrimental in the work space.

For example, the open work spaces popularized in the 1950s have proven to be less than desirable regarding employee satisfaction. Noise, lack of privacy, “enforced uniformity” and cost-effectiveness are now deemed secondary to people concerns, leading to a rethinking of effective space utilization. Savvy businesses now are more concerned with flexible spaces, and with building interiors that help to reduce human stress and encourage wellness.

One innovative solution divides the work space into six distinct areas. It is a model that encourages well-being and recognizes that productive workers have varying needs, including time spent away from their desks. So, in addition to the “Task Node” that signals a need for quiet and “alone time” for maximum productivity, a thoughtful and effective business environment will provide other types of space. Five additional areas address collaboration and networking needs, private communication areas, formal presentation space, planned meeting rooms and social space.

Bringing Nature to the Workplace

The modern office ideally recognizes that individuals have many different needs and that flexibility is the key to keeping employees happy.

According to Effects of Green Buildings on Employee Health and Productivity, a case study published in the American Journal of Public Health, indoor air quality and temperature, noise levels, natural light, access to the outdoors, pleasant views of greenery or landscaped grounds are all part of the green building principles that have been identified as vital components for high employee satisfaction. Happy employees tend to suffer less stress, are more productive and have fewer work-related injuries. Absence and turnover are reduced, complaints drop, and workers thrive.

Some go as far to say that a healthy business environment should also address exercise and healthy eating.

At face value, it seems to be a win-win situation. While some aspects of the “office of the future” may be seen as more frivolous than others, companies are starting to catch on to the idea that, like their actual business, their offices should evolve with the times as well.

About the author:

Gary Ashton is the CEO/Owner of The Ashton Real Estate Group of RE/MAX Advantage in Nashville, Tennessee. 


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