By now, it’s a well-established fact: Indoor environments have a significant impact on people’s health and well-being.

Poor ventilation and the chemical and biological contaminants sometimes present in buildings have long been shown to be detrimental to human health; the potential for virus transmission is another concern, as the past year starkly revealed. But the spotlight is not just on physical health. Today, it’s also about overall well-being. How productive, energetic, or content do people feel in that environment?

Where a lot of things have changed in the last five years is with the introduction of experiential benefits, which focus on the user, according to Andy Schonberger, VP of client services at Intelligent Buildings, LLC. For the past several years, Schonberger’s role has been to help clients understand the types of experiences they can create and the risks they can mitigate through the use of smart technology, as well as to help them secure and scale those solutions.

The market’s foray into the “experience” business has been driven by a maturing digital landscape, more sophisticated use cases, and consideration of different perspectives (e.g., human resources, visitor experience), beyond just the building operator stakeholder perspective. There is also more confidence that better experimentation and data collection can inform decision-making — and that the progress is measurable. ASHB’s own contribution to these efforts was a study carried out with the National Research Council of Canada, on employee productivity and smart buildings. The resulting report, from 2018, demonstrated that better building strategies (e.g., improved ventilation, enhanced lighting conditions) provide benefits to multiple organizational productivity metrics at levels similar to other corporate strategies.

“Now, there’s a real science-based approach to quantifying how a space can be not only better for the planet but also better for the occupier,” says Schonberger. “That encompasses everything from airflow rates to stairwell visibility to private spaces for nursing mothers…and the list goes on. People want to know they can be productive in a space and that it’s going to support their lifestyle. This attitude is really changing how spaces are built and designed.”

Download ASHB’s report on organizational productivity and intelligent buildings and other industry research by visiting the ASHB free research library.

With interest in healthy buildings rising, property owners and developers are looking for objective ways to understand what it means to design a building for health and well-being. A Harvard research team previously distilled this complex concept into several foundational elements, as explained in detail in its report, “9 Foundations of a Healthy Building.”

In their similarly-titled 2020 book,1 the authors, Joseph Allen and John Macomber, wrote that “new quantitative research shows in an objective and reproducible way that our cognitive abilities, health, productivity, and well-being are directly impacted by decisions in the engineering, operations, and running of our buildings.” However, with the language around healthy buildings tending to be on the highly technical side, the ROI linked to the solutions had long become difficult to demonstrate, they argued; “9 Foundations” was their remedy. The approach has been influential in the way we think about healthy buildings, even if there still isn’t an industry-wide consensus on the exact number of elements or how to view them. According to that research, the measures carried out to achieve improvements would fall into these nine areas:

  • Ventilation
  • Air quality
  • Thermal health
  • Moisture
  • Dust & pests
  • Safety & security
  • Water quality
  • Noise
  • Lighting & views

Though the foundational elements themselves may vary depending on the expert you talk to, a building can achieve just about all of them with the real-time analysis and personalization made possible by smart technology.

Real-time Analysis & Personalization: The (Other) Foundations Of A Healthy Building

Whether it’s a developer constructing one building, a client with a small portfolio of properties, or an organization that owns a couple hundred million square feet of space and operations, many of the health-related strategies stakeholders are looking to deploy involve two things: personalization and real-time analysis.

Schonberger is seeing increased interest in personalization—giving occupants the freedom to tailor their space within a building. “In a house, you can walk over to the light switch and turn it on and off. But in an office, we’ve gotten used to not being able to control anything,” Schonberger says. When occupants can adjust their environment—everything from lighting to ventilation to temperature—to what’s most comfortable for them, it gives them peace of mind and leads to better productivity.

Another way to personalize the building experience is through the use of mobile apps. Health concerns have prompted an influx of requests for frictionless [building] entry, according to Schonberger. “A lot of our current retrofit projects revolve around transitioning to mobile credentials, which will allow people to walk into a building without touching anything or without having pauses and spaces [in the flow of movement].” With a simple tap or swipe of their phone, doors open, and elevators automatically know where to go for each individual.

Intelligent buildings also revolve around data—data that can be used to gain greater operational control and enable these types of healthier sequences in buildings. We saw this with commercial real estate’s greater adoption of spatial intelligence solutions such as workplace analytics, people counting, and occupancy detection software (a space seeing competition among companies like PointGrab, Density, VergeSense, SpaceIQ, Spaceti, Locatee, and Acuity Brands, among others, as highlighted by ASHB’s smart buildings and COVID-19 research).

In the past, building operators worked on the assumption that people arrived at 9 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. Everything shut down on a schedule, regardless of occupancy. “That doesn’t fit how we’re using our buildings now,” Schonberger says. “When 50% of the building population goes out for lunch, should you still be ventilating the exact same way as you were at 8:00 a.m. when the building was full to capacity? You can, but now you’re wasting energy because it’s not as occupied. So spin it down based on how the building is being used. And then as people come back, spin up to meet the demand.” Proactive operational strategies like these are made possible by the occupancy data collected from security systems and room sensors.

The data is really the whole point of a smart building. If you build the platform right within the building as a system, you can now use that data for things like measuring wellness programs or in-depth sustainability metrics—and all the reporting that goes along with it.

Determine Your Healthy Building Strategy

In Schonberger’s experience, there is no uniformity in the kinds of healthy building strategies being implemented across the board. “I wouldn’t say there’s a right or a wrong way on who’s trying to sell what to an owner or occupier. We do see some consensus now around some of the technology design elements—network conductivity, connection methods, and industry standards around open protocols and the availability of data. But from there, it changes every single project. Even particular owners may set a standard and, a year later, the market moves a bit, and they’re modifying those strategies. That’s the joy of technology—it never stops.”

1. Joseph Allen and John Macomber, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Space Drive Performance and Productivity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).