How smart buildings will boost our productivity

If we give office workers the means to control their environment we will be contributing to a healthier, happier and more productive population

An article in last week’s Evening Standard by Jonathan Prynn trailed a piece of poll research sponsored by British Land that claimed that nearly nine out of 10 London office workers want more control over their work environment to affect aspects such as light and ventilation. The article goes on to say: “According to respondents, a smart office that responds better to their needs could improve productivity by 37%”, through increased employee loyalty and wellbeing. Thirty-seven percent!

Given that around 75% of all workplace activity in the UK takes place in office environments the implications for this are huge for the UK’s productivity - and we need to improve because we lag way behind most of our European counterparts in this area.

So does the design and construction industry hold one of the keys to improving the UK’s global competitiveness? For the past 25 years our industry has grappled with the issue of sustainability with the focus on the impact that design and construction can have on energy consumption and carbon production. The growing proliferation of carbon-free renewable energy sources means we can shift our focus.

There are three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. Social sustainability is, in my view, the most important and for too long has been side-lined

The World Green Building Council points out that in terms of the running costs of a typical business, only 1% lies in energy whereas around 90% is reflected in staff costs. So if we shift our attention to improving the impact of the built environment on human resource we can make a much bigger impact on the fortunes of businesses and the economy as a whole.

We can contribute to making people healthier, happier and more productive which in turn reduces the burden on social and healthcare services - ultimately creating a more sustainable society. There are three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. Social sustainability is, in my view, the most important and for too long has been side-lined.

And we don’t have to take British Land’s word for it as there’s a huge body of evidence that tells us that improved environments impact positively on people’s health (physical and mental), their creativity, and their cognitive powers. The problem is that as an industry we aren’t joining the dots between these studies and the way in which we design, procure and build. Not yet anyway.

This is why Atkins is currently investing in research to quantify the impact that “smart” buildings can have on productivity, what the payback for investment actually looks like, and what this could mean for our economy. It’s time for us to win the economic argument as well as the emotional one. There is a massive opportunity for our industry to make a real difference to people’s lives and to the wealth, happiness, and coherence of our society.

Certainly there’s a cultural shift in people’s demands from their employers and what they expect from the workplace. It’s time to give the people what they need.

Philip Watson is design director at Atkins

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