The ROI of Healthy Spaces

Recent research from an intercollegiate study (which included MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning) sought to identify a connection between healthy buildings and worker productivity, essentially helping facilities management teams to determine a measurable ROI for such buildings, specifically in relation to cognitive performance and reduced sick days.

Citing previous studies from 2003 and 2009, the team identified health concerns such as sick building syndrome (SBS), recurring headaches, and susceptibility to other illnesses that might affect cognitive function and absenteeism rates that are known to stem from poor quality indoor environments. What separated this study from prior ones (or even the post-occupancy studies often completed by firms like IA Interior Architects) was the lack of a control group, which leaves it open to a number of biases that might affect some results.

The Study

In 2016, when approximately 700 government employees in the Netherlands were asked to relocate to a healthier, green building in Limburg , researchers leveraged the opportunity to develop a survey group. A number of those within the organization (30%) would not transition to the new building, remaining in a conventional office, which created a naturally occurring control group. The participants were surveyed four times over a four year period so that researchers could evaluate changes in employee-perceived environmental conditions in the workplace and measure health outcomes such as the abatement of SBS symptoms. In addition, teams were able to measure employee job satisfaction and employee sick days as an indication of employee emotional and physical wellbeing over the same time period.

How healthy was the new space? Here are a few of the wellness-centric features the new site offered:

  • 2,000m² (21,528 sq. ft.) of biophilic wall
  • 100% naturally circulating air ventilation system with organic filters
  • An enormous green air-purifying façade protecting against noise and reducing pollution from nearby traffic/railways
  • Full outdoor garden with helophyte filters
  • An open office layout

The Findings

Researchers first looked at how employees rated a number of environmental factors (before and after the move), including air quality, temperature satisfaction, light quality, and the site’s views. The team found significant improvements in five of the seven fields measured (privacy and noise were the only areas that did not see improvement). The most notable change was how employees rated air quality, which improved by 32% over the course of the study. Similarly, temperature dissatisfaction decreased by 17%, and light quality was improved by 28%.

After the team compared these results to demographic data, a number of interesting findings emerged relating to different user groups. Results indicate, for example, that the effect of relocating to a green building has a greater impact on those over the age of 50. As mentioned in our recent whitepaper, this age group is part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. workforce, and these findings may have major implications for the design of U.S. workplaces. The study also confirmed previous findings indicating that female respondents are more likely to note temperature dissatisfaction in the workplace than their male counterparts. Interestingly, either gender was equally likely to report a reduction in SBS symptoms, as well as noise, air, and light quality dimensions.

Noting that the environmental improvements were perceived by the building’s users, the team was able to use this data to approximate the ROI of the wellness investments by looking at employee absenteeism and the self-reported instances of SBS symptoms. Looking only at absenteeism, the team determined a 2% reduction. Despite being a seemingly small change, this reduction in sick days equates to roughly €25,000 ($33,016) in annual savings to the municipality and €1 million ($1,320,646) in savings over the projected lifespan of the building, not adjusted for inflation. When combined with the estimated maintenance and utility savings of the project as identified in a separate cost-benefit analysis, the total savings amounts to €17 million ($22,450,982)—significantly more than the original €3.4 million ($4.49 million) marginal investment in energy efficiency, healthy materials, etc. 

Perhaps the most notable finding was the measure of employee wellness as described by self-reported SBS symptoms. Employees were 42% less likely to report symptoms of sick building syndrome (headaches, rashes, nausea, dizziness, throat irritation, fatigue, etc.) after relocation to the “healthy” building. The study was careful to note that, although relying on self-reported data is less reliable than having clinically-verified data, the results were enough to warrant further industry testing.

Next Steps

While further research and larger sample sizes are needed to replicate and confirm these results, the research study does much to verify what many in the interior design and architecture community already knew—that the health of our buildings and of the people who inhabit them are closely connected, and that an investment in both yields immeasurable benefits. For the industry to advance to its full potential, teams should be careful to keep a few findings in particular top-of-mind:

  • The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has done much to spark the ongoing conversation between designers and users about the practicality of specialized HVAC systems. Studies (like this one) that highlight the measurable health and economic benefits of naturally circulating air ventilation systems will help teams to remember just how vital these systems and others that seek to significantly improve indoor air quality can be.
  • The site in question was found by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to improve air quality in a 500m (1,640 foot) radius around the building (which is in close proximity to a highway and railway). This adds an interesting new element to the dialogues that architects and users are currently having about the role their spaces should have in their communities.
  • Since lighting, HVAC systems, biophilia, healthy materials, and the circular economy all worked holistically to create an important user experience and contribute to the savings this project created, user groups, architects, and designers should be discouraged from considering any one aspect less important than another over the project lifespan when creating a healthy space.

IA Interior Architects will be sure to take the pulse of this research and studies like it as we continue to deliver wellness-centered spaces for those experiencing the spaces we design. For more information on IA’s continuing efforts to develop people-centric, wellness-inspired spaces, contact [email protected].

IA is a global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists. We focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture—a radical idea in 1984, when IA was founded. We are highly connected agents of change, committed to creativity, innovation, growth, and community.

IA is a global firm of architects, designers, strategists, and specialists. We focus exclusively on environments through the lens of interior architecture—a radical idea in 1984, when IA was founded. We are highly connected agents of change, committed to creativity, innovation, growth, and community.

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