Sustainable features in buildings are no longer an enigma, but an expectation. However, health and wellness, a popular concept within the green movement, has yet to fully take root in the commercial built environment, specifically in the form of biophilic design.
From green roofs and living walls to agritecture—the combination of architecture and agriculture—there is an increasing need for green space. Recent studies show how such features benefit the health and wellness of humans, increase productivity and boost property values.
Steven Peck, president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, points out that the green building movement got its start from an energy efficiency perspective. The original LEED program, for instance, was very energy focused, with little weight given to health and wellbeing.
“What we’re seeing gradually creep into the consciousness of developers and building owners is that there are big economic and financial benefits to designing buildings with biophilc design, ones that incorporate features from the natural world like water, plants, natural light and vista landscapes,” he notes.
The link between nature, wellbeing and productivity may be seemingly abstract, but academics continue to find measurable results. Recent findings, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal by a team at the Harvard School of Public Health, reveal that women living within 800 feet of vegetation had a 12 per cent lower rate of mortality and improved mental health, compared to those living among lower levels of greenness.
While results stem from a residential perspective, researchers suggest that “green vegetation has a protective effect” and that policies to enhance such spaces many increase social engagement, reduce harmful exposure and decrease psychological stress and depression with direct contact to nature.
Just this past month, research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that as green space in economically deprived communities increased, levels of perceived stress decreased. The ability to see green space from a home and the frequency of visits to vegetated areas were significant predictors of general health.
Mental health plays a big role in the workplace. One in five Canadians will live with a mental illness or a substance abuse problem in any given year, according the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and about 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to poor mental health—the fastest growing short and long-term disability claim. A new study from human resources consulting firm Morneau Shepell suggests mental illness costs the Canadian economy $20 to $51 billion per year; however, a stigma persists in office environments.
Green space might not be able to fully cure such problems, but it could sure help retain tenants and employees, signaling to them that their sense of wellbeing matters. Currently, 39 per cent of workers, at least in Ontario, say they would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem.
Yet, while some healthcare facilities and schools begin to embrace the concept, wellbeing is still not a priority in most commercial buildings. It seems that concerns about cost and maintenance and prioritizing energy efficiency often trump the ability to capitalize on wellbeing that comes from experiencing nature. Yet, a Terrapin report, The Economics of Biophilia, says biophilia can impact productivity costs that are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace.
Peck says costs appear more concrete; however, potential savings are often subject to cynicism. He points out the bulk of the cost in a commercial building is the people, at 80 per cent of the total cost, and that there needs to be more focus on increasing productivity and presentism and reducing absenteeism, which translates to bottom line savings.
“It’s about extracting more from our buildings and having buildings do more things for us than they currently do,” he says. “At the end of the day, we need to get way more benefit from buildings other than a roof and four walls to keep the snow and rain out. When owners and designers embrace these practices, they not only find that they’re able to achieve greater rates of wellbeing, faster rates of sales, higher rents and property values, but also the public benefits that spin off of these projects as well.”
Costs usually pay for themselves, but Peck notices a large number of developers still view green aspects as a burden or minimize them if they are a requirement.
“They still don’t see it as a positive attribute and are more interested in building a fitness room or pool,” he notes. “They’ll connect that to the value of a property.”
Yet, maintenance costs are really not that astronomical. Jason Rokosh, principal landscape architect and owner and operator at Vertical Landscape Architects, says simple installations can be done with thin layers of ground cover with pre-vegetated seeds that need nutrient input throughout the year but are self-sustaining. In addition, when retrofitting a building for a green roof, owners are realizing they can save 30 per cent on air conditioning.
Green roofs can also be used for storm water management plans, something that cities are supporting in an effort to reduce heat island effect and urban storm water runoff. Toronto’s 2009 green roof bylaw, for instance, requires all new buildings more than six storeys tall and with more than 2,000 square metres of floor space to include at least 20 per cent green roof.
Overall, Rokosh says more people are “getting on board” and he’s receiving more calls from office building managers who want to beautify areas in order to rent hard-to-sell space.
“They want it in their office foyer, in their lunchroom for employees. It’s part of a green movement, but there is substance behind it as well,” he says. “Office managers are starting to realize they have less turnover in buildings and a higher retention rate. Their employees come to work often; there’s a greater morale in an environment that is comfortable and healthy. We’ll start to see a lot more of that in the coming years.”
Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian PropertyManagement @rebeccachirp