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Health and Wellness: the Next Era of Sustainable Design

Posted on Aug 29, 2017, by Mike Brown

Sustainability has long been a priority for designers looking to make a positive impact with their work, beyond simply focusing on aesthetics and functionality. But now every major company has its own 'green' stance and sustainability measures in place, and there's a new trend emerging in sustainable design.

Increasingly, designers are turning their attentions towards health and wellness, finding ways to design a space that's good for its users. People become the focal point of the design: how will they use this space every day, and how can we design it to improve their lives?

Today we're looking at these shifting priorities in sustainable design, and exploring exactly why health and wellness is on the rise.

The Beginnings of Sustainability

When sustainable design first emerged as a design trend, the focus was on ensuring that the products being used were safe, and that they were manufactured in a sustainable way that wasn't harming the environment.

This initial focus then expanded to include recycling; for example, many flooring manufacturers introduced take-back schemes whereby old flooring was returned to the manufacturer after use, recycled, and then used to manufacture new flooring.

This was a fantastic initiative and has greatly improved many companies' environmental impact - but the sustainable approach only focused on the start and end of a product's life - not the many years it's used in-between.

Health and Wellness: A New Approach to Sustainability

Traditionally, sustainability has put the focus on creating healthy products. When your priority shifts to health and wellness, the focus switches from products to people.

The growing importance of health and wellness is emphasized by the creation of the WELL Building Standard, which aims to "transform human health in the indoor environment". With people spending 90% of their time indoors, creating a healthy indoor environment is increasingly important.

As a result, designers are finding more and more ways to make health and wellness a real priority in their work:

  • Indoor Air Quality
    Many products have a negative impact on indoor air quality as they release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The biggest sources of VOCs on renovation projects are paints and adhesives (including flooring adhesives). Selecting low-emission products will dramatically reduce levels of VOCs and improve air quality.

  • User Comfort
    For designers specializing in commercial spaces, comfort hasn't always had the same priority it does in residential design. However, with office workers spending upwards of 8 hours a day in the workplace, it's becoming more common to prioritize the creation of a comfortable workplace. This manifests in various ways, such as temperature control, furniture choices, and even flooring - something which makes a big impact on the adoption of sit/stand working.

  • Encouraging Fitness and Movement
    On average, office workers spend 5 hours and 41 minutes sitting at their desk each day – plus more time spent seated during their commute, and relaxing in the evening. But we're becoming increasingly aware of the health risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Designers can work to encourage movement through clever space design, by locating communal facilities away from the main work area, or embracing the sit-to-stand work trend.

Embracing the New Sustainability Priorities

Health and wellness is a more holistic approach to sustainability - an expansion of design ideals, rather than a change of priorities.

It's crucial that designers continue to consider the provenance of the products they're specifying, and pay attention to manufacturers' recycling processes and promises. However, it's increasingly important to pay attention to the usable life of products (which could be five, ten, or twenty years), rather than simply the manufacturing and disposal processes - and look beyond the composition of products in a space, to the impact they have on the people that use them, day-in and day-out.

When designing a commercial space for clients, you hope it's a space that they'll enjoy using every day for years, so it makes sense to shift your design priorities to center on the whole experience you're creating for the people using the space, rather than just the products they'll use.

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Mike Brown

Written by Mike Brown