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Markets & Geopolitics

Tomorrow’s workplace today: Part 3 – Designing for wellness, happiness, sustainability and beyond

Tina Paillet is Chair of RICS Europe and a senior executive at one of the world's largest real estate asset managers. She writes here in a personal capacity. In this series, she will consider what new workplace paradigms mean for investors and occupiers, employers and employees. This week, she details a series of new design norms that can health assure workplaces and draw employees back into the office.

Tina Paillet, Chair, RICS Europe
20 August 2020

The renaissance of the office must be understood in the context of the new workforce situation. Part-time remote work will allow for deep concentration, individual focus and solitary learning. The central office must facilitate creativity and collaboration, group-driven work or client liaison. It will take greater account of the needs and desires of individuals. A holistic approach to the workforce will take into consideration unique needs and emotions, as well as skills and productivity. Personal connection to the workplace, and to one’s community of colleagues, will take on new meaning in the post-COVID-19 era. When people are free to work from home, the office must step up and beat the work-from-home benchmark.

The measurable value of good design no longer needs to be proved. Good design inspires and fuels creativity. A building’s permanent and specific attributes – its architectural style and history, and those of the neighbourhood in which it is situated – can nurture a sense of place and belonging. But flexibility and versatility, achieved through the variation of forms, shape and sensory cues is of equal import. Ample daylighting, natural views, acoustically engineered serene space and lack of visual clutter are conducive to health, happiness and productivity.

The sustainability of the building – both in design and operation – will also be a measure of quality in the post-COVID-19 world. Awareness of embedded carbon, the circular economy, eco-materials, etc is at an all-time high.

The sustainability of buildings – both in design and operation – will also be a measure of quality in the post-COVID-19 world. Awareness of embedded carbon, the circular economy, eco-materials, etc. is at an all-time high.

There is no quick and easy recipe for designing for wellbeing; no Pinterest board to tell you what to do. Good design is the fruit of working with trained and talented professionals. No project is the same, each is unique. However, the process of intentional design management, of searching, challenging and problem-solving in partnership with a talented design team, is a constant which should be honed.

In Continental Europe, where the buildings are designed and built to CAT-A finish, the responsibility for interior design and technology enabling will largely fall on the landlord. Specification of the shell and core should be undertaken with a view to making the base design work harder. This will include exposed structure, ceilings and high-quality brute materials not needing finishes, and built-in flexibility for central vertical circulation with soft spots. Special attention should be given to fresh air and good natural ventilation, providing views and linking the inside spaces to the outside wherever possible.

Base technical systems should be designed to enhance airflows and physical comfort. Digital connectivity, with sufficient flexibility, redundant capacity and in-built resilience will be key. “Add-on” technologies can then be installed by the tenant in their space. These could include wireless micro sensors, Bluetooth sensors on smart phones, and wearable devices to fine-tune inputs and feedback loops for system optimisation.

Office building specifications for the post-COVID-19 future

Most likely, this will not be the last pandemic. As such, future proofing of the office building should include upgraded lifting systems and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), as well as touchless technology.

I am aware of at least one London development where the developer is currently looking at intelligent use of systems and materials designed for future pandemic resilience. They will integrate a bespoke air scrubbing system in their lifts and have designed-in the ability to close airflow floor-by-floor. They have opted for brass and copper door handles, due to the materials’ enhanced microbial resistance and will deploy thermal scanners in their entry halls.

What will make up the technical and design specificities of a “healthy building” in the post COVID-19 era? There is not one stand-alone solution, but a multi-pronged approach which can be broken down into four main areas of action:

1. HVAC systems

First line actions will include increasing air ventilation via existing or enhanced mechanical plant, enhancing air filtration and purification, and increasing humidity. The next level of specification will involve enhanced filtration via adiabatic filters and HEPA filters on air handling units and lifts, and installation of ultraviolet irradiation to HVAC systems. Finally, when installing new HVAC systems, passive or hybrid cooling strategies which are both sustainable and allow for natural compartmentation of air flows should be prioritized. It would also be advisable to increase ventilation capacity in the lift cars. Air quality plays an important role in our health. Prior to COVID-19 this was not widely acknowledged. That has changed.

2. Vertical and horizontal access, command and control systems

Touchless travel throughout the building should be prioritised. Other initiatives could include QR code access for visitors, body temperature scanning in lobbies, and touch-free soap dispensers, hand sanitizers and WC lids. New builds should design-in destination driven lifts linked to access control and increased overall lifting capacity. Finally, a “pandemic mode” should be integrated into the building management system (BMS), which can be reverted to in times of need. Features of the “pandemic mode” should include reduced lift occupancy.

3. Layout and density

Look to design for increased fresh air intake via more operable windows. Reception desks should be designed to discourage visitor physical contact. Wayfinding technology can facilitate natural social distancing. Next steps include installation of individual sanitary cubicles and full height shower cubicles. Specify materials for ease of cleaning throughout the building.

In the immediate aftermath of lockdowns easing, we will likely see de-densification of buildings. Physical distancing will oblige end-users to adopt greater spacing between workstations and mindful rotation of hot desks to allow for deep cleaning between use. Mid to long-term, we can foresee that office space will have other uses, other densities: more meeting and creative space, less open plan office/desk space. The kinds of densification levels seen in some workplaces prior to the crisis will no longer be sustainable. To best design buildings for necessary flexibility, it is still advisable to design to best practice for one’s market place. In the UK and Europe, for instance, you should aim for one workstation every eight to ten square meters.

4. Connected, smart building technology

Data from multiple sources can be collected via customer experience platforms, analysed and used to inform decision making. Bespoke solutions can then be developed, prioritising healthy and sustainable building use, enhanced end-user experience and proactive property & facility management of buildings. Data sources can include the BMS, bike racks, access cards, Wi-Fi, presence sensors, control and command systems, and tenant feedback surveys and engagement portals.

BMS add-on technology can also be used to create 3D spatial models to identify anomalies and, where workplace issues arise, enable virtual testing of solutions. Such smart-building capabilities will allow people to become more comfortable and productive at work, thanks to real-time data about air quality, lighting, noise levels, and other environmental factors. Workers can then find an environment suiting whichever task is at hand; be that a quiet spot for deskwork, or collaborative space for joint project work.

Smart-building capabilities will allow people to become more comfortable and productive at work, thanks to real-time data about air quality, lighting, noise levels, and other environmental factors.

Finally, tenant engagement portals are also becoming pandemic-ready. Health check-ins, hot desk mapping, workspace and meeting room booking management, and concierge services will all be accessible via an app on your smart phone.

Demonstrable health

It will not be sufficient for tomorrow’s office to be safe; it will need to be demonstrably so. Healthy building ratings, roughly analogous to restaurant hygiene ratings, will allow prospective tenants and employees to judge prospective workplaces. There are a number of metrics by which the health of buildings could be judged. Overall air quality will be among them, but so too, the frequency with which air quality measurements are taken. Other include use of eco-materials and pollution reducing technologies and rates of sick leave among employees. Experiential scores coming from customer experience platforms could be used to gauge the extent to which the building supports social health and wellness. Landlords will be incentivised to give tenants the best possible experience in order to gain for their buildings the highest and healthiest marks.

This will be just one among myriad ways in which the landlord-tenant relationship is transformed over the coming years.