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Wellbeing, Health, Beach

Building better places for healthier people

A recent Emirates Green Building council webinar looked at the role of the built environment in personal and community wellbeing. Here, we summarise the key points of discussion.

Steven Matz, World Built Environment Forum
28 October 2021

We spend the majority of our lives in buildings. In hot and desert regions such as the UAE, time spent indoors can account for as much 95% of our day-to-day. Challenges around indoor environmental quality are global but are intensified in regions with harsh climate conditions. Indoor air quality, water quality and comfort in all its forms – thermal, acoustic and visual – can positively or negatively affect our health, wellbeing and performance. Poor air quality caused by the build-up of indoor pollutants can trigger respiratory issues, headaches and a lack of concentration, impacting the ability to learn, work and be productive.

Beyond building occupants, discussions on wellbeing in the built environment should include those involved in all stages of the building lifecycle, such as those in construction and supply chains. So says Catriona Brady, Director Strategy & Development, World Green Building Council. This is a goal supported by the Emirates Green Building Council, which is in the process of delivering welfare training for construction workers, notes Farah Yassine, Sustainability Lead, WSP.

At city level, governments can pull a range of policy levers in pursuit of improved public health outcomes. According to Mario Saab, Head of Sustainability at Cundall, greater investment in active transport and electric vehicle infrastructure should be chief among them. Such alignment between climate, health and urban planning policy has the dual effect of lowering air pollution and combating the urban heat island effect.  

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of designing for space in our buildings, says Dr Samar Elfeky, Regional Officer at the World Health Organization. She cites congested corridors in schools and workplaces as being typically home to raised levels of dangerous pollutants and airborne disease transmission. Indoor air quality should be of paramount concern as the western world heads back to the workplace and into the winter ‘flu season.

Often, sustainability is about balancing and resolving inherent tensions. If a building is exceptionally green, but also unaffordable, its impact on the surrounding built environment will only ever be limited.

Better Places for People is a World Green Building Council initiative that uses air quality sensors to make real-time air quality data available on an open-source platform, says Catriona Brady. Guided by the logic that “we can't change what we can't measure”, the data generated can be used to guide ventilation and air quality strategies.

Often, sustainability is about balancing and resolving inherent tensions. If a building is exceptionally green, but also unaffordable, its impact on the surrounding built environment will only ever be limited, says Sagar Kulkani, Managing Director of Consistent Engineering Consultants. Similarly, retrofit projects that focus on energy efficiency to the exclusion of health and wellbeing will cause as many problems as they resolve. Frequent building audits and analyses are useful here. Regular (every two-to-five year) reviews of lighting, acoustics and air quality can help embed energy efficiency and wellness in building design and maintenance.

Over the past 18 months, indoor environment quality has become a key driver of decision-making processes in the design, development and operation of buildings. Many companies had already begun to draw the link between workplace and productivity; for the younger generation, health and wellbeing factors in the workplace have surged up the order of priorities. For property developers, health and wellbeing is emerging as a market differentiation opportunity. The first annual WBEF Sustainability Report showed evidence of an emerging green rental premium on commercial real estate assets. As such, health and wellbeing is attracting intense focus from fund managers keen to maximise the potential value of their portfolios.

There is no contradiction between healthy buildings and net zero buildings, but healthy, net zero buildings will not look identical across the world. A copy and paste approach to best practice will ignore region-specific requirements. For example, in the UAE, for half of the year it’s almost impossible to rely on natural ventilation. While air conditioning increases energy use, renewable energy provides a possible solution to higher demand. Tools such as energy modelling can be extremely important here – helping to lower energy use as much as possible.

Health awareness has taken on a broader and more holistic outlook, says Dr Samer Elfeky. Where previously it centred on individuals, it has come to encompass the social and environmental. The effect of buildings and urban design on personal and community wellbeing is increasingly understood. Responsibility for our collective good health extends beyond the healthcare profession. Built environment professionals working towards healthier cities, workplaces and transport networks have a pivotal role to play.