Healthy People, Healthy Places, Healthy Planet

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Rebooting urban living to deliver wellness safety & sustainability. By Swarup Biswas, VP for Customer Solutions and Portfolio Growth, APAC, Johnson Controls.

Modern cities are hardly designed to cope with life during a pandemic. High population density, close proximity, and enclosed spaces are factors that make city living vulnerable to the risk of infection and other health issues.  


Most of us are familiar with the ‘sick building syndrome’ term. It describes situations where building occupants experience discomforts, such as stuffy noses, itchy eyes, scratchy throats, and headaches that appear to be linked to time spent in a building which has an impact on wellbeing and productivity. 

Now, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus in cities around the world, there is unprecedented focus and urgency to re-think the design of built environment and urban spaces.


Rising Interest In Healthy Buildings

While the world of urban living and working may appear to be in flux, a global survey suggests that the majority of workers want to return to the office, with the flexibility of working 1-2 days from home on a weekly basis as ‘ideal’. 

Health and wellness of building occupants are expected to be major influencers on building design and construction now and in the future. 

This is crucial given that occupancy in commercial and institutional buildings is a key enabler in driving the economy, and that our immune systems and general well-being are affected by the places where we spend most of our time. 

As it is, the ecosystem of businesses that is dependent on commercial real estate has seen a significant impact due to Covid. Studies have shown that environments that mimic or allow access to the natural world lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, improve concentration, and strengthen the immune system. 

We know that letting in fresh air helps prevent the spread of the flu and the common cold. We also know that when we get insufficient amount of bright light during the day, our circadian rhythms may be affected and we would not be able to sleep well at night. Healthy building value proposition brings the occupant to the forefront.

It is imperative that we redesign our buildings to improve the health of the built environment and occupants. Consider this: an individual will have spent 72 years of his/her life indoors by the time one reaches 80 years of age. 

Research by Harvard University found that long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an eight percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. The realities of the Covid-19 pandemic have further heightened the need to incorporate health and sustainability concerns in a building’s design. 

Indeed, top findings from our survey of some 800 building decision-makers in the US and Canada showed a keen interest in healthy buildings initiatives. 

About 80 percent of respondents stated that protecting the health and safety of building occupants during the pandemic and afterwards is very or extremely important. 

In addition, 80 percent of facility executives are keen to invest in technologies like flexible facility monitoring and healthy air strategies to improve flexibility in responding quickly to emergencies.

The Johnson Controls survey further revealed that sustainability issues are a key driver in investing in healthy buildings. 

Investments in occupants’ health and safety, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and smart building technology — which also influence corporate sustainability rankings, a key metric for attracting and retaining investors, employees, and customers — will be more critical in the future. 

About 57 percent of organisations surveyed plan to achieve net-zero carbon or positive energy status in at least one facility in the next ten years with growing interest in occupant well-being.


What Makes A Building ‘Healthy’?

There are five aspects toward making a ‘healthy’ building. These include healthy workspaces, clean air programs, safe access programs, healthy facility systems, and disaster response. 

A healthy building accelerates building occupancy since shared spaces are made safer which in turn boost employee and visitor confidence as they return to offices.

Making a workspace healthy ensues a myriad of plans and measures. One strategy is to adopt a flexible approach to new construction and existing buildings. Guided by customers’ needs, we can tailor a roadmap to make built environments healthy and sustainable.

Clean indoor air quality is critical to a healthy building. Installing sensors can help us detect invisible health risks, such as the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) and the level of carbon dioxide. 

We will also need infection controls systems that reduce indoor and airborne pathogens and remote monitoring of air change rates to create healthier air. Companies can introduce more plants in the office space to help improve indoor air quality. 

Even adults working in an office that follows biophilic design principles were found to have lower blood pressure, lower heart rates, and better performance on short-term memory tests.

Other strategies to enhance healthy workspaces involve monitored social distancing, contactless applications, contact tracing, and temperature control. 

Customisable or voice-activated technologies along the likes of voice-enabled lifts and smart lighting solutions will enable a contactless experience for building occupants. 

Allowing occupants’ personal control over thermal conditions can positively enhance work productivity. Research suggests that optimal productivity is achieved at a temperature range between 21 – 24 °C.

With the pandemic, facility managers have new concerns about building health. The new measures to monitor ventilation and air filtration, disinfection, and temperature control will require well-maintained systems and equipment as well as enhancements through intelligent sensors and control software. 

An integrated technology solution breaks the traditional conflict of cost versus sustainability and delivers outcomes for healthy, smart places and experiences. 


Creating Healthy Spaces Together

The pandemic has galvanized architects, designers, and building developers to come up with fresh ideas to ensure connected spaces are safe and healthy. Industry leaders such as Johnson Controls are developing new capabilities for healthy and sustainable space usages. 

An emerging trend is to use real-time data to make healthy, collaborative workspaces happen. By enabling a better understanding of how people use the space, predictive tools and systems will help determine the efficiency and effectiveness of workspace utilisation. 

Aided by these real-time data, architects and designers can introduce more dynamism and flexibility in office floor plans and will be able to gain data-driven insights on which designs work or not work.

As part of our ongoing efforts to create more healthy buildings in the region, our Singapore-based OpenBlue Innovation Centre is working with an ecosystem of partners to provide a suite of smart, data-enabled buildings solutions. 

It achieves this by connecting technologies that support healthy employees, improve building performance, and deliver on green goals. Keeping occupant aware and informed is key in collective participation in maintaining a healthy built environment. 

Through a mobile app, built on the OpenBlue technology, it provides building occupants with live map views of sanitisation status, occupancy data and recommendations for navigating the building safely. 

The pandemic has long-lasting impacts on the way we live and how our world functions. It has challenged us to rethink and redesign for a transformed world making long-term design upgrades that put ‘health’ at the heart of urban planning. 

We must make use of this strong impetus to change now to reboot urban design for healthier people, healthier spaces and healthier planets.


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