Designing for health and wellness: what are the business benefits?

There’s no denying the benefits that well-designed buildings can bring to the health and wellbeing of their occupants. You only need to have sat through a meeting in a stuffy room or tried to concentrate under flickering strip lights to know the impact that environmental factors such as lighting and ventilation can have on how you feel, focus and behave in a space. The question often remains however, whether the investment in healthier buildings will generate the financial returns that businesses need to see?
The answer is a resounding yes. There may not yet be a direct, linear equation to establish the ROI of creating healthier buildings, but the impact is undeniable. Much of the research on this topic over the last decade has revealed the significant influence buildings have on people’s health, happiness and cognitive function, and some have shown how this can in turn have a positive influence on a business’ economic success.
To consider what this might equate to in practice, and how building sustainably and healthily go hand in hand, we can turn to the World Green Building Council’s (WGBC) landmark study: Doing Right by Planet and People: The Business Case for Health and Wellbeing in Green Building. It examines case studies of 11 facilities around the world that have one or more green certifications including LEED, Green Star and BREEAM. The study found that the new Plantronics office at Park 20|20, certified BREEAM NL Excellent and Leesman+, improved the productivity and performance of employees to an estimated value of €2.1 million per year by integrating health, wellbeing and ‘smarter working solutions’ into the building, with a particular focus on air quality and acoustics. This level of improvement can make the world of difference to the bottom line and the surge in productivity is just the beginning.
As well as helping employees work more effectively, healthy buildings have also been proven to significantly reduce absenteeism. One of the facilities highlighted in the WGBC study is Cundall’s new UK office, which is certified BREEAM Excellent, SKA Gold and WELL Gold. It found that, after focusing on improving indoor air quality, absenteeism dropped by more than four days per person per year - a 58% reduction - and staff turnover reduced by 27%. The combined impact of these two outcomes delivered savings of £200,000 per year.
The return from increased productivity and reduced absence alone present a compelling business case but investing in greener, healthier buildings has further benefits to offer. Businesses in the UK spend £24 billion a year on energy, with those bills making up anywhere between 3% and 32% of a company’s total expenditure. Even at the lower end of that scale, any reduction in energy bills is going to make a notable difference. Investing in natural daylight and ventilation systems, for example, can help achieve those reductions with the added bonus of enhancing a business’ sustainable credentials.
Reputation, it could be argued, is a company’s most valuable asset. It has been posited that 70% to 80% of market value comes from intangible assets such as brand equity, intellectual capital, and goodwill. A healthy building boosts staff health, wellbeing and morale, showing a business to be a considerate employer. Also, because healthy buildings usually draw upon the benefits of natural, energy efficient systems such as daylighting, it supports brand positioning as environmentally conscious. With both the design community and the general public becoming ever more aware and interested in sustainability and wellbeing, it follows that businesses who are seen to be proactively investing in both will be regarded favourably.
In the retail sector, there is also additional benefits to be gained. Not only will considerations such as optimal ventilation and daylighting improve the employee experience, save energy and improve company profile, but studies have shown that they can also have a direct impact on customers. Although sales may be the most obvious metric, other aspects such as footfall, dwell time, loyalty and brand value should also be recognised as key value indicators. Daylighting has been identified as one of the most influential factors in retail settings. In one well known study, Walmart developed a concept store in which only half of the store was daylit. It found that in those daylit areas, the sales per square foot were significantly higher. This example matches the findings of a more extensive study which analysed 75 chain stores in California over a period of two years. Stores with poor daylighting were re-fitted with skylights. The resulting profits per square foot from increased sales were around twenty times the savings in energy costs.
It may seem obvious that the design of a building influences the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants and yet, despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating exactly how much difference it can make, this is not translating at scale into design, finance and leasing decisions in the mainstream real estate sector. Investing in healthier buildings can help a business make huge strides towards achieving a healthy, happy workforce. The business case is clear: designing for health and wellness simply makes sense – socially, environmentally and economically.

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