Why sitting is the new smoking and wellness is the next green

Tony Arnel, Global Director of Sustainability Norman Disney & Young

Sitting is the new smoking, so they say.

And with most office workers spending 80 per cent of their day engaged in sedentary activity, it’s no wonder our attention has turned to health and wellbeing.

Australia’s green building movement is now more than a decade old, and there’s a palpable feeling within the industry that’s it’s time to look beyond energy and water efficiency to the ‘next big thing’.

The evidence that green buildings are good for human health continues to stack up. United Technologies Corporation – the company behind well-known brands like Carrier and Otis – has just funded a lab-based Harvard University study to examine the impact of green buildings on cognitive function.

Researchers varied the levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds within the lab’s air, and assessed nine cognitive domains, including activity levels, task orientation and crisis response. Scores for crisis response were up to 131 per cent higher in the environment with enhanced ventilation and lower carbon dioxide levels, while scores were 288 per cent higher for strategy and a whopping 299 per cent higher for information usage.

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The revelation that high levels of CO2 are far from benign – and can have a significant impact on cognitive function – is not new. But it’s increasingly in the spotlight as companies recognise that human capital is far more expensive than buildings or materials. In fact,
up to 90 per cent of a company’s operating budget can be spent on its people.

CBRE’s managing director of asset services for the Pacific, Amanda Steele, has said its time for a rethink on how we value property.

“We’ve been looking at property as if the money is tied up in the bricks and mortar, rather than the people who are work, live and shop there,” she said recently.

Enter the WELL Building Standard, which meshes best practices in design and construction with evidence-based medical and scientific research to harness the built environment as a vehicle to support human health.

Australia’s rating systems have always addressed indoor environment quality. The IEQ category in the Green Star building rating tools has driven improvements in air quality, lighting and thermal comfort, while discouraging the use of harmful chemicals and off-gassing materials. Similarly, more than 50 commercial offices around Australia have achieved NABERS IEQ ratings.

WELL uses the same systematic approach as Green Star. Building performance metrics focus on seven areas of health and wellness: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Buildings can achieve three levels of compliance – platinum, gold and silver.

More than two million square metres of space has gained WELL certification in 12 countries  and a number of Australian heavyweights are lining up to register WELL projects.

Macquarie Group achieved the first WELL Building rating in Australia for 50 Martin Place in Sydney, and Lendlease is piloting the upcoming WELL Community standard on key urban regeneration projects, such as Barangaroo South. DEXUS and Grocon have registered  480 Queen Street in Brisbane, and Mirvac and Frasers Property are both targeting WELL ratings for their Sydney headquarters.

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The $100 million renovation of 50 Martin Place provided a perfect opportunity for Macquarie Bank to reinvent its workplace. The bank needed to meet 90 features to achieve a WELL platinum rating – and while this included some bread-and-butter areas of building design, the process also demanded consideration of concepts not usually on our industry’s radar.

The 2000 staff at 50 Martin Place now walk past a central staircase to get to the lifts to encourage them to walk, while the central atrium floods the building with natural light, providing a more pleasant and productive working environment. All business as usual for green buildings.

However, many of the WELL credits fall within the remit of the traditional HR department – such as policies for flexible working, stress and addiction treatment, incentive programs for physical activity, handwashing and mindful eating, not to mention portion control and sugar content of food served in cafes.

“Food served in the building’s café now has a lower sugar content. We have yoga and music rooms, fitness facilities, mindfulness training programs, a choir and a roof garden with chickens, beehives and vegetables,” Michael Silman, Macquarie Group’s head of corporate
real estate, has said.

Silman says sustainability rating systems such as Green Star and NABERS “live harmoniously” with WELL, and that the process helped Macquarie “solidify” its thinking and develop more formalised wellbeing programs.

In March, the Green Building Council of Australia announced a new partnership with the International WELL Building Institute, which administers the WELL Building Standard, with the GBCA’s saying “a truly sustainable building not only addresses environmental impact, but social and economic impact too.”

But will a shift in focus see nuts-and-bolts sustainability sidelined?

I don’t think so. Instead, I think we’ll see the sustainability sphere of activity continue to expand, as we find new opportunities to add value, create great places for people and leave the planet in a better shape than we found it.

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