There’s lots of research aimed at making the natural environment a better place for humans to be, but what about simulated environments? With research indicating that people spend 90 percent of their time indoors, creating optimal indoor environments is more important than ever. While architects and designers have long prioritized sustainability and eco-friendliness, recently indoor spaces have become a focal point. Builders and designers are becoming increasingly concerned about all kinds of indoor elements from air quality to exposure to natural light. After all, since the built environment is fundamentally a space for humans to be, it makes sense that designers should try to make indoor spaces the best they can be.
There’s a growing body of research that documents how people respond to various indoor elements, and this knowledge is crucial to anyone who spends a lot of time indoors. A poor indoor experience can stifle productivity, waste money, and affect occupant health. So whether you’re an architect, designer, business owner, or employee, you should be aware of these 10 ways the indoors can affect you.
1. Indoor elements are often surprisingly toxic
The first questions that arise when discussing indoor environments are how the indoors affect us and how far-reaching those effects are. Those questions are multifaceted because the average indoor environment is complex, with many factors potentially affecting occupant well-being. The CDC’s definition of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) notes that building dampness and contaminant exposure are typically responsible for occupant health issues. Recently, materials with high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been spotlighted as particularly harmful to air quality; the EPA points out that concentrations of VOCs are noticeably higher indoors (as much as ten times higher than outdoor environments). Since VOCs are so common in paints, varnishes, wood preservatives, and other building materials, people who spend lots of time indoors are likely being exposed to particularly high levels of these damaging compounds.
From South Coast Air Quality Management District: Architectural and surface coatings are two of the most common sources of VOCs, making many indoor spaces unhealthy for occupants
Thankfully, there are some simple ways to rectify this issue of exposure. Green building materials that have low or no VOCs are ideal for creating healthier indoor environments. However, the fact remains that materials with high concentrations of VOCs are still in widespread use, a fact that occupants and designers alike need to be aware of.
2. Indoor elements affect how you work, interact, and even sleep
An indoor environment doesn’t have to be toxic to significantly affect its occupants. That’s what the Well Living Lab, a collaboration between Delos and the Mayo Clinic, found in its first study. Researchers attached biometric wearables to office workers and monitored their biological response to various changing elements in the environment, including changes in acoustic, lighting, and thermal conditions. The Lab concluded that such changes affected how the workers performed, interacted, and slept. We’re more sensitive than we might think to even more subtle environmental changes, and as a result, if indoor elements aren’t carefully optimized, people won’t feel or perform their best.
3. A poor indoor environment can cause productivity (and profit) to plummet
Unfortunately, the stereotype of the stuffy office is still true today. It’s not uncommon to see workplaces without windows, adequate ventilation, fitness solutions, or places of rest. These conditions can cause a poorer quality of life, and occupants in spaces like these may suffer from major sleep issues. Perhaps most noticeably, productivity rapidly declines and may even hit an all-time low.
This may not seem obvious until you take a look at how employees in optimized workspaces are performing. For instance, an increase in ventilation from 20 cubic feet per minute of outdoor air to 40 boosts annual productivity per worker by $6,500. Even the smallest of changes can create a ripple effect; the simple inclusion of one plant per square meter increases productivity by 15%. For business owners and employees alike, these statistics underscore the importance of creating a work environment conducive to health and well-being.
There are also countless worker health benefits that a better workplace brings with it. A 2000 study published in the Annual Review of Energy and the Environment observed that millions of dollars and countless work hours are lost yearly due to a poor indoor environment. The study estimated that better environments could reduce problems related to respiratory diseases, allergies, asthma, and other building-caused health issues, saving an estimated total of $31 billion annually. (And that’s not even counting the estimated $140 billion savings from improved employee performance in general.) All in all, a human-first indoor workspace isn’t a design accommodation but rather a fundamental necessity.
4. Be aware of the 9 foundations of a healthy building
At Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Healthy Buildings project is examining exactly what a “healthy building” looks like and how the A&D industry can set new standards for indoor health. The initiative is the brainchild of Environmental Design professor Joseph Allen and his team, who have synthesized a wide range of environmental research into a condensed approach they call the 9 foundations of a healthy building. These foundations are the elements that make up the indoor built environment: air quality, thermal health, moisture, dust and pests, safety and security, water quality, noise, lighting and views, and ventilation. These 9 foundations require the right balance to foster the best possible indoor environment. This list is perhaps best used as a springboard to identify problem areas within an indoor environment and establish a set of criteria by which indoor spaces can be evaluated and explored.
5. Air quality is one of the most important indoor elements
While all of the 9 foundations for a healthy building are essential to an optimized indoor environment, many designers and businesses are focusing heavily on air quality. This makes sense, as the EPA states that poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can have long-term health effects, possibly including respiratory diseases, cancer, and heart disease. Less severe but nonetheless damaging effects include irritation, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. It’s well documented that inadequate ventilation (and therefore lower IAQ) can lead to a loss of productivity and satisfaction. The EPA suggests several methods of improving IAQ, such as eliminating or reducing air pollution, improving ventilation, and utilizing air cleaners. Since air quality impacts all occupants and can have lasting effects, it needs to be a top priority for anyone in A&D.
6. Climate change may impact IEQ
The relationship between outdoor and indoor environments is more interconnected than it may at first appear. That’s what a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine indicated, noting that climate change may worsen already poor indoor environments. The abstract states, “As the world’s climate changes, buildings that were designed to operate under the ‘old’ climatic conditions may not function well under the ‘new’—affecting the health of those who live, work, study, or play in them.” Indoor elements like air quality, building dampness, thermal stress, and ventilation could all be adversely affected by climate change. If left unchecked, these elements can create detrimental indoor spaces, so it’s critical to monitor these in both old and new buildings.
7. Integrating biophilic design is better for everyone involved
The typical indoor environment today isn’t exactly what I’d describe as “connected to nature.” Indoor spaces tend to be rather shut off from the natural world, and many don’t even have windows. Yet a connection to nature is exactly what biophilic design aims to create in order to foster a healthier environment for humans. Biophilic design can help improve behavioral health as well as social interaction and work performance. Many other aspects of biophilic design are naturally healthy––the presence of plants can enhance IAQ, for example––and it’s also a highly sustainable design philosophy, making it an attractive option for both human occupants and the indoor environment.
8. Studies prove that comfort matters
Most indoor spaces are built to be comfortable, but few builders and designers qualify comfort during the planning and building processes. Comfort can be correlated with the indoor elements that affect occupants (see #2 above). A study in the International Journal of Sustainable Built Environment looked at thermal comfort, acoustic comfort, and visual comfort. Each element is essential to overall IEQ and needs to be regulated to maximize occupant comfort. Furthermore, these elements can be manipulated to create various indoor environments. For example, natural ventilation causes people to feel closer to nature than mechanical ventilation. Thus the particular levels of comfort can be adjusted with occupant needs and the local environment in mind.
From Work Design Magazine: Allsteel’s Washington, D.C. office boasts excellent acoustic comfort
9. Watch out for Sick Building Syndrome and Building Related Illness
The range of negative health effects that an indoor space can have on occupants is often categorized under the Sick Building Syndrome term. As defined by the EPA, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is “used to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” While the culprits are often easy to identify (e.g., high-VOC materials, inadequate ventilation, etc.), if left untreated SBS can significantly impact occupant health. SBS can affect more than physical health; workers can experience a loss of energy and productivity, while visitors and guests may experience dissatisfaction with the space. The best prevention against SBS is continuous surveillance of indoor elements and ongoing maintenance to ensure that IEQ is at its best.
Similar to SBS, Building Related Illness (BRI) refers to health issues that “can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants.” A 1994 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology categorized the mechanisms by which agents cause BRI into four categories: immunologic, infectious, toxic, and irritant. It’s also possible for more than one of these mechanisms to cause BRI. However, the problems of SBS and BRI are preventable and manageable through vigilance and proactive measures.
10. Circadian-based light exposure can improve productivity and mood
Human circadian rhythms are responsible for the regulation of our energy cycles, but many artificially lit commercial settings disrupt these natural rhythms. In an office setting, this often causes workers to underperform and feel drowsy throughout the day, and in a general commercial setting, this can cause mood drops in occupants. Considering circadian rhythms in the built environment ultimately aids in performance increases and generates more positive emotions. Specifically, circadian-based lighting is greatly beneficial. Unfortunately, many indoor environments don’t have enough light to biologically stimulate occupants and satisfy circadian cycles. When light is sufficiently able to stimulate a biological response, IEQ increases. In one study, occupants who received more circadian stimuli became less depressed and got more sleep. Modifying lighting to the human circadian cycle is a simple yet dramatically effective change that any indoor space can easily make.
The indoor built environment is receiving more attention as architects and designers are recognizing the importance of healthy, human-first indoor spaces. These 10 items are some of the most essential factors when developing and improving indoor environments. Design that considers occupant well-being is the future of A&D. With human wellness as a core driver, the impact of design is greater than ever.